Few things are hotter these days than the extended universe model of storytelling. With the advent of the Marvel Cinematic Universe – and the wild box office success of movies like the Avengers – it seems like every studio in Hollywood is scrambling to establish their own “extended universe.” But what, exactly, defines an extended universe? Is it just a fancy name for a series of movies, or are there additional qualifications? Where did Marvel get the idea, and what aspects are worth being stolen by the competition? This brand new multi-installment column, Other Worlds Than These, will provide the answer to all these questions and more. First, let’s take a look at some of the literary antecedents that helped build the foundation for the extended universes of today.
Derived from the Chickasaw words “Yocona” and “petopha,” meaning “split land,” Yoknapatawpha County was William Faulkner’s setting for the vast majority of his books, beginning with the 1929 novel Sartoris. Based on Lafayette County, Mississippi, where Faulkner spent most of his life, Yoknapatawpha County provides the connective tissue for Faulkner’s early version of the extended universe.
By choosing a fictional county in which to set his books, Faulkner created his own world, and a cohesive foundation on which to place subsequent stories. Before long, Yoknapatawpha County had become a vibrant location with its own rich history. Landmarks and geography were gradually established, adding verisimilitude to the setting. Before long, the reader has become familiar with the County, thus breathing life into a novel set there.
In addition to establishing a more textured setting, Faulkner’s extended universe allowed him to create more believable and lifelike characters. For instance, a character might only appear briefly in one novel, but then reappear as a protagonist in a later book. In a similar vein, by establishing several different family dynasties in Jefferson – the city that serves as the seat of Faulkner’s County – the reader begins to gain an intrinsic understanding of new characters with particular surnames.
All of these elements aggregate to create a location and characters that possess exceptional depth in the mind of the reader. Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County, and the citizens that live there, are amplified by the use of a cohesive setting.
The Many Levels of the Dark Tower
Faulkner wasn’t the only America writer who was experimenting with extended universes long before Robert Downey Jr. donned the Iron Man suit. Although Stephen King may be a household name, only Constant Readers will realize the majority of his novels are connected, forming a sprawling extended universe that spans dozens of novels. At the center of this universe, both literally and figuratively, is the Dark Tower.
The Dark Tower series is comprised of eight novels that tell the tale of the gunslinger Roland’s quest for the Dark Tower, the mythical and mysterious tower that sits at the center of all universes. Through the narrative, the reader learns the structure of King’s extended universe: each of the infinite parallel worlds which exist within King’s multiverse are represented by a different level of the Dark Tower.
With this mechanism in place, King is able to exploit his extended universe to a number of different ends. First and perhaps most frequently, King uses geography to connect his stories – as many of his novels take place in one of King’s own fictional cities, such as Derry or Castle Rock. Eventually, readers become familiar with the landmarks in these cities, thus allowing for winking nods to other narratives. However, as might be expected from the master of horror, many of the connections are accomplished through the villains: the distantly removed actions of the dreaded Crimson King often result in far-flung fallout; the sinister machinations of the Low Men in Yellow Jackets destroy the lives of innocent bystanders; and King’s best villain, Randall Flagg, gleefully skips from one narrative to another, wrecking havoc across several floors of the Tower.
By creating (and explaining) a cohesive structure for his extended universe, King not only offers a more rewarding experience for the Constant Reader, he also amps up the horrific nature of his supernatural monsters by allowing them to pierce one reality and travel into another.
What Makes the Universe?
All right, so why should these bodies of work be considered an extended universe? What differentiates that from a plain-old series?
King’s Dark Tower Universe provides an excellent case study. As discussed above, King’s Dark Tower Series is comprised of eight books, which follow Roland as he undertakes his quest for the Dark Tower. However, the Dark Tower Universe includes more than just the eight books in the Dark Tower Series – over thirty of King’s novels and stories are connected to one degree or another. While all of these books are included with the Dark Tower Universe, only the eight that are part of Roland’s narrative form a series.
Likewise, while the books in Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha Cycle may all exist within the same metanarrative, there are only a select few which may fairly be classified as sequential – for example, the Snopes trilogy forms a clear and contained narrative within the Cycle, just as the Tower forms a contained narrative within King’s DTU. However, the bulk of Faulkner’s Cycle doesn’t continue a story started in another book, and may not even feature common characters. Nevertheless, all of the books in the Yoknapatawpha Cycle take place within the same literary “universe,” and the echoes from one novel can resonate strongly in another.
Stories that share an extended universe take place within the same “world,” and may pick up elements like characters or settings from the other books that share the world with them. Meanwhile, a series tends to be comprised of an ongoing narrative with a cohesive plot. While both an extended universe and a series can easily coexist within the same metanarrative, the less immediate elements that connect the former provide a definitive distinction between the two.
Next Up: We’ll venture deeper into the worlds of extended universes as we explore the role of canon in creating a cohesive metanarrative. Plus, later this week, get ready to return to Pleasant Hill as coverage of the Avengers Standoff event continues.