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Scattered thoughts on extremely long (or wide) stories

Over the years, various writing buddies and I have dreamed of creating massive stories set in a massive shared world—a collaboratively designed fantasy setting with thousands of years of history, with the theory being that any of us writers could pick any place and time within the world and write anything from a short story to a full length series or serial, and over time we’d build up a huge library of works within this one universe. (And with the further idea that, if a reader liked one of those stories, they’d probably want to read the rest, and we’d thereby all be supporting each other’s audience growth.)

Most of those ideas never panned out, but I’m still deeply fascinated by the idea of “massive storytelling.” Both in terms of length (a series with a single throughline, with dozens of novels worth of entries, or millions of words worth of content, from beginning to end); and in terms of width (a series with multiple parallel throughlines, like a shared universe with many entries, or a series with such a huge cast of characters that in practice it may as well have multiple parallel throughlines).

I’ve been trying to gather my thoughts on “massive storytelling” for a while now. What makes one “massive” series successful over another? What causes a massive series to die out? What qualities can a massive series have that will contribute or detract from its literary success? Or, as a separate question entirely, its commercial success?

Let’s look at some examples and try to figure these things out.

The Marvel Cinematic Universe

Ah, the MCU. An experiment in storytelling that was simultaneously so bold and so successful, that it tricked multiple competing movie studios into trying to launch their own cash grab cinematic universes—nearly all of which crashed and burned almost immediately.

What were they thinking

What made the MCU so special compared to its competition? For one thing, it had a clear vision and direction from the very beginning. The first MCU movie, 2008’s Iron Man, kicked off the series-wide trend of post-credits scenes that tease or set up future movies/plotlines in the series. And what plotline was teased in that first post-credits scene? The possibility of the Avengers—a superhero team-up, the likes of which had never appeared in live action movies before.

A good movie, immediately followed by the tease of “this is the direction we’re going—are you coming along for the ride?”

The next few movies in Phase 1 introduced the other characters for the first Avengers movie, and their post-credits scenes variously tease the eventual team-up or just whoever was going to be introduced next. Then we finally get 2012’s The Avengers, which teases a much longer-term direction for the series: the villain Thanos.

It was a steady loop of “character introduction → tease of the upcoming big thing.” And once it built up enough audience goodwill that it was committed to following through, it switched up the formula: “the big thing, finally → tease of an even bigger, even more distant thing.”

It seriously cannot be overstated how much audience goodwill was earned by those two seconds of Thanos at the end of The Avengers. Two measly seconds of CGI and it probably earned them collective billions of dollars. Would the MCU have been as big if those two seconds didn’t happen? I don’t think so.

With Phases 2 and 3, the MCU got into a comfortable groove. A good mix of sequels to build on the characters already established, plus occasional movies about new characters, plus occasional further teases about Thanos or the “Infinity Stones”—which everyone knew was where the overall storyline was leading, because it was clearly gearing up to adapt the famous Infinity Gauntlet storyline from the comics. Which it did, over a decade after Iron Man first came out, with Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame.

And it worked! Avengers: Endgame, the big finale they had been building toward for ten whole years, across 20+ movies, went on to become a massive cultural phenomenon and the highest grossing movie of all time (which isn’t as impressive if you consider inflation, but goes back to being impressive if you consider the fragmentation of the media landscape compared to any prior decade).

As a fan of the MCU in general, Avengers: Endgame was an extremely satisfying and cathartic movie watching experience. So many years of build up, and here was the payoff, and it stuck the landing. It wrapped everything up so well that, honestly, I would have been content to quit the MCU completely at that point—it was that much of a high point and that good of a stopping point.

But now that the next few movies (and TV series!) of Phase 4 were being revealed, I stuck around. The showrunners of the MCU had proven themselves more than capable at this point; I was curious to see what major storyline they were going to build up to next. And how soon would they begin teasing it?

And so I watched and waited, skipping a few movies I just wasn’t interested in. (Before then, I had (eventually) seen every movie in the mega-series.) The TV shows were good, for the most part, though I wondered why they introduced characters or plotlines that I knew they wouldn’t return to for many years, if ever.

The cracks were starting to form. There were Chekhov’s Guns that I was suddenly doubting would ever be fired. The MCU was finally going too wide for its own good.

Neither Phase 4 nor 5 has an Avengers movie, or any other big event movie that the others had been building up to. The series just keeps widening, without any of those event movies to squeeze it all back together. On its own, this change of pace doesn’t inherently mean the series has lost its way. But taken with everything else—the decreased audience enthusiasm, the lack of overarching narrative direction*, the breakdown in their ability to give us timely follow-ups… (Is there going to be a Shang-Chi 2? Is the character Shang-Chi a member of the Avengers? Is anyone right now? Where is the series heading at all? I don’t know anymore, and I no longer want to be along for the ride.

Stories with Infinite Length

It’s interesting that the point at which I gave up on the MCU was the moment it started to feel like an endlessly expanding grind. So, here’s a conclusion I can make about Massive Storytelling Theory:

There’s a maximum effective width for good storytelling.

A boring and maybe obvious conclusion, but a conclusion nonetheless. And it raises an obvious question: does the same concept hold true for story length as opposed to width?

We don’t even need to delve too far away from the MCU to begin exploring this question, because the superhero comics that the MCU was based on are exactly this kind of endlessly long story.

Superhero comics whose storylines have been running for decades, soap operas that have been airing for decades… There are actually a lot of massively long stories out there, both in very niche and very mainstream places. Unfortunately, I have very little personal reading experience with those kinds of comic series, and zero experience at all with soap operas, so I don’t know how much I’ll be able to analyze these buckets.

When it comes to the superhero comics, the Marvels and the DCs, I know that the storylines technically aren’t endless. Every decade or two, they’d reboot their universes with big event storylines. (Sometimes literally, as far as I understand, with the in-universe universe being destroyed and/or recreated. Or something. Idk comics are wacky.)

And I know that one of the motivations for those reboots is to trim down on the story complexity that builds up since the previous reboot, and to give new readers an easy place to join in. Which certainly implies that there’s a maximum effective length for… commercial storytelling, at least.

But do the daytime soap operas ever reboot their universes in that way? I don’t know, but I’m guessing not. But I wouldn’t be surprised if they slowly and silently drop old plotlines and hope the audience eventually forgets about them. Actually, that’s what happened in the Pokémon anime with the GS Ball plotline way back in the era of Pokémon Gold/Silver.

And on that note, the Pokémon anime is also a good example of this kind of absurdly long story. It went on with the same characters for 25 years, but it regularly rebooted itself every 3 or so years, so that’s another point in favor of “reboots are probably necessary”…

Let’s pivot to another media mega-franchise: Star Wars. Specifically, the Disney canon—Episode 7 and beyond. Star Wars for a new generation, with a new set of main characters (but with the old main characters still there in various levels of prominence).

When Episode 8 released to utterly scathing and polarizing reviews, I was so extremely intrigued by the volume and polarity of the discourse. Half of die-hard Star Wars fans seemed to absolutely hate it, and half seemed to completely love it. I’m only a casual Star Wars fan, so I was really curious which side of the ‘debate’ I would fall on.

So I went down to my local theater and watched it one night, and… it killed my interest in Star Wars, because it made the series feel like it was suddenly an endlessly long saga where nothing mattered because the Galaxy Far Far Away would always be at war with itself, even if the names of the sides change, and it would just be going in circles forever.

That’s not what the die-hard fans were so upset about. They were upset about things like character assassinations, about unsatisfying answers to mysteries introduced in the previous movie, about plot turns that they thought were dumb and bad.

Meanwhile, I was sitting there in the theater at the end thinking something like, “Man. Why did that feel like a filler episode? There were major character deaths! Things progressed! So why does it feel like the start of an endlessly turning wheel?” Was it because the movie didn’t end in an outright cliffhanger, the way the other two trilogies’ middle movies did? Or was it because, in a more general sense, the movie didn’t leave the viewer with any clear sense in what direction it was building toward? The MCU Phase 4 problem all over again.

And then Episode 9 went and proved me right with my assessment, because it had to go and force the Sequel Trilogy into a trilogy-ending direction in an embarrassingly fast and crude way. (AKA “Somehow, Palpatine returned.”)


Star Wars is, obviously, nowhere near as long as the actual “endlessly long” examples I brought up. But still, I think there’s something to my reaction to Episode 8. Maybe it’s the fact that, after Episode 7 reset the status quo to “the galaxy is at war again, but don’t ask too many details about how we got to this point, because we don’t know either. And then where fans were expecting answers to the question of “… so how did the political situation get to that point?”, Episode 8 only cared to say “we still don’t know, and in fact it doesn’t matter!”

Quite the change from the previous standard the series had set, in which we literally got a prequel trilogy about the backstory to the galactic civil war.

Direction and meaning. That’s what was lost in the Disney era of Star Wars movies. We no longer knew where we were going, and possibly worse, we no longer knew why we were where we were in the first place. These, I feel, speak to the heart of Massive Storytelling Theory:

There’s no maximum length for good storytelling, as long as the story is still meaningful.

A long story has more chances to betray its audience and stop being what the audience liked about it.

I should probably mention One Piece, since it’s very topical lol

I’m still watching it. Only another 398,876 years to go!

Okay, now on a more serious note.

My ingenious plan to specifically not binge One Piece was a catastrophic failure. The first weekend after I wrote that post, I just hunkered down and slammed through an entire arc or two. And then I kept going at full speed until I reached the arc after Marineford, and then I slowed down drastically, and now it’s been about half a week since I’ve watched an episode. I think that’s okay. I reached a good point to put it down and let it simmer for a while.

In fact, I reached maybe too good of a stopping point: (SLIGHT SPOILERS AHEAD, JUST THE SLIGHTEST OF SPOILERS. FEEL FREE TO SKIP TO THE NEXT SECTION. KEEP READING AT YOUR OWN PERIL. I’LL PUT A SPOILER WARNING FOR THIS BECAUSE I DON’T THINK ONE PIECE IS AS MAINSTREAM AS THINGS LIKE THE MCU OR STAR WARS.) A timeskip. Man, do those really take me out of a story. Especially in long stories that, before the big skip, had never really skipped around before.

That’s a noteworthy difference, I think. In a story that establishes itself early on as one that skips around as a matter of course, I think a bigger timeskip would be much easier to swallow. Or hey, if a timeskip happened between entries in a saga. Like a novel series where a year or two takes place between every book. Those are objectively all timeskips, but I suddenly realize I rarely if ever think of them as such.

Why is it so difficult for me to swallow mid-story timeskips? Is that just a ‘me’ thing, or is it something that bothers other readers/viewers/etc as well? Can I even think of any books I’ve read, or TV shows I’ve seen, in which there was a mid-story timeskip and I liked it? Okay, I need to pause this essay for a minute and reference my list of books I’ve read.

Oh. There… haven’t really even been any mid-story one-off timeskips within the media in my tracking spreadsheet. Now I’m even more curious. Are they actually just that rare as a narrative device? Have I somehow been instinctively avoiding them all this time? Do authors avoid writing them because they’re generally (slightly) frowned upon?

Can I even conclude anything here, beyond “I usually don’t like mid-story one-off timeskips, because they’re an unexpected and significant change of pace”? I think if any part of that is important, it’s the “change of pace” part. I don’t mean in the literal pacing of the story (although that’s important here too); I mean the change of content matter. Like how Star Wars leaped from “in depth detail about the political situation of the galaxy” to “um uhh there’s good guys and bad guys.” A one-off timeskip potentially means a story goes from “the Main Characters™ are doing Main Character Things™ every single day” to “ok the MC is taking a break now, and so is the rest of the world, but if it isn’t, you won’t be able to recognize it by the time the MC wakes up from their nap.”

I’m rambling. That means it’s time to move on.

The Other Dimension: Depth

Halfway through writing this post, I realized Massive Storytelling has a third pillar, separate from length and width: depth. The ability for a story to inspire deep discussion and analysis and theorizing and interpretation. Think about TV shows like Lost, or webcomics like Homestuck, or novel series like The Dresden Files.

Lost is old now, but back when it was in its prime, it generated SO MUCH online discussion EVERY SINGLE WEEK thanks to its lore-driven and mysterious nature. It was incredible. I only watched and caught up in it when it was in season 5 (out of 6), arguably when it was already past its prime, but even then—the hours after it aired, reading the whirlwind of fan theories every week… Those were some great times.

The Dresden Files is, on the whole, probably the best example of Massive Storytelling that I know of. There are currently 17 books in the series, with a further 8 planned. And maybe I didn’t read the series closely enough, but I’m continuously astounded by how much speculation the series gets in online discussion. The books have so many factions, with secret alliances and secret character motivations, and readers leave no stone unturned in their analyses. It has seriously made me want to reread the entire series with an eye for all the subtext and hints that flew under my nose the first time around.

There’s also a slight bit of width with The Dresden Files as well. There are two anthologies of short stories, along with a handful of “microfictions” that the author puts online, and a novella. And they’re all canon, and they all contribute to the lore and character development of the series—which can be bothersome at times. Once or twice, a side character has shown up again in a main novel after a long absence, but significantly changed since their last appearance. “What happened to them?” a curious reader asks. And a legion of fans surface from the depths to say, “It’s explained in one of the short stories!”

That’s the downside of width in a not-width-first series. The MCU had to deal with it too, but at least that width was all known up front and pretty obvious. (For the first few phases, at least.)

Depth is by far my favorite dimension when it comes to stories. I’m a little frustrated with myself that it took me so long to think of it in the context of Massive Stories. Unfortunately, I don’t have anything truly insightful on this front to add to my growing Theory, so I’ll just leave you with this indisputable fact:

Deep stories are rad as hell.


  1. joimassat

    I knew the MCU was adding on a lotta lotta projects (each one cared about by fewer and fewer niche-people), but I never devoted enough thought to it to realize, “Hey, if they just had a specific endgoal again besides ‘uh, we’ll figure out the new villain later,’ it might have turned out better.” But when there are this many splintering projects with no focus, there is no longer a single focal point, there is no one event or one global standard for what an MCU event is. (I stole this thesis from Rhystic Studies.)

    I THINK (though if I remember more, I may remind myself otherwise) that I was never too fascinated by massive stories. Well…Pokemon…but that’s not a single story or even a single universe, but by multiple very similar and loosely connected universes, unified above all by their cool munsters, and by their steamroller-force marketing. And Homestuck, I’ll give ya that–the infinite unfolding flower of fanfiction which, because of the story’s own multiple universes and timelines and shenanigans, all felt strangely more likely than they would for so many other stories.

    But I wonder if it’s not the scope of the story/series so much as a single narrative that becomes iconic, that has variants. Homestuck being about four kids playing a game, and then it spins out of control, and all the fans picking up those same plot beats and/or those same characters and remixing them time after time. Neon Genesis Evangelion starting and restarting and spin-offing and laughing at itself. I’ve never played it, but I’m POSITIVE Undertale hits the same notes–by having different “runs” it certainly encourages people to think in terms of alternate pathways and made the initial template of the story iconic. And maybe something in the Fate series-es goes here?

    Anyway, back more on the subject:

    – I loved Star Wars 8 because (TONGUE-IN-CHEEK SPOILER) in the last two minutes, it taught us that even cheerful shoeshine boys will become Jedi someday, and just in time for the next movie! But then that never happened. So you could say the first few minutes of Episode 9 killed my interest in Star Wars, but not because of Palpatine. (Though that was truly awful.)

    – Does it count as a timeskip if it routinely happens between movies, or is that just, like…normal storytelling for movie sequels? Wait, nope, that’s definitely just normal. Whether we can still call the gap between Ep.s 4-5 and 5-6 of Star Wars “timeskips,” though, is another story. Can’t say that about 7-8, though. I remember the gap between 5 and 6 irritating me because I felt I didn’t get a sense of what made Luke evil now besides him wearing a black sweater. And anyone named Jeff could do that.

    – From my perspective, the main place people talk about timeskips (in fact, maybe this is where we get the term) is in anime and manga fandoms. And I think it mainly comes down to two stories: Dragon Ball and Naruto. I think these have got to be the most famous examples of mid-story one-time-only timeskips, despite how they kinda rebranded. I haven’t read much Dragon Ball, so I can’t speak to that, but one thing that makes Naruto’s timeskip cool, and makes it make more sense in the story, is the fact that the story always centered Naruto’s personal coming-of-age. So when he kinda grows up, it’s fulfilling, and on that other level, it “makes sense.” In the story you mentioned, I’m assuming it…comes out of nowhere like, “Alright, this is a cool thing we can do now which gives us an excuse to give our cast cool new powers!” And I know for a fact that story isn’t about the MC’s maturity except occasionally when it feels like it. (fuck off with this “im your brother” shit YOU WERENT EVEN IN CHAPTER ONE note i havent read marineford : ) )

    JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure is another great example of a manga with famous timeskips, though of course it’s multiple ones. That story is also very much about maturity, in the form of family and lineages that actually link up from skip to skip. It also timeskips early and often, so it never actually comes out of nowhere.

    So my new running theory is: your one-off timeskip may have a chance in hell if your story is partly a coming-of-age tale or a family saga. I guess THAT’S why the star wars.

    – We can all be deepsters : )

    • jpirnat

      You know, I think Star Wars 7-8 was the *first* time there wasn’t really a timeskip between Star Wars movies. The others all have decades, years, or at least months. And then the jump from 7-8 is… hours? A single day maybe? A short enough gap that, when watching the movie, my reaction was: “Oh, we’re still over there? Nothing happened yet? Huh?”

      In a maybe-too-broad and maybe-too-meta sense, I’m starting to realize that all these series and sagas that eventually grew in ways I didn’t like, the thing that turned me off about them was how they suddenly broke their established formulas. A series without timeskips suddenly has one big timeskip. A series with regular timeskips suddenly DOESN’T have one. MCU? A series with an established width suddenly says “actually now we’re a lot wider, and it’s not leading to anything.”

      Another example from a not-very-massive story: the TV show Heroes. Season 1 was tightly written, with clear memetic objectives (“Save the cheerleader, save the world.”) The pilot episode itself teased the overall plot of the season! The prophetic vision guy had a prophetic vision of NYC being destroyed, then the entire season was about stopping that from happening.

      Everyone trash talks Heroes season 2 for being bad because of the ’07-’08 writers strike, but long before that happened, S2E1 made the cardinal mistake of *not establishing the stakes for the overall season*. Even as a kid, I knew that the writers were dropping the ball.

  2. Jane

    I think I’m kinda anti-wideness, it makes it feel overwhelming if you want to get really into the series/universe and possibly confusing.

    Although I like the SCP Foundation and Discworld, and those are both pretty wide, so maybe there’s some other factor.

    • jpirnat

      I feel this a lot. Wideness has prevented me from getting into a bunch of things (including SCP). If I ever have to ask “Where do I even begin???”, or if I have to look up the fan-recommended reading order, the prognosis isn’t good.

      Discworld I tried *really* hard to get into, but after forcing myself through 11 books and still not connecting with it enough, I accepted that it isn’t for me. Which stinks, because I’d love to love it the way other people do!

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