Is Your World Big Enough for More Than One Story?

For a news and blog page, it has been full of the former and none of the latter. So here is my attempt and evening up things a little. This is an updated version of an article I wrote years ago. I was inspired to share it, as the topic has come up a few times lately while chatting to both writely and game developer colleagues. Enjoy....

Setting a story in your already-existing world can be a great thing – it’s a method of expanding your invention.  Sometimes, though, shoe-horning a story to fit an already-existing world can play havoc with even the best story. What was once a tight well structured idea can start to get the death wobbles when you start altering things like plot, pacing, characters to make your narrative fit; you might find yourself writing to make the story fit a certain mold, rather than writing to tell the wonderful tale that is in your head.

The other facet to this dilemma is if you start fiddling with the wonderful world you created to accommodate your new story. Besides the obvious predicament of creating contradictions with your first story and its version of the world, you run the risk of unraveling the wonderful world you built up. Say you’ve created a world where females are forbidden to learn or practice magic; it’s one of the major pillars of the culture you have created. However, your story involves a magic wielding girl.

Now this could be a good thing or it could be a bad thing. If you go down the road of altering and fiddling with this central pillar of your world to accommodate your magic-wielding female character. You may end up with the premise of a culture that forbids women using or learning magic… most of the time… with the odd exception here and there… only on the second Sunday of every month. Can you hear that noise? That’s the sound of air leaking out of your once-airtight and functioning world.

Of course, there is positive side to this challenge. Creative boundaries set by your world can be great creative starting points. To use the earlier example of a girl with magic abilities in a world where magic is forbidden to females, you now have the opportunity to create a story about a female who has magical powers and must somehow find a way to learn about her abilities. Does she pretend to be a boy? Does she find an underground movement of other magic wielding females?  Or is this new story set at a time in the past when females were able to learn and use magic freely? What happened to turn it into the world of the original story, where magic-use is determined by gender? Creative restrictions can lead to some wonderful ideas if you flow with them rather than against them.

Setting multiple stories in your existing world can, to borrow a marketing term, can really value add to the world you created and compliment the original story set in that world. Writing multiple stories set in the same world is an opportunity for you to shine new light on your previous story and to explore different aspects of that world. Perhaps some of these aspects were briefly and tantalisingly mentioned in a previous story you’ve written, or perhaps you’ll be lifting the veil on things you had hidden away, using ideas you thought of that ended up having no place in your original story. The new material may even give readers of your previous work new insight into the original story that got them reading your work in the first place.

But, be conscience of avoiding the common mistake made by many-a-speculative fiction write. You love your world so much you want people to know all about that wonderful and clever material you came up with while you were writing the original story. Heads up- Not many people want to read the three-gigabytes-and-two-boxes-worth of encyclopaedic material about your world. (Hands up who has done this-Welcome to the club)

Some of the most successful speculative fiction writers have done just that and created great stories set in worlds loved by millions. Legends I and II, (published by Harper Collins and edited by Robert Silverberg, 1998 & 2003), contains stories by authors such as George R.R. Martin, Anne McCaffrey, Robert Jordan, Tad Williams and Robin Hobb, just to name a few, who pen new stories in the very worlds that made them famous. Taking George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones, for example, Martin creates The Tales of Dunk and Egg (Dunk and Egg – yeah, yeah Martin you’re a really funny guy,) is a series of three novellas (The Hedge Knight and The Sworn Sword appearing in the Legends volumes respectively, and the third, The Mystery Knight appearing in the Warriors anthology published by Tor Books, and edited by George R.R. Martin and Gardner Dozois, 2010.) The Hedge Knight has even been translated into a short comic book series, and later, a graphic novel.

Martin sets The Tales of Dunk and Egg eighty nine years before the events of The Game of Thrones. Through this series, Martin gives readers an opportunity to see his kingdom of Westeros at its height, before the chaos of the Game of Thrones. Readers get to meet many of the famous and infamous characters often referred to in The Game of Thrones including

 ‘Dunk’ who is actually the humble beginnings of the Legendary ‘Ser Duncan the Tall’, a character often referred to in The Game of Thrones. By being able to meet these characters in person, so to speak, Game of Thrones readers are able to see how time, events and biases have coloured the people and events of the past, giving readers a new insight into the story and world of Game of Thrones.

Whether or not you like Martin’s work it is a great example of enriching your world and even your original story by setting multiple stories in the same world. It’s also a great example of expanding your IP (intellectual property.

Setting multiple stories in the one world can be a wonderful thing if your reasons for doing so are creatively sound and you respect your story and your world. Jamming stories into your pre-existing world because you think it’s a shortcut, to make that submission deadline, or the dozens of other silly things we writers have a tendency to do, will only lead to those death-wobbles mentioned earlier, and who wants to read that!

When you write you can break people’s hearts, expectations, boundaries, even their minds but don’t break your story or your world.

By Richard L. Lagarto

(First version of this article appeared in ACTWrite Newsletter September 2012)