This week I finished watching [all but one] of the Marvel Cinematic Universe movies for the first time. A little late, I know. I was not aware that movies in the MCU had stories in chronological order that all connected with one another. The moment I realized that, I fell in love with the storyline even more. Which says a lot, because I loved it from the very first scene in Iron Man.
Marvel is not the only franchise that has existed within its own universe – first in comic form, and now with the addition of the film version of the Marvel universe. Star Wars started out as a few sci-fi movies and now has its own expanded universe (though some of it now is not “canon,” but I’ll whine about that another time). Even mainstream fiction authors often connect their stories with subtle references to characters who exist in more than one book, even if they aren’t always the major protagonist.
I have always loved stories that connect, and tried to write my own YA fiction series based in a fictional town while I was in high school. Sometimes I still make subtle references to those old characters in my more recent fiction, mainly because it’s fun and no new readers will really catch on. I would love to be able to write my own fantasy or sci-fi series someday. Honestly, I just haven’t gotten around to it.
I’ve been too busy watching movies.
I think there is a right and wrong way to write stories that are all connected by a single common universe. I’ve seen it done the right way and I’ve seen it done the wrong way. The best advice I have for anyone who wants to write a series of stories like these, even if they’re not a series but stand-alone stories that are all set in the same place and time, is to do a lot – A LOT – of planning, world building and character sketches before you start. Outline in advance – not just the first few stories you want to write. You will likely come up with twists and backstories as you go, but have the framework there. Otherwise, it’s very easy to veer off course, get overwhelmed and/or write stories that lack depth.
Don’t just limit yourself to featuring common characters throughout a series of stories. Connect them together. Keep them significant. Weave the major and minor plots together in a way that does not allow one story to be able to exist without one another. One does not fall in love with characters and settings simply because they exist. Readers grow attached to them story after story because they are continuously important, always evolving and predictable … to a point.
What’s your favorite fictional universe? What do you like most about the way different characters’ stories intertwine?
Meg is the creator of Novelty Revisions, dedicated to helping writers put their ideas into words. She is a freelance writer and an eight-time NaNoWriMo winner with work published in Teen Ink, Success Story, Lifehack and USA TODAY College. Follow Meg on Twitter for tweets about writing, food and nerdy things.