[CompuServe postings by JMS]
- Previous - Next
From jms re: yr 4/5
Date: 18 Dec 1996 16:10:03 -0700
There's been a fair amount of speculation and concern about the fifth
season, and how the story is laying out to handle the possibilities of
renewal vs. no renewal. Though the ratings have continued to improve
despite the shifts and changes in the syndication marketplace -- it's a
very different market than it was when we first debuted -- nothing is
certain yet about a fifth season. Some at WB say yes, some say no. My
job is to pick my way through this minefield and make it all work, and
assure the story ending where is was meant to end. So how does one do
Here's the skinny.
First, you have to understand that writing is a *process*, and that
process is constantly changing. Ask any writer, and they'll tell you
that many times they've been working on a short story, or a novel, and
they have to edit for space. This applies to both fiction and
nonfiction writers. Sometimes it's done by the writer, sometimes by
the editor. On my second novel, the editor told me at the halfway mark
that we'd have to keep the book down to 100,000 words, which was about
75-100 pages less than I'd been planning on, so the story had to be
adjusted to fit. As a journalist, I've often walked into the office
with a story in hand and been told, "Okay, you've got 15 column
inches," or 25 column inches, or 10 column inches...and you just learn
to write to fit. Every writer goes through this.
And in most cases, the average person never knows. Done properly, it
should be seamless. Look at Stephen King's The Stand, cut by almost
25% by the editors at first, then later released with all the ancillary
material replaced. I've read both, and the latter is not appreciably
better than the former...if you didn't know the material was there, you
would never have missed it.
This also happens on a per-episode basis. At LosCon, I showed a
finished scene from 405, and the daily of the master shot of the same
scene, which had another minute or so of material cut from the finished
scene. We cut material all the time; if you added up all the material
cut from the third season, you'd have enough for almost two episodes.
And we often slide material from one episode into another; we slid
Ivanova's scenes in 402 into 403, and another scene from 405 into
406...we've done that in prior seasons as well. Sometimes you go back
and you *add* material. Again, it's all part of the process.
(Interestingly enough, I just bought the new laserdisk of "Young
Frankenstein," which has about 15 minutes of material cut from the
movie for time. I watched it the other night, and of those 15 minutes,
13 were easily expendable...only one scene was fairly interesting, but
not really necessary.)
Okay, so how does all this relate to B5?
My obligation as a storyteller is to get to the end of the story in a
satisfying way. So after we got the year 4 renewal, and knowing that
the PTEN business situation had the potential to impact us (when the
network that supports you is no longer there, so now your entire
structure is shot out from under you...you've got a problem), I looked
at the structure for the story, and began planning adjustments so that
it could go either way without padding anything, and without
shortchanging the story.
First thing I did was to flip out the stand-alones, which
traditionally have taken up the first 6 or so episodes of each season;
between two years, that's 12 episodes, over half a season right there.
Then you would usually get a fair number of additional stand-alones
scattered across the course of the season. So figure another 3-4 per
season, say 8, that's 20 out of 44. So now you're left with basically
24 episodes to fill out the main arc of the story.
Now, that arc is very intensive, and has three primary threads: the
resolution of the Shadow war, the situation regarding Earth, and a
series of smaller sub-threads that feed off those main threads. But if
you charge right from one to the other, it's going to feel rushed,
you're going to need some breathing room between major movements,
particularly after the shadow war. Not so much stand-alones as episodes
that let you begin to rearrange your pieces for the next major
movement. So now you're back up to about 27.
Okay, so *now* what do you do? The solution to that came in several
First came the word of the two B5 TV movies for TNT, which were
envisioned as taking place within the arc of our main story. Suddenly
I had 4 hours into which I could slide some of this material. One
sub-thread I'd been planning on was a 3-episode arc that would look at
how the Earth/Minbari War started, and Delenn's situation at the start
of the war, joining the Council, that sort of thing. Now I was able to
split that out. So in the series I can, in an episode, get into
Delenn's role in the war and go into the background of how she got to
know Dukhat, how she got into the Grey Council, and so on...all the
stuff you'd need to see prior to the war. Then the two hours covering
the rest, the progress of the war itself, could be covered in the
With the *benefit* that we'd have a little more money for the movie
than we would for two conventional hours, so we could do *more* in the
way of EFX, production value, and so on, which you're going to need to
really sell the E/M war. So strangely enough, and as tends to happen,
this has put us in the position of doing it *better* than if I'd
dropped it into two standard-budget episodes, as was my original plan.
Another sub-thread wouldn't have been introduced until late in year 5,
in part to set up the possibility of a sequel (which, as I've stated
from the very earliest days of the show, was always in the back of my
head) and which would stand on its own in any event; a thread designed
to illustrate the notion that the duration tends to be a lot longer
than the war. (You'll understand that one later.) That sub-thread
would've filled about 3-4 episodes.
Now, again, having the second 2-hour movie lets me slide that piece of
story into that category and cover nearly all of that ground in doing
so. The remaining material could (and will, one hopes) be covered in
the actual sequel itself. (If the sequel never ends up going, the
material will be sufficiently stand-alone to still work on its own.)
Then, finally, you take the stand-alones you pulled out earlier (which
nobody would miss, not knowing what was in them), and the final couple
of sub-threads (not yet introduced or implied in the main series) and
slide them into the sequel series, CRUSADE.
So if we *had* to collapse everything into a fourth year, it would all
fit perfectly. If word came that there *was* going to be a fifth year,
you commission some scripts early, drop some of the stand-alones back
into the slot, and bring up the sub-threads that would otherwise have
been transferred into the sequel.
Bottom line is...you're covered either way. You end up where you
wanted to end up, the main threads get dealt with, secondary or
tertiary threads have other venues in which they can be dealt
There's nothing particularly extraordinary or amazing in this...this
is how all writers work, since there are always going to be varying
constraints in length or venue. Writing is a process, and that process
is such that it is infinitely variable while still proceeding where you
want it to go.
So that's where I am currently. If I know the fate of the fifth year
by late February or early March, I can then flip either way and get out
cleanly. Worst case scenario is that I might have to write alternate
scenes or alternate endings for scenes in the last few episodes if the
word comes much later than that, just to give me the flexibility to
adjust the story in editing, which would definitely take place after we
wrapped, at which time we have to have word by contract.
None of this could've been done in three seasons...we had to have a
minimum of four to give us the flexibility of cutting either way.
There's no point to reading a book that leaves you hanging for an
ending, and B5 was meant to have an ending. At this juncture,
finishing off script 15, I feel very comfortable with the way all this
is laying out. The flow is there, and I know we'll get where we need
to. No matter what happens, we're covered. We can handle year 5
without padding, and handle year 4 without shortchanging the
storyline. Granted it took only slightly less planning than the
invasion of Normandy, but it works, and that's the crucial thing.
Anyway...I've gone on for longer than I'd intended. I hope that this
will answer some of the questions and concerns raised about the
situation, and explains how you do some of the planning for this kind
of thing. Again, this online experiment is about letting people
understand the process of telling a story like this, and of making a TV
show in general. As I've noted before, telling a story of this nature
for television, with all the exigencies and real-life surprises
involved, is like doing an elaborate step-dance while people are
throwing live chickens and chainsaws at you...but I knew that would be
the situation going in, and it was only a matter of whether or not the
story was worth the grief involved in telling it.
And it most definitely has been.