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On Saturday night, my brother Richard and I were having a slightly tipsy discussion about Star Wars. Over time, I’ve grown to enjoy The Last Jedi more, but my brother continues to dislike it and finds a lot of the plot unbelievable. While I was trying to explain, he asked, “Where was that established?” When I told him it was in a Star Wars EU book I’d read, he sighed and said, “But it wasn’t in the movie. You shouldn’t have to read fifteen books or watch twenty films in order to understand why something is happening in this movie.”
While I think he’s still a little too harsh on Star Wars for this failing, he does have a point. As big franchises grow bigger and media becomes even more interconnected, the amount of supplemental material continues to grow… and it isn’t always clear what is supplemental and what is actually necessary in order to understand or appreciate the story. While it’s nice to have a story or characters enriched, and it’s interesting to hear what someone intended or was going for in a commentary or interview, when you leave key pieces of plot, character, and/or motivation to be explained or even addressed in a side comic, you may have a problem.
The fact is, we as readers and viewers have been spoiled by all of this supplemental material. And I’m afraid it may have an impact on the stories we write and how we construct them. After all, if you’re sure that something will be addressed later in an encyclopedia or short story compilation, it can be easy to forget to establish it at all. That may not be a problem if it’s a side character, but if it directly impacts a major plot point or character arc, then the resolution can seem to come out of left field. Conversely, we can get too detailed if we have too much material to squeeze in or don’t know what to focus on, creating a jumbled mess rather than a streamlined story. We can’t assume that everyone is going to be a die-hard, balls-to-the-wall, completionist type of fan. It’s (usually) fun to find out more about a fictional universe you enjoy, and I’m not against the presence of supplemental material. But there is a Dark Side to the entire affair that I think creators and their audience should be aware of.
Over the course of the next few weeks, I want to address in more detail some main problems with being spoiled by supplemental material including a few (possibly overlapping) case studies:
Issue 1: The Research Trap: How much is too much?
Case study: The Earth’s Children historical fiction series by Jean M. Auel
Issue 2: Incomplete/Muddled Multimedia Story-Telling: Where and how can we access the story?
Case study #1: Star Wars and its sprawling Expanded Universe
Case study #2: Doctor Who and its numerous, often not-well-advertised “specials”
Issue 3: Overlapping & Long-Running stories: Where’s the entry point?
Case study: Marvel, specifically the MCU, but especially long-running comics and shows in general
Issue 4: When Canon and Commentary Collide: What is “part of the story”?
Case study: J.K. Rowling and the Sexuality of Dumbledore (among other misadventures in possible retconning)
I hope you’ll share your thoughts on supplemental material, both the pros and the cons, in the comments throughout this blog series!