Did you watch that? Not only does it (thankfully) conclude my three-part sojourn into the realm of horror, but it showcases how seeds turn into oaks… or rather, alien skulls into crossover franchises. That forty-second clip created a host of novels, comic books, films. I’m not going to pass judgment on the quality of all of those. But hey: for less than a minute worth of cinema, that’s a lot of quality spin-off content.
I’m not saying we should all ape Predator 2 (though, truthfully, it’s not half-bad for a sequel) but here are lessons to be learned from that one segment. What started as an easter egg in that film turned two franchises into one. Does your work have such open nodes to extend your content? I’m not talking about cliffhangers or branching storypoints. I’m talking about those throwaway, cast-off, blink-and-you’ll miss it points that expand the universe in ways you couldn’t possibly perceive. Well, that is, you can’t perceive them, but fans? If you leave room for their questions–if you open the door to their imaginations–they’ll clamor for more.
Observe this technique in the wild: the common tactic in improv known as “Yes, And.” You take what somebody has given you in the scene and build on it. Not only does this encourage the wacky, creative, mixed-up energy that audiences love but it facilitates more humor. How does one get from a scene about a pregnant sheep-farmer to a riff on Star Trek?
It is a framework that doesn’t always produce top-quality content but it allows people to fail fast and recover quicker. This frenetic energy literally spins creative energy so quickly that there are new ideas every second. Some of them are bound to hit. As writers rather than improv artists, you aren’t beholden to a lack of editorial control, but those same foundational points can work wonders for creating worlds. Besides, cutting off areas to steer the scene may work for your ego but it stifles opportunities. Why destroy when you can build?
Of course, lawyers and copyright/branding/trademark regulations can turn even the most enthusiastic creator into a quivering hesitant. What happens if you open a door you can’t close? What happens if you unwittingly destroy the franchise? What happens if…
First things first: if you’ve done your research and your homework into building your narrative, you’ll know what avenues are no-gos. You may not want to make a romantic comedy into a rumination on the nature of man and machine, for instance, nor is your tightly woven closed-door mystery open to chaotic impulses. Yet “Yes, And” isn’t a license to do whatever you feel like. It’s a prescription for creating fluid stories. You already have something that you want to tell the world. All I’m saying is that you should let people twist it a bit on their own.
I disagree with some writers who believe that an audience member is someone adrift on the waves that desperately needs a life preserver flung to them. In terms of actual composition, sure, you need clarity, but you should also want your world to engage the audience in as many points as possible. It’s not a treacherous ocean but an unexplored sea. They’ll explore it in their minds, chart maps across the vast realm of their imagination, and–sometimes–write fan-fiction about their encounters there.
Audiences need to be able to stretch their minds to see the revolutions that are coming to your story. At its heart is the basis of storytelling: a character making a choice and suffering the consequences. Sometimes you lose the trail a little bit but that happens with every story. Fans are remarkably forgiving if you’re open with them about mistakes. Just ask me, a current Dungeon Master: “sorry, I got it wrong” goes over a lot better than, “no, you’re the one who’s wrong.”
More than that, opening doors in your franchise doesn’t have to mean any more work for you. You don’t have to do any more than you want to, you just simply don’t have to not do it. Some creators like creating entire worlds out of their fiction that will perpetuate long after their participation ends, or even allow others to pick over points of canon that they didn’t pick up. Some don’t. Both kinds have created vast story universes that fans can play with on their own terms.
And play they shall. As I’ve said before, the days of broadcast media are rapidly coming to a close. Younger audiences already expect to be able to manipulate their favorite narratives, as that matches their primary play patterns. The rapid expansion of interactive media and narrative-based gaming show that even mainstream audiences want to get in on the fun. Hell, English grad students argue ad nauseum about symbolism that 18th Century authors may or may not have put into their work. That’s a lasting example of what your work can do if you let people interpret it on their own, in their own words.
All you need are a few tactics…
- Throw-away references – The easy one: throwing out bits and bobs that expand the universe in small ways. They go a long way to making it feel like your world has been lived in so long as they fit in-canon and aren’t overdone. Let the fans do the work, otherwise.
- Competent retconning – Yeah, okay, sometimes creators make mistakes. Someone’s marriage closed off a few too many storylines. The destruction of a character’s homeworld makes the overall arc of a storyline pale in comparison. If it’s a big enough problem and you have a large enough audience, you’ll be sure to have audiences that have a.) gripes about what you did and b.) solutions that work. Allow yourself the privilege of owning up to a mistake and then rectifying it properly. I’m not saying you should steal material, of course. After all, you could always go down the path of…
- Canonization – So, somebody has created a fantastic piece of content that’s in your world and expands without cutting off your story at the knees. Put aside your jealousy and consider making that thing official. Payment? Maybe. Hell, some fans just appreciate contributing to the world. You still get to be gatekeeper but—through no effort—you’ve expanded the universe. More importantly, it gets fans talking and focused on creating better work. Maybe their piece will be next.
Beyond opening a door, you can even ignore it to a certain degree. Do you think that every director, writer, or actor who has taken part in the James Bond series wants to be associated with every film in that franchise? I love Bond, but holy hell, I think we all have our candidate for “worst of” in that twenty-three film series.
That doesn’t mean one should simply erase the past. For every continuity remake that works, there are oodles that don’t. At best, fans struggle to reconcile what goes where, when, even if the excised content is universally reviled. At worst, they ignore the new universe entirely. It doesn’t fit with their vision of the franchise. Creators can (and should) reexamine long-held tropes. What they can’t do is simply dismiss them.
Rather than opening a door, that tactic simply closes it. It dismisses fans who like that aspect of the universe. It encourages a carving up of the continuity in which creative whims take precedence over established narrative. It can lead to lazy writing, in which things are tossed out rather than worked around simply… because.
Tactics that close the door…
- Incompetent retconning – I don’t mean writing poorly; we can’t always control that. What I mean is using such a broad hand that you alienate the people who support your livelihood. You say that you’re “taking the story in a new direction” but what you’re really doing is creating shock in hopes of selling a few more copies of your work, or else giving it a jolt of much needed life, little realizing that it was time to put that zombie to rest. No need to go into examples of this. Any comic book fan can list a few examples off the top of their head.
- Killing characters for sentimentality – Sometimes characters need to die: for structure, for actor-related reasons, for whatever. Oftentimes, though, it’s simply to get a cheap emotional reaction out of the audience. There are better ways to do that. Don’t force yourself into a hole when you could have simply shipped Kes into the beyond, or sent Doug Ross to Seattle.
- Fan theory denying – Rather than just letting fan ship, theorize, or argue to their hearts content, a story actively takes a side. Sometimes this has to be done (James T. Kirk’s middle name can’t be Tiberius and Tyler) but other times, it’s only because your ego is getting in the way. It’s not the way you would tell it, but even though you have no interest in expanding on it, you’re going to bring down the hammer just in case.
There’s a pattern here, right? Don’t put your own needs above that of the story. See also: “kill your darlings,” “characters come first,” and “ask why.” Each of these is a subset of the same basic principle that audiences care about your work rather than you. It’s such an important maxim that it should be chiseled above every writer’s workspace. Your desires are secondary to that of the story.
I understand the impulse. Saying “no” shows how our opinions are more important than others. We create agency in our words by transforming ourselves into gatekeepers of content. That’s a heady thing, particularly if you’ve dragged yourself up from the bottom of the talent pool.
Just ask yourself, though: did you get into the arts to stifle creativity?
Then leave the door open. You have no idea what could come through.