July 16, 2007
Immersive Story Worlds and "How Not to Wreck a Show"

In my work on soap opera fandom, I keep encountering a document that I think deals with some questions that are at the heart of much of what we are talking about in working with fandoms, especially in thinking toward longstanding media properties with long and complicated histories.

I have written quite a bit lately about a particular form of narrative universe of this type, which I call immersive story worlds. As I have written about here on the blog before (see here and here), immersive story worlds are fictional universes whose characteristics include seriality, multiple creators, long-term continuity, a character backlog, contemporary ties to a deep history, and a sense of permanence.

In my own research, I have identified soap opera narratives (once a show has passed a certain number of years), comic books, and professional wrestling texts as being the best examples of these sorts of narratives, but the principles--and potential benefits of thinking toward developing and maintaining immersive story worlds--apply to a wide range of products which have some similar characteristics to these massive serial (social) texts.

To return to my point, however, I think that my writing about serial texts is underpinned by a set of creative criteria and an industry perspective perhaps best articulated by the late Douglas Marland, known by a variety of soap opera fan communities as one of the best soaps creators of all time, in particular in his relationship to the fan community and in respecting the continuity and history of soaps, and the nature of serialized storytelling for an immersive story world.

Marland's document, entitled "How Not to Wreck a Show", is a blueprint for head writers of soap operas when taking over a show as the latest creative director. The short list was published in 1993, but I'm not certain when it was actually written, but it is 10 bullet points about how to effectively tell a longstanding narrative. It's amazing how fundamental these principles are but also how they involve a much different concept of storytelling than what the media industry often thinks of.

Among his suggests are such basic concepts as "watch the show," ignoring one's own likes for the likes of the audience, building new characters slowly, not changing a core character, not firing anyone until you get a good grasp on where the narrative is headed and how everyone fits in, and that good soaps are "good storytelling. It's very simple."

But a few of his other gems that seem particularly relevant are:

Read the fan mail. The very characters that are not thrilling to you may be the audience's favorites.

We've moved beyond just fan mail now to a variety of ways to watch fan engagement, in particular online forums in which fans have heated discussions in which producers can learn a lot. The pitfalls of studying online fan communities have often been espoused, while the benefits are fairly examined, and the pitfalls of other industry measures like surveys and focus groups have not been examined often enough.

Talk to everyone; writers and actors especially. There may be something in a character's history that will work beautifully for you, and who would know better than the actor who has been playing the role?

Engaging with people who know the text well just makes sense.

And finally, promoting from within:

Almost all of our producers worked their way up from staff positions, and that means they know the show.

If fandom is looked at as an attitude, it seems like--especially for a creative position--being a fan of the text one is hired to help steer from an "official" standpoint might just be key.

This afternoon, I just thought that these principles might be an interesting place for C3 readers to look toward to help understand what I feel are some fundamental concepts behind good storytelling in immersive story world spaces.