3 Writing Lessons from Battlestar Galactica

(Inspired by Peta Andersen’s blog post “5 Things I Learned From ‘The New Adventures of Winnie the Pooh‘”. We had a bit of an online conversation on the commentary section of her blog about learning from TV shows, and I didn’t realize how much I had to say about this topic!)

So my husband and I loved Battlestar Galactica, and listed to many of the writer/developer/producer Ronald D. Moore’s commentary on the early season DVDs (originally distributed as podcasts which you can still download from SyFy).

Some of the more useful lessons I gleaned from listening to the commentary:

1) Be economical with your writing. TV shows have a limited amount of time with which to tell a story. If your show runs longer than it’s time slot, you have no choice–you have to trim scenes or delete them altogether.

You do have more room when writing a novel but no one (especially not kids and teens) wants to read a book they can’t even carry (and unless you are a famous author, you probably won’t get published that way). But how do you decide what’s important and what isn’t? Questions to ask yourself when deciding whether to delete a scene:

    a) Does this scene add to the plot? (i.e. Will your readers be able to understand what’s going on if you delete it?)

    b) If it doesn’t add to the plot, does help with character development? (i.e. Will this help your readers understand your character better?)

Take a hard look at scenes that don’t do either a) or b). Here’s an example of a scene that contributes to b): One of the scenes in episode one or two is of Admiral Adama shaving. The producers got into arguments about whether to leave this scene in or not because it definitely didn’t contribute to the plot of the episode. However, in the end they kept this quiet moment in because it does do a lot for character development. Even as the going gets tough Adama shaves and you the viewer wonder what’s going on in his head. Later on in the series, this becomes a recurring scene for Adama and helps us learn more about how he is feeling. In one episode, when he sees himself in his bathroom mirror he breaks down and cries.
 And in several episodes in Season 3 he actually (gasp) has a mustache!

2) When ending scenes and chapters, leave you reader wanting more. The equivalent of this on TV is going to commercial break/ending an episode. Invariably, things end with a cliffhanger. Some of the cliffhangers aren’t as dramatic as others (“How is my favorite character going to react to that reveal” versus “Is my favorite character going to die or turn out to be a cylon?”). Less exciting cliffhangers are fine for scene endings, but for chapter endings, you want to pull out the big stuff. But be careful–don’t overuse this or your viewers/readers will get very annoyed with you and your writing will come off as hokey and soap opera like. Sometimes it’s okay to end a chapter with a resolution as long as the overall story arc hasn’t been resolved.

3) Plan out your story as ahead of time as possible and keep things consistent. When writing for TV, you can’t go back and change what you wrote for season 1 (back when you weren’t sure you’d even get picked up for a second season). With novels, you do have the luxury of going back and changing things in early chapters if you change your mind about things, but the earlier you plot out your story, the easier editing will be later on. An easy example from Battlestar–one small detail that turned out to be really annoying later on was that in the Battlestar world, paper isn’t rectangular, instead all the corners are cut off. This ended up being a nightmare for them as the series went along since it affected every single book or diagram and even their TV screens. In writing this is easily fixed, but it does speak a lot towards being aware of the ramifications of world building rules.

A big picture example–early on in the series we see Gaius Baltar (my fav character!!) having strange visions of Six (a cylon). And later on in the series (spoiler alert) they end up complicating things further by making it so that the “real” Six has visions of Gaius Baltar.From the commentary, it sound like they didn’t plan on doing this initially and they hadn’t figured out a real explanation for this, so when it came time to end the series and they had to resolve the question of what these visions were, they had to scrabble together a lame non-scifi explanation (they were angels?!!? WHAT??!?!) which didn’t make complete sense and left viewers annoyed.

So what do you think? Have you ever learned writing tips from a TV show? Have you ever been inspired to write because of one? (And wasn’t Battlestar an awesome show until the end?)

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6 Responses to 3 Writing Lessons from Battlestar Galactica

  1. This is an awesome post, Amitha–I think point one is really important.

    World building really intimidates me, so it’s nice to know others (even professionals) have trouble with it!

    I have been inspired to write because of television, though it’s usually news-related. Current events provide some very interesting material for whole plot lines, but also for character development. I find profiling actual people–filling in why I think they do the things they do–helps too.

  2. annastan says:

    Oh how I miss this show! I didn’t realize that the angels bit was tacked on at the end, but it explains why it was so random! Strange endings aside, what I most admired about that show was how it didn’t hit viewers over the head with explanations. The writers trusted their viewers to put the pieces together instead of spelling everything out for us. It was frustrating sometimes, but it also made me be a much more active viewer than I normally am. That kind of “trusting your audience” goes a long way in all kinds of writing, I think.

    • amitha says:

      That’s true. over-explaining is a big problem with a lot of shows and with a lot of novels too. I have a tendency to do this and I know it’s a bad habit. It’s tricky to find the right balance between explaining too much or too little.

  3. Pingback: Writing Tips from BSG « Totally TV

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