Shared-world fiction has a lot in common with the small screen

I’ve said I’d write about this for a while and I’ve never quite found the time. I still don’t have a lot of time, but I needed blog fodder and this is a long-standing question. Also, I think that even if you create your own world and intend to write a series, there are a lot of storytelling lessons to be learned from shared-world fiction.
As you probably know, Wizards of the Coast is known for its shared-world fiction–fiction in worlds shared by many authors. Dragonlance, Forgotten Realms, and Eberron may be the most familiar WotC brand names, and outside of us, in adult and YA fantasy, there are novels in the Star Trek, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Smallville, and many other universes. Nancy Drew and Trixie Belden are also shared-world fiction–and the models upon which a lot of shared world series build. (Notice how many shared worlds are media tie-ins. This is not always the case, but as I’ll discuss below, movies and TV shows do lend themselves well to this kind of print fiction.) The challenges of writing within these already-established worlds are completely different from making up your own world from scratch–but at the same time, can be freeing in many ways, too.
Mirrorstone has several shared-world lines: Dragonlance: The New Adventures, Star Sisterz, and Knights of the Silver Dragon were our company’s first forays into children’s literature, and all of them were set in worlds shared by many different authors who had to coordinate between themselves and the editors to ensure consistency in style, worldbuilding, character growth, and plot. DLNA was set in the same world, Krynn, that Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman’s original Dragonlance Chronicles were set, Star Sisterz got their world from a game by the same name, and Knights of the Silver Dragon used the world and monsters of the game Dungeons and Dragons.
Writing in a shared world is a great way for beginning writers to increase (and show off) their writing chops–and get their name out there. Rather than having to come up with the world–and sometimes even the characters–on their own, the writer can play with plot and characterization within an already-established world, complete with its own rules. Rather than having to make up the world, the writer can focus on story arc.
The challenge of doing so, of course, is that you can’t just say, “I think Buffy should now have wings and be able to fly about the planet.” Buffy’s world has rules, and (warning: spoilers in link) unless she specifically has an affair with a particular kind of creature, she’s probably not going to suddenly sprout into a giant. But this is important in creator-owned stories, too!
Then again, the challenge of doing so can also be to see just how you can explain certain things within a given set of rules, such as how a kender might be able to do magic.*
But don’t let that fool you–because writing in another world can be just as challenging as making up your own, but in a different way. Shared-world series have changed a lot since Nancy Drew, but we might learn a lot from the old girl sleuth, too. (Which won’t be covered in this post, as I went off on a tangent, but definitely see Girl Sleuth: Nancy Drew and the Women who Created Her for more information on the Stratemyer syndicate, who had a lot of shared-world mysteries for young readers in its day.)
I think the best way of looking at shared-world series is by using TV shows as a model. Multiple writers work on TV shows. Writers on a show may change from year to year, so the creative mix sometimes changes–but overall, the show must have a consistent voice, characters must remain consistent even as they grow (if the characters are meant to grow, of course). A lot of quality TV shows are made in this collaborative environment, and I think shared-world book series can have that same high quality of storytelling.
I often use favorite teen and fantasy shows as examples of storytelling for my shared-world authors (and for series in general), too–because shows like Veronica Mars (especially the first and second seasons) (also, created by a YA author), Firefly, Heroes, and Buffy use storytelling skills that can be easily transferred to writing book series. For example, look specifically at plot arcs. What kinds of plot arcs does a TV series like Veronica Mars deal with? First season, we had the season-long plot arc of the mystery of Veronica’s best friend’s killer. Then we had plot arcs that might last a few episodes, usually dealing with her relationship between her friends or boyfriend. Then there was the plot of the episode, whatever mystery Veronica was solving that night.
How can we apply these plot arc ideas to novels? For one thing, a series has to have an overall arc, whether you’re talking about a trilogy or longer. If you’re a fan of the Wheel of Time series, you have probably been following my friend Brandon Sanderson’s discussions of how he’s working on wrapping up the tail end of the series. While that’s not a shared world in the strictest sense–after all, Jordan always intended to finish his own series, but his health got in the way–this is similar in that Brandon must deal with writing in someone else’s voice, finishing up story threads that he didn’t lay, and working with characters and plots that he didn’t create. Jordan planned the arc of the series years ago (and created the notes and outlines that Brandon is now using as his guide). And so it is with any series, including shared-world, though with something as open-ended as shared-world sometimes all you can do is plan an arc and hope the next arc fits in.
So then we go back to the TV show idea–the Lost writers, for example, say they’ve known generally where they want to end the series since they began it, but they couldn’t know whether the first season would be the only one or not. So it is in shared-world fiction a lot of the times, so you have to break down your ar
cs a little bit so that readers can still be satisfied with the smaller resolutions, while still left wanting more. At the end of an episode (one volume), that episode’s arc should be wrapped up. But questions might remain. Veronica may only have found one clue to who killed her best friend–and that clue itself might lead her in the wrong direction next time. But the high schooler who just paid her $500 to find out who planted fake test scores in his locker should find out by the end of the episode who done it.
The Hallowmere series is technically a shared-world series because Tiffany Trent, its creator, is not the only writer playing in this world. The books are being released at the rate of about three or four a year, and I fear what I might do to Tiffany if I tried to make her write three books a year all by herself! So we brought in a few coauthors who are taking on the points of view of the main character Corrine’s friends. Books 1-3 have an arc all their own–Corrine goes to Falston, discovers the world of the Fey, and from there they head off to adventure in mysterious places as Corrine and her friends try to track down the Unhallowed.
But at the end of Corrine’s arc in volume three, the story isn’t nearly over. No, actually, the story only grows from there. In volume four, Maiden of the Wolf, Canadian author Angelika Ranger (), joins Tiffany Trent to write from the point of view of Ilona, the stubborn tomboy Hungarian. Each coauthor must coordinate with me and especially with Tiffany to make sure that her or his details match up with Tiffany’s vision of the series and with where the series is going for each of the rest of the authors, to ultimately wrap up with Tiffany’s solo conclusion in book 10, Ouroborous Undone. Each book has its own arc, revealing all sorts of mysteries, but supports the greater arc of the entire ten-book series.
Oh, there’s so much on shared worlds I could pontificate on, and I’m afraid this post is already long and convoluted, and I have work to do. So let’s stop here and see where we go. What kinds of questions might you have on shared-world fiction? Does this help answer some of them?
*Kender are a hobbit-like race in the Dragonlance world which are considered, basically, so ADD that they can’t learn magic, but also some people believe it’s a racial trait for them not to be able to do so. Personally, I like that Dragonlance: The New Adventures turned a lot of those stereotypes on their heads.
Topic for a future post: Working with an editor in shared-world fiction, working as an editor in shared-world (coordination between authors, series bibles, etc.)