Thursday, January 01, 2009

The Metastory Trap

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".


Anonymous said...


great post, I think the classic example of how this can ruin a series is the X-Files. As they were making up the meta-story on the run, they were never able to satisfactorily bring the arc and the individual stories together, especially after about season 3 or 4, once the backstory had become both complex and ridiculous.

Personally, I love arcs, the season arcs in Buffy were great, Babylon 5's arc was excellent, but you are quite right about the need to balance arcs with accessibility for new comers. I think though that is now ameliorated by the ease with which you can go back to the start now. 10 years ago, if I came upon a series and I thought this is good, but it's too far in, I just didn't watch it, as it was difficult to actually see the earlier episodes. Now I just go and buy the previous seasons on DVD and catch up.

I came upon your blog recently and as a long-time GM, I find it very interesting in terms of writing stories for roleplaying campaigns.



Anonymous said...

Great post.

The most interesting thing is that this metastory thing seems to be growing stronger. I mean, Buffy and Babylon 5 don't hold a candle to Lost or Heroes in terms of complexity of backstory and amount of "big changes/revelation" every episode.

Unknown said...

I think this is exactly what turned me off of this season of Heroes. Every episode was in service to "utterly changing the world as you know it!" The only payoff is if you followed all of the plot to this point, and if you did... well, everything you knew just turned out to be wrong, so was following the plot really worth it in the first place? Every major "event" or "revelation" that has happened, I found myself going "Even if they're treating this as true now, it won't be in 4 episodes or so."

It's hard to get yourself invested in a story that turns on its ear so regularly, and if every other installment "shakes the world right to its core", then you're going to shake apart the core - that is, the very idea that made the story appealing in the first place.

Anonymous said...

That's the thing about all this "shaking up the status quo" and changing things so they're never the same again-at what point can a status quo even establish itself? You're constantly changing everything, so how the heck can you even establish a long-running storytelling engine if you have to rewrite everything three episodes from now?

Sometimes this leads to long-term changes in the storytelling engine that otherwise undermine what was so appealing about the original concept. I used to be interested in "Buffy the Vampire Slayer", back when Buffy was the lone Slayer struggling against the forces of evil. When they introduced all those 'potential' Slayers, I was extremely annoyed, since I thought they were taking what was special and unique about Buffy and cheapening it by making it available to dozens more people.

If you look at the Season 8 comics now, you have Buffy and the Scooby Gang at the head of a paramilitary organization of literally thousands of Slayers worldwide...not exactly what drew people in in the first place.

Personally, I think the "Spider-Man" technique works best, where the villains hatch schemes that Spider-Man can beat in one to three issues, while Peter Parker's personal life provides an ongoing drama that the readers always have to buy if they want to keep up with. While the major plot ends with the villain webbed up for the police and Spider-Man saving the city yet again, the drama surrounding Peter Parker and his supporting cast are involved in something new every issue. Readers who care about the characters on that level can keep buying to keep up with the metaplot, while other plots are concluded every few issues, and not dragged out ad nauseum.

This type of storytelling can thus satisfy both those who want metaplot and done-in-one stories, and could just as easily apply to Batman or the Green Lantern as Spider-Man. Just because the Joker's latest diabolical scheme has been thwarted doesn't mean that Professor Hugo Strange's long-term plans to seize control of Arkham Asylum from the inside are done, nor is Bruce Wayne spared having to deal with the grief caused by misguided social activists or the unpleasant rumors spread by LexCorp to undermine Wayne Enterprises.

And finally, that anecdote you relate about Mark Millar just confirms why he's such a crappy writer when it comes to dealing with Marvel's established properties, and why his supposedly "groundbreaking" work is dog scat compared to what Tom DeFalco has been doing in the MC2 universe.



Anonymous said...

Great post, John. I think I may need to reference it in an upcoming column. You've taken a red Sharpee and drew a big ol' circle around the main problem with Big Two comic books in the last four or five years, that has chewed up and spat out so many: Ralph & Sue Dibny, Peter Parker and Mary Jane, Ted Kord, Janet Van Dyne, on and on and on...

I can only hope that this metastory trend will burn itself out before much longer.

Anonymous said...

Why is it called Metastory? It doesn't seem very "meta"? Even when you talk about it you seem to add "over-arching" or some other word to really clarify what it means. It's a counterintuitive term. I would've thought metastory was the little stories that made up the over-arching story. Overarching metastory just seems like an oxymoron.

Maybe just call it the "larger narrative" or "arching story?"

Anonymous said...

"Why is it called Metastory?"

The prefix meta- refers to something which is overarcing and/or analyses its subject from a more abstract perspective; it can also refer to something which consciously makes comment upon itself.

For example, meta-ethics is the study of the components and foundations of ethical systems; meta-mathematics is the study of the underlying concepts of mathematics, such as what a number actually is; meta-linguistics is the study of languages and their cultural systems; a meta-language is the language used to discuss other languages; meta-data is data about data non-recursively; a meta-narrative is a story about a story.

(Almost none of the above still use the hyphen, but I include it for clarity about my point.)

To be honest, the correct term is "overstory" not "metastory", but it's not difficult to discern what John had meant.

Anonymous said...

What most people forget is that what made Babylo 5's overacing storyline so effective was that it was character-focused rather than event-focused.

Very few of us watched it so fervently because we wanted to know what would happen next.

We also watched it so intensely because we wanted to know what would happen next TO WHOM and, most importantly, HOW HE OR SHE WOULD REACT TO IT.

The big problem with modern overarcing storylines is that they focus on the event rather than on the characterization, yet in most cases, it is the resulting characterization that involves us and not the event in and of itself.