But it can go wrong. Superhero comics notoriously mash characters into the same setting, even when they don’t fit. TV shows like Star Trek and Doctor Who try to tell multiple stories in the same world, and they end up contradicting themselves as often as not. Fortunately, you can head these problems off if you do your homework properly.
Expand the World
The first step to telling anthology stories is building a large world. If your world isn’t big enough, all the stories will muddle together. Audiences will wonder why the characters who live so close together never meet or why the events of one story don’t have more of an impact on the others. If you address those questions by making the stories more interconnected, then you’ve lost a major advantage of an anthology: audiences don’t have to read them in a specific order.
For a bad example, look no further than Marvel’s comic-book universe. While that setting technically stretches over the whole Earth,* it focuses heavily on New York City. It’s not clear exactly how many superheroes make their home in the Big Apple, but it’s a lot. This not only raises serious questions about why any villain ever sets foot there but also damages credibility in solo adventures. Anytime Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, or any of the others respond to a problem, it’s hard to believe they aren’t crowded out by a dozen or so super-competitors.
The Marvel writers can’t help themselves; they keep coming back to NYC, even though they clearly want readers to be able to pick up an Avengers comic without reading everything that’s happened to Spider Man in the last ten years. To avoid Marvel’s problem, you must create a world with enough interesting places to support multiple stories. This world can be a giant space empire or just a single planet.*
You don’t need to fully flesh out every element of the world in advance. That would be incredibly difficult and rob you of flexibility down the road. Instead, jot down a few interesting ideas for different places that you can come back to later. And no matter how much you like one location, don’t go back there until you’ve used a few of the others first.
For a good example, see Discworld.* While Ankh-Morpork is clearly the center of the disc, Pratchett created dozens of other places where he could tell interesting stories. You can pick up the first book of Tiffany Aching’s adventures on the Chalk and not need to know anything about Commander Vimes or Granny Weatherwax, because they live in different areas of the Disc.
Limit Travel and Communication
So you have a decently sized world where the protagonists of your various stories don’t all have to live next door to each other, but there’s another difficulty. Readers start asking why your main characters don’t ever get on a plane, train, or automobile to help one another. After all, when Plot City is threatened, it’ll be on the news, and surely the heroes of McGuffin-Ville will come help! Since you want to keep your stories distinct, this is a problem.
Star Trek is particularly bad in this area. In that universe, both communication and travel move faster than the speed of light. Even the most isolated parts of the Federation are well acquainted with the news of everything that’s happening elsewhere. And yet, when the Deep Space Nine (DS9) characters are fighting the most important battles of the Dominion War, Captain Picard and the Enterprise-E are nowhere to be seen. Where else would Starfleet’s most powerful ship be during a desperate war? In Star Trek: First Contact, when the Borg attacked Earth, the DS9’s Defiant showed up at the fight, but Worf was the only main cast member on board. Did Sisko just decide to stay home?
The Marvel Cinematic Universe is even worse. Where is Captain America during Iron Man III, when Tony Stark is fighting the supervillain equivalent of Osama bin Laden? Where is Tony when Captain America is dealing with a Hydra-controlled S.H.I.E.L.D.? These characters don’t live next door, but they all have cellphones and access to planes, so why aren’t they showing up to help each other?
To avoid this problem, slow down the speed of both communication and travel. By the time a character from one of your stories hears about the problems another is having, they’ll already be over. Even though it’s not an anthology story, A Song of Ice and Fire is an excellent example. Characters in those books often have a global view of events, but usually can’t go running to their friends whenever something is wrong since it takes a long time to ride across Westeros.
This can work for scifi as easily as fantasy. Just make travel between the planets in your space empire take years. Then you won’t have to worry about the characters from Narrativia IV intruding on Foreshadow II’s apocalypse story.
Keep the Problems Local
Superman won’t waste his time flying to Gotham because a thief stole someone’s wallet. But he’d be over there in a second if a supervillain was threatening to blow up the whole city or using the city as a base to blow up the world. Of course, having Superman show up would put a serious cramp in Batman’s style, so the writers are unlikely to make it happen.*
If every story in your anthology is dealing with a problem that threatens the whole setting, it will get harder and harder to justify keeping them separate. Even if you limit communication and travel, you’ll have to explain why your scattered characters don’t band together against the evil plots that threaten them all.
For an example that isn’t from comic books, see Doctor Who. The Doctor is constantly running into one universe-ending disaster or another, and we know other people in the Whoverse have the ability to travel through time. Why do they so rarely show up to help? Buffy The Vampire Slayer has the same problem. World-ending events happen every week in Sunnydale, so the town should be overrun with anyone who wants the world to still be there.
Keep your problems more localized so you won’t have to explain why they don’t draw attention. That doesn’t mean the problems are low stakes. The invasion of a small town by monsters is super-high stakes for the people who live there, but it’s not likely to show up on everyone else’s radar.
Discworld has this process mastered. It’s very rare that a plot hinges on the world being destroyed. Instead, you have Commander Vimes trying to keep interspecies tension from turning violent in Ankh-Morpork while Rincewind runs away from angry kangaroos on the Lost Continent. Then, if you do want a crossover between your stories, all you need to do is up the problem’s scale. Archchancellor Ridcully and Granny Weatherwax don’t normally interact, but they’ll team up if the kingdom of Lancre is threatened by marauding elves.
Plan Long Time Scales
Even if you take precautions to make sure your characters won’t stumble willy-nilly into each other’s stories, your world’s credibility can be damaged from too many important events happening at once. Readers will raise their eyebrows in disbelief if every interesting part of your setting is constantly erupting in the chaotic events that accompany any good plot.
Once you run out of space, you can separate your stories with time instead. Letting a few decades pass between stories will make sure the world has time to settle down a bit before everything erupts again. Even more importantly, it’ll give time for the previous generation of protagonists to shuffle off this mortal coil so they won’t steal the next generation’s thunder.
To pull this off successfully, you’ll want to spend some brain power figuring out how your setting will evolve over time. Societies are rarely static, and your world will be more believable if the passage of time means more than a different set of faces using all the same stuff. Authors forget this on a regular basis. Many of the Narnia books take place decades, or even centuries, apart, and yet the setting is always a fantasy version of medieval Europe. That might have been acceptable in 1950, but readers today will expect a more logical world.
Planning ahead is even more important in scifi, where technology is expected to advance. Making a new story for the Star Trek universe would be difficult as the setting already has replicators, warp drive, and transporters. How much more advanced can the technology get and still fit in a TV show’s budget?*
Discworld gives us a more positive example. As the books slowly move forward in time, the Disc changes. Kings come and go, religions reorganize themselves, and technology advances. Most striking is the development of dwarven culture, which slowly changes from repressive and isolationist to progressive and open. Even though most characters who were alive in the first book are still around by the last one, the setting changes so much that it was credible for Pratchett to tell as many stories as he liked.*
Make the World Diverse
Let’s say you’ve taken all the steps necessary to make sure your anthology stories don’t get muddled together. You have one more problem. If every part of your setting is the same, your stories will get boring fast.
As much as I love Star Trek, the original series had a real problem with every planet the Enterprise visited being the same. Part of this was due to the budget. The show only had so many sets, so the alien planets were bound to look similar. But more importantly, the writers recycled several plots until they became predicable. The first time Kirk ran into an all-powerful computer and talked it to death, it was awesome. By the third time, the magic had worn off.
However, you don’t want your settings to be too disparate either. If the different parts of your world have nothing in common, you might as well use different worlds. For the perfect balance, establish a few broad themes, and then create diversity within them. This will keep the audience from getting bored, but also maintain the cohesion that anthology stories need.
By now you won’t be surprised that Discworld gives us a positive example to follow. The disc plays host to everything from London-inspired Ankh-Morpork, to rural villages on the Chalk, to the Arabian-themed Klatch. These places all have distinct atmospheres, and long-time readers know where they are without ever being told the location’s name. Ankh-Morpork even contains huge amounts of diversity within itself, from Klatchian immigrants to dwarven print shops.
But while no two places on the Disc are the same, they all share Pratchett’s distinct style of humor and proclivity for subverting expectations. No matter where you go, anyone in charge is suspect, because those who seek power are rarely worthy to wield it. From the Ramtop Mountains to the Counterweight Continent, you know that anyone who looks like a huge badass is probably just full of themselves, and it’s the quiet one in the corner who’s really dangerous. If you can capture this duality of diverse settings and consistent themes, your anthology story will be in good shape.
Anthology stories are a strange beast in the world of writing. Some writers treat them like a really extended series, but they have very different requirements. If you try to tell a story in a setting that was originally meant for a novel trilogy, you’ll be in trouble. The worldbuilding requirements are stricter, but the results of success are well worth it because you can tell such a breadth of stories. Just be sure you’re willing to put in the work.
(Psst! If you liked my article, check out my magical mystery game.)