From: firstname.lastname@example.org (Jms at B5)
Subject: From jms re: year 4 or 5 or both
Date: 12/18/1996 11:49:00 AM
Message 1 in thread
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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
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
manterial 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
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 two-hour movie.
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
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 with...you're solid.
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
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
And it most definitely has been.
From: email@example.com (Jms at B5)
Subject: Re: From jms re: year 4 or 5 or both
Date: 12/19/1996 3:55:00 PM
Message 2 in thread
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"I for one appreciate your forthrightness, and the insight into how you
handle the writing of such a huge arc-story was fascinating!"
Thanks...again, that's part of the reason for all this, so people can
better understand why things happen the way they happen when making a TV
series. There's so much misinformation and bad mythology out there...if
this can ameliorate that a bit, all the better.