All Writers Should Learn From This Strategy Of Comicbooks and Pop Fiction
I read my first comicbooks in the early seventies. I’m not ashamed to say—in fact, I’m proud to say—that comics helped shape my character and, yes, my approach to writing and storytelling more than any other single influence.
They were my gateway to other literature, and I don’t just mean genre or pop fiction, either. As one rather esoteric example: as I write this, I can look at the bookshelf to my right and see Julian Jaynes’ The Origin of Consciousness In the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, which I bought and read thanks to a footnote in Micronauts number 29 (1980).
Right behind comicbooks on my list of core influences would be the works of Robert Heinlein, Larry Niven, Michael Moorcock, and Stephen King (among others)… but not for their speculative fiction, hard science fiction, fantasy, and horror stories.
Rather, it was my exposure at an early age to the way each of these authors chose to incorporate most of their stories in internally consistent “mega-settings” of their own design.
Heinlein had his “Future History” and larger “World as Myth.” Moorcock, his “Eternal Champion.” Niven, “Known Space.” King, his, well, whatever it is that his spaghetti-bowl multiverse is called.
That the vampire-cursed town of Jerusalem’s Lot was just a couple hours north of Castle Rock, where a rabid St. Bernard caused so much grief… or that Lazarus Long and Valentine Michael Smith have mutual friends… or that the ancient, patient Pak might have built the Ringworld…
This was all just like Marvel comicbooks, where the Fantastic Four lived in the same New York City as Daredevil and Spider-Man, and they all read the same newspaper.
The notion you could carry the same concept into prose fiction blew my young mind.
Later, I would see that, while the idea is most often found in genre fiction, there are plenty of examples in literature / mainstream fiction, too. Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City, or Jan Karon’s The Mitford Years, or even Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey–Maturin series spring to mind.
Today, I (and others) refer to the idea as a “storyworld.” Loosely defined, a storyworld is a body of creative work sharing the same milieu or setting but not necessarily dedicated to a single protagonist.
I strongly believe one of the most savvy things a writer of fiction can do is create a storyworld framework early in their careers, and incorporate most, if not all, of their stories into that framework.
As you build a body of work, each novel or short story can serve as a hub to lead readers to others: a supporting character in story A is the lead in story B… or perhaps a character mentions something in passing in one story that becomes the subject of another. Over time, you’ll create a sort of mosaic history your readers can explore.
As a bonus, by planting little story seeds in your works, you provide yourself with a steady stream of story-fodder.
As I worked on Reading The Amazing Spider-Man Volume One: A Critical Review With Storytelling Lessons From A Writer’s Perspective, my nonfiction, light-hearted analysis of the first twelve issues of that comicbook, I realized there were hidden “master lessons” of storyworld creation to be found in there.
I won’t give them all away here (after all, I want you to buy the book!) but here’s one that helped a character originally introduced sixty years ago in a throw-away last issue of a failing comicbook become one of the enduring pillars of modern mythology:
Your storyworld can be much more than a setting or “universe” in which to tell your stories.
The most effective, enduring storyworld is not just a collection of creative works, each with their own themes and dramatic and character arcs.
The most compelling and successful storyworlds have over-arcing (pun not intended) themes and dramatic arcs themselves.
My own Humanity Continuum storyworld (actually a multiverse containing a number of linked storyworlds..!) is a long-form epic that, assuming I live long enough, will eventually consist of many novels, short stories, and other media, in a variety of genres. Knowing “the big story” helps me understand where the focus should be, overtly or less so, in each of the component works.
When a creator opens the door for other creators to tell stories in their storyworld, especially when those new stories are expressed in a variety of media, the storyworld becomes a creative franchise. One of the earliest creative franchises outside of comicbooks (and very clearly influenced by comicbooks in both flavor and execution) is the Star Wars storyworld of George Lucas.
Beginning with the prescient decision in the early seventies to maintain a great deal of creative control—Lucas was, and is, we often forget, an indie creator (pun totally intended that time) just like many of you, dear reader—he built a storyworld that would ultimately include hundreds of works created by others… with a piece of the action always flowing back to him.
If you’re a new author, or if you don’t have a bestseller under your belt, or if you don’t write the kind of stuff that gets made into blockbuster movies, you might think intentionally designing a creative franchise is pie-in-the-sky thinking, or, worse, distracting arrogance.
The lovely thing is, if you’re already approaching your short stories and novels as part of a larger storyworld and already writing those story-hub moments into your work, it will be much easier to invite other creators into your storyworld if, and when, it makes sense to do so.
Are Your Wheels Turning?
These days, as more and more creators decide to take the reigns of production and distribution, I’m particularly excited by the prospect of the authorpreneur: the writer who thinks beyond novels, thinks beyond series, thinks beyond the books they themselves will write.
I want to know: will you learn from the lessons of comicbooks and popular fiction and build your body of work in the context of a storyworld?
Will you take the long view and keep the possibility of a creative franchise in mind as you develop your career?
Are you doing it already?
Or is the whole idea bunk, or just not for you?
Let’s have a conversation and toss these ideas around in the comments section. I’m very interested in your input, and in extending this discussion.
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