People, Places & Things
Just Add Dice
It Came from the SlushPile
Bridging Universes: How To Write Crossover Fiction
copyright 1999 Stephen Sobotka
I.) - Introduction : "What if...?"
It's something that can be akin to shaping a clay pot on a wheel. If done just right, with everything prepared well in advance, and if the person shaping it has their eye on the details, the result can be a thing of sheer beauty. Or, if done wrong, it comes out looking misshapen, ugly, and totally unappealing.
I'm speaking of crossover fiction. In the basic terms, a Crossover story is where either one or several characters from one fictional "world" or "universe" are placed into another "world" or "universe" to interact with the characters therein and applies both to professional stories and ones that fall into the realm of "fan-fiction" (stories done by fans).
Crossing two different fiction worlds or universes is nothing really new, if you think about it. When the character Gomer Pyle from "The Andy Griffith Show" was put into his own show called "Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C.", they had at least one episode where Andy Taylor paid Private Pyle a visit on base. This is just one example of where American television has intermingled characters or casts from two shows.
Of course, crossovers can happen within a single show by itself. The British science fiction show, "Dr. Who", is infamous for it's "multiple Doctors" episodes. (for those that don't know, the lead character, The Doctor, is an otherworldly humanoid that can be "reborn" into a new persona when he either dies or is mortally wounded.) One of the more famous of these is "The Five Doctors"; in which five actors who at one time portrayed the Doctor at one time during the many seasons the show was on the air in Britain, got together to stop a menace that was seeking immortality.
But, it's been recently that the fans of several TV shows and movies that have begun an explosion of crossover fiction. Fans of such popular live action shows as "Buffy, The Vampire Slayer", "Highlander, The Series", and even fans of animated cartoons like "Batman: The Animated Series", "Sailor Moon", "Spiderman", and "X-Men" have often asked that all-important question, the one that usually is the genesis of a lot of Crossovers; "What if Character X was introduced to Character Y, in Universe Z?"
It's only been recently that written professionals have started looking at crossovers as a viable format to sell to the public in science fiction. With such books as "Aliens vs. Predator" and "Planet X"; a "Star Trek meets The X-Men" (which, in my opinion, the writer of that book should really read this article!).
Thus, it has been proven that crossovers aren't just for fan-fiction any more. But, the difference between a good crossover and a bad crossover - even for a professional book - is only separated by a thin line. Just as there are several ways to write a straight piece of fiction - and just as many ways to botch it up - the same applies to writing a crossover fiction. And, while I am not the "end-all" expert on writing, I can tell you that there is a formula and method to writing a successful one.
II.) - The Rules for Crossovers : "How To Mix Different Worlds"
If you want to try writing a crossover yourself, take the Boy Scout credo to heart before anything else: Be Prepared.
For starters, as you should be painfully aware by now, I mention that the majority of crossovers fall into the fan-fiction catagory. Writing fan-fiction in general is technically illegal. Just because a story is labeled fan-fiction doesn't mean you're 100% protected. You can get into major trouble with a touchy creator of a particular universe or character if they think you're infringing on their creative license (I state the current "no-fanfic" policy of Spider Robinson as an example.).
If you're just writing the story for fun and enjoyment, and state so with a disclaimer (usually at the beginning of such a tale), most authors or creators can be understanding. Of course, if you do fan-fics only, you run risk of just getting stuck writing them for the rest of your career. My main point about fan-fics has always been: do them in fun, do them to practice, but move on when you're ready to do professional work.
Take note, though. If you're seriously planing to write a crossover as a professionally published piece, I would recommend speaking to the respective licensees that own the two "worlds" you are eyeballing for your opus. But, I'd only recommend doing that after you've written two or three fan stories first.
So, with all that said, let's treat your first crossover as if it will just be a fun story to show you're friends for free. Here's the general rules that you _must_ follow if you want at least a 50-50 chance of making a good story come off right.
A.) Choose one "world" as your Host and the other as your Visitor
It's better to make this choice early on, so that you will have a stage to play on. Some writers have tried "switch backs" - a story that flips back and forth between the two "worlds" (such as between Manhattan and the station Deep Space-9 in a Star Trek/Gargoyles premise, for example), but that can get confusing at times if you're not careful with your settings and POVs. Usually it's best to have the characters act out on one universe, since it's easier to keep track that way.
B.) Make sure you have complete and intimate knowledge of the two "worlds" you will cross over.
One of the biggest mistakes a writer can make is to just plunge ahead and write about something without first researching the subject - or subjects in the case of Crossovers - and learning everything they can about the "cannon" universe their story will be based on. For example, you can write that Superman isn't weakened by kryptonite, or that J.Jonah Jameson is Spiderman's greatest supporter (unless you want to try alternate universe writing, but let's stick to the subject at hand).
In short, go to the sources available, and learn everything that happens during the course of the show; every event from major to minor. Also, learn what is and what isn't possible in it. This is important so that you know how a character from one universe will react to something in another one.
C.) Understand how all the different characters "operate".
For example, the character of Henry "Hank" McCoy from "The X-Men" just wouldn't be the ever-lovin' Beast if he didn't say "Oh, my stars and garters!". On the same foot, you just wouldn't expect Goliath from "Gargoyles" to suddenly start belting out "My Achy Breaky Heart", would you? Or would you... stranger things have come from alternate fan-fics...
Every character in a show, movie, book or play has a set way they "operate"; how they speak, act, move, reason, and think. A writer must make sure that "cannon" characters do not deviate too far from these settings, or else they run a big risk of becoming a pale shadow of the original.
On the matter of speaking, characters also have a "meter" of speech. Just as Captain Kirk had a distinct way of talking, so do Spiderman, Batman, Goliath, Brooklyn, Ripley, Robocop or any one character you chose. If you want to maintain a believable portrayal in your writing, and if the source is available (i.e. - a movie or video, or an audio tape), listen to how a character speaks, moves, etc., and you should make an easier transition of that character to the written page. After all, even though this is fan-writing, one of the underlying elements is to bring it as _close_ to the original as possible.
D.) Come up with a plausible way for the "crossing over" to occur.
This is somewhat limited, due to the fact that many stories are very, very different and so set apart from each other. But, if a writer puts their mind to it, they can come up with a plausible cause for a character/cast to make the bridge from one universe to another.
For example, "Gargoyles" is somewhat unique in this aspect, since it has a couple of tailor-made devices for crossover stories. For starters, the skiff and the Mists of Avalon that gave Elisa, Angela, Goliath, and Bronx so much trouble can deposit them in several locations around the world, which can allow them to meet many other universes.. The second is the fact that several of the characters from the show - Oberon, Titania, Puck, etc. - can use magic to do the bridging of one universe to the Gargoyles-universe.
But, an element of originality is a partial requisite for your own "bridge". While it is okay for you to use a method already explored in someone else's story, using the same method over a period of several stories of your own will become boring after a fashion. Always try finding a new twist on things.
E.) Understand the technology levels and how they operate, and how other characters will react to them.
It pains me to see a story where someone has a character from Universe-A "beam" in, and a character from Universe-Z doesn't react in the way they should (Omigod! That person just APPEARED from nowhere!).
This illustrates what I stressed in Rule B, but on a more particular level. If you cross two universes where one has a markedly higher technology level than the other, you should make certain the one set reacts accordingly to its use and appearance. After all, Fred Flintstone wouldn't know how to use a Star Trek tricorder, much less recognize one, so you can't expect him to pick one up and use it on Julian Bashir.
And on that note, don't fall into the trap that "oh, I can have the others know how it works.". I site the scene from "Star Trek 4", where Scotty had trouble operating the Macintosh computer, then, when told to use the keyboard, he made it dance like the computers on the Enterprise. Yes, that was funny, but I seriously doubt they had training classes in MacOS in the 24th Century!
In short, know what technology is available to each set of characters, and make sure they react and interact with it accordingly. One of the prime examples of a technological faux-paw was in a "Aliens/DS9" Crossover I read recently; three Colonial Marines onboard a crippled shuttle were beamed over onto Deep-Space 9, but all three were infested by one of the Xenomorph aliens; something the writer wrote down as being totally undetectable by the bio-filters in the station's transporters. Now, if the bio-filters can detect a Trill symbiote (which they did when fans were first introduced to the Trill in an episode of ST:TNG) they most surely could and would detect the Xenomorphs as well. (of course, this is just my point of view and reasoning...).
Of course, you can make the technology differences work for you. In a comedy crossover, If one character from one universe is a super-genius with machines, and how they work, they can try to repair a vehicle that the other characters in the "host" universe drive, with either comic or tragic results. (Gee, sorry Commander Riker! I guess that shuttle is due for an overhaul!)
F.) Set the style of your story.
There are a lot of serious, drama oriented Crossovers out there, especially since a lot of the shows popular today have a moody, dramatic theme in them. But, when you give it a try, consider using a different style. Some writer's have deliberately tried a comedy theme in their stories (as recently with a Gargoyles/South Park story I heard about). The point here is to be creative. Try a romance theme (easy to do), or a even a musical theme (how is that for originality).
Even try a genre addition: cross Gargoyles with Wild West Cowboys of Moo Mesa for a western. Or Swat Kats with Black Sheep Squadron for a war epic. The possibilities are endless.
F.) Only undertake radical changes in either universe with caution.
It's been said before, but writers exercise near "god-like" powers when they create a story. You can do literally anything to the characters or the universe. This situation is more often a double-edged affair where crossover stories are concerned. I've often seen in a lot of crossovers that a writer is given into the temptation to make a radical change that will alter that universe, where they wanted to and a little twist to the story.
While a little twist is good, making such an earth-shattering change as one of these:
Or any other number if things along these lines might not be the best way to do your story. Again, some people have done this, and pulled it off with minimum damage, BUT, I only recommend the best of writer's ever do this.
For example; one could do a Gargoyles/TMNT story, and have Raphael fall in love with Elisa Maza, and then have him decide to stay in the Gargoyles universe, while the other Turtles return to their world. This changes the basic make-up of future stories to follow. After all, what can the writer say how Donatello, Leonardo, and Michalangelo will adapt without Raphael? And what will Elisa say to her parents when she comes home with a talking mutant turtle as a love interest? (Note this is all speculation, and not cannon!)
A side affect of this sort of change is that the writer will either gain loyal readership (people just love to ask the question 'What happens next?') or, the writer of such a story will earn the wrath of both fandoms, who will gladly hang them by their ears for butchering the 'cannon' characters in such a manner.
While some people have undertaken great changes in the universes they have intermixed - and yes, have made them work - be cautioned before attempting the same yourself. Ask yourself this question: Am I just doing this change to add "shock" value to my story? Or, am I really doing this to add a twist to my story?
G.) Try to tie things up by the end of the story.
While writing on-going series is good, crossovers add double trouble as continuing stories because you have to deal with two different universes - each with their own styles - and trying to keep the story going isn't easy. After a while, it's possible to end up with a muddled, hodgepodge splinter of the two original universes, one that will not be easily recognizable by either fan-set. The best crossovers, in my opinion, are ones that last for just one story (be it a single or a short multiparter).
By the end of the story, the characters from the "visiting" universe should have found a way back home, leaving the "host" universe in relative peace... unless you plan a sequel sometime down the road
III.) Tips for the Beginner : "What's the Best Way to Start?"
So, now that you know some of the rules to Crossover Writing, and you still want to give it a try? Okay, you're just about ready to begin, but there are some other things to keep in mind aside from the rules above. As for anyone starting out to write a crossover story, you should remember:
A.) The best writers are the biggest fans of a show.
Read any crossover story posted to the web, and it's plain to see who the real fans are, just by how good the stories are. It's so true. I am not a big fan of South Park, so I could never do a good story about that show. But, I am a fan of such shows as Transformers, Deep Space Nine, etc., and if you were to read from my previous stories, it's obvious to see that I am a big fan of Swat Kats, Disney's Gummi Bears, Pirates of Dark Water, and more.
A fan would know (in theory) how to make the characters sound and act believable in print. Therefore, if you are a fan of "Night Man", or "Hercules" (Either Disney's or the Kevin Sorbo one), try beginning with them. Otherwise, you're going to need to do a LOT of research to get to know a show you're not a fan of. (See rules II-B and II-C above)
B.) Get your inspiration from different sources.
Don't just rely on TV shows and Movies for your crossovers; books can also give you rich universes to play with. A prime example was a "Gargoyles/Chronicles of Narnia" crossover written some time ago; it blended the two universes together very well, and was done in the best C.S. Lewis style of writing.
While mostly science-fiction and fantasy prose will be the best fits in crossovers, you could try classics like "Tarzan", "Sherlock Holmes", or "Huck Finn" in a crossover. The possibilities are endless!
C.) Never attempt to write an epic off the bat, but write a good story.
Before you start working on that 100-page adventure, try sharpening your skills by writing shorter stories first: at least 1000 to 4,000 words, or 5 to 10 pages in length to start. One young fellow I know, who lives on Prince Edward Island near Newfoundland, writes novella and novel-length fan-fiction, but his case is the exception. Generally, one does not run a marathon when they take up running as a sport, right?
Also remember to write STORIES, not just a string of scenes. Stories have a definite beginning, middle, and ending. One of the main snerks in beginners starting to write is that they string a series of sentences, paragraphs, or scenes together, but with no defined plot or direction at all. Always work out how your story begins, proceeds, and ends before you start with that first sentence.
D.) Know how to write.
It's one thing to have the enthusiasm to write something, but without the basic knowledge on how to write, anything you produce will come out like a stonecutter that doesn't know how to handle a hammer and chisel. You'll end up with one big mess! All of the stuff you hated to learn in English class is going to be necessary when you write. One of the key things to do is to drag out those old Composition books and go back over the basics. Consider it a refresher for your benefit.
Also, consider getting a copy of a very valuable handbook, "The Elements of Style" (by William Strunk Jr. & E. B. White - ISBN 0-205-30902-X). It will help you to overcome some very common mistakes made by beginners, and serve to sharpen and tighten your writing focus and form. This is something I recommend for anyone considering writing, be it fan-fic, hobby, or professional.
D.) Get someone to be a proofreader/editor, and make sure it's not a close friend.
The trick here is to get an unbiased critique of your work. A close friend will try to always tell you that you did good so as not to hurt your feelings. Someone that doesn't know you that well will give you an honest opinion on whether the story flies or sinks. Double-effectiveness if this person is a writer or an editor too, but watch out! Most professionals will usually charge a fee for such services, unless they're being awfully nice and offer to do it for free or for a reduced price.
E.) Practice, Practice, Practice!
Don't write one draft and leave it at that. Go over it and make changes or additions. Or, start on a new story. As such as when a Dancer gets better with practice, the same applies to a writer as well. The more you write, the more comfortable you will get at your craft, and that will show your professionalism and talent as time goes on.
IV.) In Closing...
As I stated at the beginning, crossover stories are either things of beauty or objects of pure drek. Quite possibly, the most difficult to write out of any story type in the world of literature. It amounts to a double headache for even experienced writers: keeping track of two universes, multiple characters, situations, actions and reactions.
But, when all of the pieces fall into place, a crossover stands hand and fist over just a straight-single universe story. It doesn't take a lot of thought to come up with a premise for one, but the true test comes from the writer's drive and talent, and yes, and their love of the two "worlds" to bring them into a seamless combination.
To those that scoff at crossovers, I hope this little insight to the mechanics of making a Crossover story gives you a better appreciation of them. To those that relish crossovers, I hop this inspires you to try writing one. I feel at least every writer should try to write at least one crossover story in their career, just to sink their teeth (so to speak) into the process just to see why they can be so fulfilling.
True crossover writers are a special breed among writers. We take one so much, to produce a story that stands out from all the rest in creativity and talent. As a writer of crossovers, I get the greatest satisfaction knowing that I have managed to entertain someone with the result of my labors.
Plus, I am just lucky I have made a few clay pots in my time.
I'd like to make a comment about this article.
This page has been visited times.