Franchise Mindset 4/13/21

It’s occurred to me recently that I could probably write the Gods of the Dark Web books forever. If you’re a Richard Laymon fan or you remember my blog about his memoir A Writer’s Tale, you may know that one of his biggest pieces of advice was to find ideas that are “infinitely expandable.” This was a strategy he employed to turn his short, sharp thrillers into sprawling 600-page doorstoppers. While I don’t suspect you’ll be getting any doorstoppers from me, I do think the idea of infinitely expandable stories can be helpful even for a minimalist like me.

Written like a creepypasta for adults, the first Gods book had an intimate, small-scale narrative, but it also had hints of a larger world around it. With the writing of the second book, I wanted to show some of those bigger implications on the page. It led to what I’ll call James Herbert chapters. Herbert was a British author mainly famous for his nature-run-amok Rats books. He had a great knack for introducing characters and showing what’s interesting about them before killing them in spectacular fashion. This approach initially made me think I had a story collection instead of a new novella on my hands. Only when I figured out Dana’s story did the main narrative emerge.

At the same time I was writing book 2, I read a ton of comic books, specifically tie-in stuff. Think Aliens, Dungeons and Dragons, Robotech, Magic: The Gathering, stuff like that. While these franchises have established rules, they also have a ton of wiggle room. It’s not mandatory to reuse characters or continue storylines from previous books (though the occasional Easter egg doesn’t hurt). It’s more about exploring the established world, less about the sweeping arcs typically found in series like The Hunger Games or Outlander.

These observations over the last year have helped me develop what I call a FRANCHISE MINDSET.

So, what is the FRANCHISE MINDSET, how can you use it to build your writing career and how is it different than writing a proper series?

  1. A FRANCHISE MINDSET is a larger way of viewing your content, seeing all your stories as interconnected and how they interconnect, recognizing reoccurring themes, and remembering that because all these stories originated within you the connections are not as tenuous as you may initially suspect. A strategy that helped me was opening the corkboard feature on Scrivener and putting each of my stories (written, published, unwritten, unfinished, etc) onto a notecard. I don’t use Scrivener for writing, but I plot with it often. It helps me see big picture stuff. Having all this information laid out in front of me did something to me. I was able to see how each of my pieces could connect to each other. Admittedly, not all of them worked. Some of them were even pieces I would rather forget. Gods of the Dark Web jumped out at me as having its fingers embedded in a lot of other ideas I had. From there, it was into the Mangum-verse.
  2. How a FRANCHISE MINDSET can build your writing career is obvious. It gives your readers reasons to return. It makes your work recognizable. Because you’re not married to any plot threads from previous books, however, people can dip into your world at any given time. People like what’s familiar. If you’re a new-ish writer like me, though, you’re not a household name, so you have to build that familiarity. Finding a world or universe in which you can set stories linked only by themes and rules can be an effective way to get a good amount of somewhat related content out there, especially if you’re like me and you have reservations about writing the same type of book over and over.
  3. FRANCHISE MINDSET is different from writing a proper series because it doesn’t obligate the author to continue stories that already wrapped up in earlier books or stick with the same characters. Sure, C or D story threads can move to the forefront (as is the case with Dana who’s a minor character in Gods of the Dark Web but a major player in Darkness Digital). Characters and settings can even pop back up as a way to reward your fans. This is something Stephen King and Brian Keene do often and well. But you don’t have to finagle them into the new book’s story just because they starred in the previous book. It’s a lot looser and a lot more interesting.

Inversions

I’ve been thinking about inversions. Maybe it’s because I’m listening to the FROZEN soundtrack this morning, but it’s been on my mind for a while now. Inverting well-worn tropes has been an obsession in pop culture over the last decade or so. So-called “woke” Disney. THE LAST JEDI. TERMINATOR: DARK FATE. YOU’RE NEXT. I can go on.

Inversion is a very effective tool. I’ve used it myself from time to time. And there are a lot of reasons to use it, even beyond its efficacy as a narrative device. More often than not, it’s used by creators to “correct” elements of a franchise deemed exclusionary or problematic. Other times, it’s used to inject new life into a well-worn character or story.

I’ll keep my own opinions on the motivations behind inversion as a plot device to myself, mainly because I’m not sure I have a fully formed opinion. One of the benefits of being off social media a significant percentage of the day means the temptation to fire my half-baked ideas into the ether has been all but eliminated. I can only speak as another artist and a fan.

For my own work, I’ve found that the compulsion to invert isn’t always the right choice. At the end of the day, I’m in service of the story I aim to tell. If inversion serves that story, such as in my book EXTINCTION PEAK, then I will employ it as a storytelling device. If the urge to invert will impede what is already an effective narrative, it’s best left on the backburner. Now, if you do finish your first draft, and you find it’s all too familiar in the annals of your genre, then by all means, do a pass where you strictly look for opportunities to invert. It might turn your stale draft into something that pops.

I guess what I’m saying is contrived work will always feel like contrived work. Inversion, like steps on the hero’s journey, is a tool that can bring life to a work, but is not required in order for a work to have life.

What are some books/films/games that you think effectively employ inversion? What are some books/films/games that get by just fine without it?