It used to be that the place for a complex story universe was on television. Multiple characters, interwoven stories, a rich social, economic and political culture, a window on the problems and triumphs of a whole society instead of one or two representative characters – that’s television. If you don’t believe me, try imagining The Wire as a two-hour movie…
One of the positive things the rise of the movie franchise has achieved is the opening up of cinema to wider story universes. It’s no accident that one of the first summer blockbusters was Star Wars, with it’s rich tapestry of character, backstory and alien worlds. The Indiana Jones movies are a deliberate throwback to the Saturday Morning Serial – essentially, television before television existed – and though they’re not serialized, they also have that sense of being of a continuing adventure.
In the last decade or so, the move towards the franchise has gathered pace. Off the top of my head, I can name The Lord Of The Rings, The Matrix, the Batman trilogy, the Bourne movies, Transformers, and perhaps the ultimate example, the cluster of individual Marvel Studios movies leading up to The Avengers. And the failed attempts to start major franchises would take all day to list!
There are even flashes of ingenuity to be spotted among the franchising sausage machine. The Bourne Legacy initially felt like flogging a dead franchise, but advance reports suggest that the film runs concurrently with The Bourne Ultimatum, with characters and plotlines moving between the two films in the manner of an avant-garde multi-stranded drama. Whether it works remains to be seen, but it’s a fascinating use of the franchise format.
So, what message can we as writers take from this? It’s that complex story universes are the way to go, right? Come up with a sprawling world full of locations, characters, backstories and potential drama, and you can spend the next ten years digging into it on film, right?
Strangely, no. The message we should be learning is not to start with the universe. Keep it small. Stick with the character, their want and their need, and the one situation they find themselves in right now.
One thing I’ve learned from bringing Wolfblood to the small screen is that, in an ongoing series, you never pin down any element of the story until you have to. For example, one of the characters was separated from their parents at a young age. When we needed that character’s mother, we sat down and created her. We’ve had no use for the father yet, so we’ve made no decisions about him.
Why? Because every time you make a decision about your story universe, you close off other possibilities. If we’d had someone say on screen that this character’s father was a Glaswegian bricklayer, that’s fine – until we reach an episode where we could have got a really good story out of him being, I dunno, the British Ambassador to Jamaica. But now that story could never happen, because we’d written ourselves into a corner for the sake of some spurious ‘completeness’.
Define elements of your wider story universe when they’re useful to you, when they have a dramatic weight and a meaning, and not before.
And secondly, writers who think too broadly about their wider universe end up not concentrating on what’s right in front of them – the chance to make this one movie as good, as rich, as emotionally compelling as it possibly can be. And if this one movie isn’t utterly brilliant, those sequels you’ve so loving planned will never happen.
Assuming you don’t actually kill your hero or have certain types of twist ending, a good movie written without any thought of a sequel can usually spawn one – and a good one-off story will always have the potential to expand into a complex story universe. Just make that first installment as good as you can, and the rest will take care of itself.