This is one of those ideas that I've been looking for a place to fit into the "Storytelling Engines" series, as that tends to be where I put my ideas on how writing a long-term, continuing series of stories. But the problem is, it's a relatively recent phenomenon, and most of the books and TV shows and movies I've been writing about don't fall into it very often in the material I'm reading/watching for the columns. (Which isn't the same as "all", and I have touched on the idea in my entries on Buffy, Angel, and Spider-Man.) So I've decided to just devote a quick post to it, which neatly saves me from having to come up with something to write about this week.
Put simply, the metastory trap comes when a long-running series of separate-but-linked stories gets more interested in its metastory than the individual stories that compose it. Put even more simply, you get caught in a metastory trap when you're more worried about your arc than you are about your individual installments. Put even more simply, you're caught in a metastory trap when you write "Countdown to Infinite Crisis". *rimshot*
This is a relatively recent phenomenon, as I said in the opening paragraph, but you can definitely see its roots in Chris Claremont's 80s X-Men comics. As the series went into the 200s and the crossover began to rise in popularity, issues would come out that would have no payoff at all in story terms other than to set up the next crossover. Claremont did a pretty good job of balancing these "arc" issues with stand-alone stories, depending on who you ask (there's still a lot of fan griping about #229-280, a long run with progressively more arc material), but you can see the problem starting to take shape--as the series grew more complex and the plots grew too large to contain in twenty-two pages, the issues became chapters in a book instead of short stories.
But really, the problem didn't explode until after 'Babylon 5' really sold TV fans and writers on the idea of having a series with an over-arching metastory. While each episode of 'Babylon 5' theoretically told a stand-alone story, fans tended to focus on (even obsess about) the moments within each episode that advanced the overall plot of the war with the Shadows. They dissected each episode, looking for clues to Stracynski's "five year plan" and how it all was going to play out...something which was not lost on the creative team, who attended enough cons to notice that people cared more about the arc plot than they did about any given story.
That's the real essence of the metastory trap--once fans start caring more about whether an episode is "important" to the Big Picture than whether or not it's good, it's hard for a writer to keep on an even keel. Reviewers (and not just fans, but professional reviewers) will start dismissing episodes as "inconsequential", and "nothing really changed by the end" becomes an insult. The demand becomes a drumbeat: Every story has to do something big and change the status quo, and big stories that change the status quo are inherently exciting and dramatic.
Once that idea gets into a writer's head (and worse, an editor/showrunner's), there's trouble ahead. Because not all changes to the metastory are good ones, and if you're in a position where you're forcing yourself to make changes to the metastory just to keep audience interest, sooner or later you're going to make a mistake. Example: Xander and Anya's wedding in Season Six of "Buffy". (Spoilers ahead, although if you haven't watched the show after seven years of chances, I don't feel too guilty about telling you now.)
At the end of the episode, Xander left Anya at the altar, and Anya responded by resuming her ways as a vengeance demon. Big, shocker ending, major metastory advancement, and a big twist...except that the writers didn't have any idea where to go with this particular plot point, it flew in the face of the character development of both characters, it left them both without anything to do in the series, and after less than half a season, they reverted Anya to human...then killed her off half a season later when it became clear that she had no role in the series anymore. The obsession with advancing the metastory led the writing team to make a decision they probably wouldn't have made if they weren't feeling that pressure to do something big and shocking.
Likewise, "Civil War" is a good example. Mark Millar said he refused to do a crossover unless it was something as earth-shaking as "Crisis On Infinite Earths". It's telling (if a bit unfair to point out) that he cited "earth-shattering" instead of "good" as his primary criterion for the story's success. It's also telling that many of the consequences of "Civil War" were retconned away or quietly ignored not long afterwards--Spider-Man's secret identity has been re-concealed, registration is rarely enforced in the stories themselves, and apart from a few vague threats to "talk", Thor's taken it remarkably well that one of his oldest friends made a murderous clone of him and unleashed it on his other friends.
DC right now is all about the metastory, both in terms of its readers and its fans. Dan DiDio has been constantly building everything to "the next Crisis", from Identity to Infinite to Final, and that doesn't even count the way that the Sinestro Corps War has built to Rage of the Red Lanterns to The Blackest Night and the way that Batman has built from RIP to Battle for the Cowl. I don't blame DiDio for this, either; when your fans are constantly showing up at conventions, demanding more metastory, more big changes, more "important" stories that "shake up the status quo", what can you really do except bring back everyone who's dead and kill off everyone who's alive every two years, just to keep things moving?
So if the fans like it and the writers like it, why is it a metastory "trap" then? The answer is simple. The existing fans are not the only audience. A series that is all about its metastory rapidly develops a complex, tangled mythos that can obscure the simple, powerful idea at its heart ("A teenage girl fights monsters in a high school that's literally hell", "Intergalactic cops have near-magical weapons to help them fight space crime", "A boy sees his parents gunned down and grows up wanting to fight crime") and turn off new readers/viewers. And given that all existing audiences are subject to attrition (and not just from death or sickness, either--who hasn't cut back their comics buying at least some due to the recession?) ...well, if you're not getting in new people, you'll eventually lose your audience as frustration sets in and the mythos grows too impenetrable for even the die-hard fans to care about. Then the whole thing collapses into a mess, lying dormant for years, even decades until someone cares enough to dust off that central concept at its heart and make it shine again.
Sort of like "Marvel Adventures: Spider-Man".