Writing Lessons from Battlestar Galactica

Battlestar Galactica finished in 2009 so, of course, I only just finished watching it myself. It garnered plenty of criticism and praise and I myself enjoyed it immensely. I thought it was quite a brave series and quite a thoughtful one, with plenty of explosions whenever it got too thoughtful. Was it perfect? No, sometimes it meandered and got lost, and Starbuck was a constant irritant. But there’s plenty for a writer to learn from.

Warning: (major) spoilers may be masquerading as humans…

You Don’t Have to Have a Grand Plan

Ronald D. Moore, showrunner of Battlestar, has often admitted there was no master plan. Unlike the writers of Lost, for instance, he made no claim of knowing exactly where the story was going. Instead he played it by ear.

Whilst that leant itself to organic and responsive storytelling, it also meant that sometimes the story spun its wheels or took a wrong turn as writers tried to figure out what happened next. It’s definitely a double-edged sword, but it’s a sword worth considering.

Be Careful With Your Characters

Starbuck is an ace pilot, but she’s a mess at the beginning of Battlestar. She’s rash, mouthy, can’t play well with others and has little respect for authority. She either cannot or refuses to help herself and, because it’s never quite clear why, she is an irritant to both other characters and audience. I couldn’t stand Starbuck. When an episode focused on her, I wanted it over with as soon as possible.

A character can’t start perfect and stay that way until the end of the tale. They have to change. Usually they start the story flawed and overcome those flaws. But they can’t be too flawed otherwise the reader won’t be interested in them. There’s a delicate balance to be struck. Whiny, irritating, or otherwise unsympathetic characters risk alienating your readers just as much as boring, perfect ones.

A Simple Idea Goes a Long Way

Ever heard of the elevator pitch? It’s a one-sentence description of the story. “Young rebels battle against an evil empire in outer space.” “A prince suspects his uncle has murdered his father and stolen the throne.” “Survivors of a human/robot war must escape and find a safe planet to call home.” They’re so popular because they’re easy for the brain to manage. The story is clear. Evil empire. Evil uncle. Find a home.

From the end of the pilot, the goal for the survivors was clear: find Earth. That’s not enough to hang the entire narrative on; characters still need their own private goals and subplots to help keep the story fresh. But maintaining that elevator pitch creates a single vision and voice for the story. Whatever else might happen, viewers knew that finding Earth was the guiding light for the entire series. Until…

Don’t Be Scared to Mix It Up

Until they found it. And it was a barren, radioactive wasteland.

What followed was a season of Battlestar that seemed to be as lost and directionless as its characters. I’m not convinced that it particularly worked. But I’m willing to overlook the flaws of that season purely because of the twist that preceded it. And it will keep your reader’s attention too; an Earth-is-dead moment tells them that there is no sacred ground you won’t litter on, and that’s compelling stuff. What will they do next?

Fake Swear Words Aren’t Cool

Seriously, if one more character said frack this or frack you I was going to hunt down Ronald D Moore and beat the frack out of him. If you want your characters to swear, be brave enough to use real swear words.

Provide a Satisfying Resolution

Not every character made it to the end of Battlestar, but those that did got a conclusion to their arc. Not all of the conclusions made sense. Not all of them seemed fair. But all of them carried a sense of satisfaction in some way. That satisfaction will be remembered by readers; it might even smooth out any faults or umbrage they’d taken at some earlier part of the piece.

I could probably write ten times as much about Battlestar Galactica, but you’ve probably got things to do…

Cover of The Fey Man by James T KellyThere are no fake swear words (or real ones, for that matter) to be found in my debut epic fantasy novel, The Fey Man, but there are dragons and magical fay, which is pretty fracking great!

★★★★★ – “A must read for fans of epic fantasy”

Pick up your copy of The Fey Man today from Amazon, Apple, Kobo, or Smashwords