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Thursday, December 20, 2012

Continuity- Crutch or Tool?

One of the elements of serialized storytelling is making sure that events from previous stories flow seamlessly into the current stories. This is called continuity.

But over the past decade writers of long-running series such as soap operas and comic books have struggled to keep past stories flowing seamlessly into the current ones. This has led to two camps forming on the issue:

A group of writers who believe that the continuity of previous stories is a hindrance to writers trying telling new stories,

And a group of writers who believe that continuity is a tool that can be used to mine for new ideas for new stories.

Thanks to the feud between both these factions of writers and their followers serialized stories like soap operas and comic books have split their audience. Because both factions strongly believe their viewpoint on storytelling is right it has stagnated serialized storytelling for the past decade.

Leading to declines in sales and declines in television viewership.

The truth is continuity can be both a crutch and a tool. It depends on how the writer wields it.

To a writer who doesn’t understand the history of a character or a series, continuity can be a crutch they use to carry them through telling stories. Writers who use continuity as a crutch limp through their stories re-hashing old stories, focusing on the minutest details only long-time readers only know about.

In this story model there is often no room for a writer to grow in their craft or really get creative. Most of the details are filled in. Because the history of some characters in a series can be decades long, it can be next to impossible for a writer to establish their own voice or tell their stories. And because there are so many established characters it can be difficult for a writer to introduce new characters relatable to new readers or tell relevant stories related to today’s issues.

Writers who are forced to carry the baggage of continuity are often frustrated, tired and burnt out that they limp to the finish line of their story runs.

Usually,the finished product of the writer who uses continuity as a crutch are usually uninspired stories which don’t leave a lasting impact on the reader.

Worse, there is so much focus on previous history it doesn’t let new readers or new viewers access the characters or the series. In some cases the same concepts are re-hashed so many times that veteran readers give up on the series because they’re bored.

To a writer who uses continuity as a tool, there isn’t so much of a focus on tiny details. A writer will acknowledge the essential previous history of a character like their origins, family and supporting cast, but will pick and choose the plot points in a characters’ history to build their new stories on.

If the old stories just don’t connect with the audience anymore, some writers will just disregard all of a character’s past history except for their origin and start fresh.

But with these basic guidelines established they have an opportunity to fill in the details with their imagination.

Writers who use continuity as a tool often are very happy because it gives them room to breathe creatively. Unencumbered by decades of history they feel they have the opportunity to create their own stories. To introduce new concepts and new ideas to today’s readers while refreshing existing concepts and ideas in a characters past history to keep them relevant and relatable to the next generation.

Writers who use this story model often find tremendous success with new viewers, new readers and long-time viewers and readers. New viewers and readers often find the stories in this model easy to access. They often discover what’s great about a character or a series and become new fans. While long-time readers and viewers re-discover the product finding it fresh and exciting again.

Moreover, the new readers and viewers are often so excited about the current stories they’ve read that they go back and actively seek out older volumes or look for older episodes of programs to watch creating a demand for back issues or old episodes.

When this story model is done well both groups can bond and share over the experience of a series and its characters.

Serialized storytellers like the comic book writers and soap opera writers used continuity as a tool for over 50 years. Picking and choosing story points to begin their runs. Using existing characters and introducing new ones. Keeping the stories fresh and relevant for both new and old fans.

Every episode was crafted to seamlessly flow into each other and into the previous history of a series. And each episode was considered an entry point for new viewers to “jump on”

A child who read Batman in the 500s in the 1990s could enjoy a comic the same way as someone who read issue #240 did in the 1970’s. A viewer of All My Children in the 1990s could share the show with their mother who enjoyed the first episodes of the show in the 1970s.

Only during the mid 2000’s have serialized storytellers struggled with issues in regards to continuity.

What went wrong over the past five years?

Are the writers not getting any support from editorial? Are they being micromanaged to the point that they can’t get any creative control? Are they frustrated? Are they burnt out? Is the creative process of a series so bureaucratic that there’s no way for a writer to have any input on the finished product? Is the history of a character so long that it’s impossible to work with?

Or are the writers just plain bad?

That’s the question no one can answer.

But since the mid 2000’s serialized writers have had problems keeping stories fresh. Many often re-hash old stories revising history. Adding on details to past stories that don’t make any sense. Telling the audience that something happened when it was clear in previous episodes that it didn’t. Bringing back old characters whose stories had ended.

And when they bring in new characters they’re often stale and uninspired, having no “voice” of their own. Characters who aren’t allowed to be a part of stories socially relevant to today’s readers and customers. This prevents them from connecting with readers and allowing them to access the series.

Personally, I prefer to use continuity as a tool. In my stories I’m not so married to continuity that I have to focus on every minute detail. That sucks the fun out of storytelling.

To me, every story is its own self-contained piece. I focus on the beginning, middle and end of that story.

I don’t want to directly link every detail to every previous detail in every story. That bogs down a plot and slows it down. I know the readers are smart enough to figure out some things for themselves, so I just focus on the characters I want to use and the plot points from previous stories I want to use as a foundation for my new story.

If something works, I build on it. If it doesn’t I drop it and move on. Simple as that.

It took four stories to write this book.
I pick my story points and build my stories from there. For example to write The Temptation of John Haynes, I took characters from my failed unpublished novel The Changing Soul and my first self-published novel Isis and another short story, The Politics of Hell to make a new story.

I had three stories, one non-canon to create my new story on. Over 15 years of continuity. Working on that kind of story would be daunting for an amateur, but no challenge for me.

I already knew the characters’ history. At the end of The Politics of Hell, E’steem was defeated by Isis and stuck in a dead-end job at Lucifers’s library. At the end of The Changing Soul, John Haynes had been moving forward in his life working at a new job at Sunrise Foods and was in a relationship with his new girlfriend Colleen.

These were my story points. The guidelines were set regarding characters’ existing history. That was the foundation for the structure of my story. All I had to do was fill in the details like plot structures and build the form of the new story details around it to complete the book.

Some older characters like John Haynes himself were redesigned to make them more modern and more relateable. A few like E’steem were given a new direction, and some older characters that I couldn’t use like Colleen anymore were written out and new ones were introduced to replace them. I picked and chose what story elements worked and threw out what didn’t.

The end result of my six years of work was a story that was fresh and new. A story that was accessible to both Isis readers from 2002 and new readers who had never heard of Isis or John Haynes.

A few months later I re-introduced new readers to Isis through an eBook campaign. The three previous back stories The Saga of MastiKatious, Baptism of Blood, and Isis: Trial of the Goddess were standalone stories.

But they each built on the momentum of the other developing anticipation for the digital edition of Isis. When I launched the book, I got over a hundred downloads in two days.

The contnuity of this book....
indirectly connects with  this one! Read
one or both! They're entry points
to a bigger story!  
I’ve also used continuity on the All About Marilyn/All About Nikki series. Readers of the All About Nikki scripts like them so much that have come back to buy the drama All About Marilyn to learn about the actress who played Nikki Desmond.

While others have read All About Marilyn go on to buy All About Nikki to learn about the series Marilyn Marie starred in.

Both were self-contained stories. The only connection they had with each other was that the main character was the alter ego of the other.

And recently I used continuity to write Isis: Amari’s Revenge. From a few lines in a chapter of Isis, I was able to write a brand new Isis story that acknowledged the continuity of the past four books and 15 years of history while making the characters fresh, new and accessible to a new audience of readers.

As former Marvel and Valiant comics editor Jim Shooter pointed out in his blog: Every story is an entry point. When the writing is good, people have no problem accessing material at any point whether it’s the beginning, the middle or end. And when it’s compelling enough, they’ll want more. A good writer crafts their stories so their audience anticipating the next episode or going back for previous ones.

Continuity doesn’t have to be a crutch. In the hands of a skilled writer, it can be a tool to build an audience of both older and younger readers and help them form a connection that bridges generations.

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