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Tips and tricks for writing tie-in media

Most people have seen the movie, but how many of you read the novelization? The audio adaptation? The novel series that continues the story, before being retconned when a new series of movies or a TV series gets released? That’s all a part of what’s known as “tie-in media”; aka stories told in different mediums, but set in the same universe as the original story.


Tie-in media’s always fascinated me and it’s played a big part in my life. Being a boy in the 2000s, me and my brother were obviously Star Wars fans, but our obsession grew far beyond the movies. For us, the Clone Wars TV show and the old Dark Horse Legends comics from the early 2000s were our bread and butter. And for me, my interest in Doctor Who overflowed from the TV show and into the many spin-offs not just by the BBC, but by the independent artists and studios that licensed characters from their creators (ask me about Wartime, I dare you).


So naturally, when I was approached by Arcbeatle Press to write tie-in fiction for one of their licenses, it felt like the moment I’d prepared for my whole life (ironically enough they also produce one of the independent Doctor Who spin-offs that’d fascinated me as a youth). The franchise they asked me to write for was WARSONG, a print spin-off to the Decipher trading card game WARS. Specifically, this would be for their Academy 27 series, which acts as a “slice of life” spin-off to the card game. And thus was born The Phantom, included in the first volume of Academy 27, and its soon to be released (or already released if you live in the future) sequel Shadows of the Phantom.


The biggest question about tie-in media is often, “how do you write one?” It’s not like an original piece where you can just make up anything you want. There’s an established history, a preconceived style, even if the series is still new. But I’ve learned quite a few things about writing tie-ins and now you can learn too.


Research the world you’re writing in

Something important to understand is that you’re not in your own sandbox anymore. You’re in someone else’s and they’ve already built some castles before you’ve even sat down. There’s pre established rules here and you’ll need to learn them in order to keep continuity.


What I did when being introduced to WARS was take a look at the specific setting I would be working in, then a broader study of the timeline. This worked because The Phantom is exclusively set in one place, Mars/Gongen, and it allowed me to fully immerse myself in the setting so I could create the proper mood and environment for the readers.


Now, the amount of research you’ll need to do depends on the story. While the scale of mine was rather small, for those set on a larger stage you’ll need to take a deeper look at the lore. It may be a lot at first, but readers pay attention to these things, in particular the hardcore fans. Plus, you’ll have the added bonus of your story being more integrated into the wider universe and thus giving your readers a more immersive and consistent narrative. 


Try and understand the style and voice

There’s no serial killers in Blues’ Clues and you won’t be finding alien starships in Pride and Prejudice. Basically, when writing for a series, take a moment and think about your audience. Who are you writing for? What’s the tone of the series up to this point? Would this be something you can show your kids or is it adult-exclusive? For example, I toned down on the swearing in Phantom because it wouldn’t fit the Academy 27 style.


There’s also the style too. If the main story is known for being psychedelic and experimental, now might not be the best time to have a more bland prose. This isn’t always the case; for series that are more open to experimentation, there is a looser set of restrictions on style. It’s best to look at what came before and follow suit.


Figure out what you can and can’t do

For creatives, we can get a bit cranky sometimes when we can’t do something. That’s why we dive into art, where our wildest dreams can be done without the restrictions of “reality” or “rules” or “sir that is illegal you can’t just have an atomic bomb on your apartment balcony.” But again, this isn’t our sandbox and you’ve gotta understand the parameters of reality.


As I've said before, this isn’t an open and shut case. Genre plays a huge role and certain genres are open to more outlandish scenarios. Fantasy and sci-fi have an incredible amount of creative freedom purely due to the stories they tell. But again, remember that this isn’t a new canvas, but one that’s been painted before. 


Not only that, but there’s also characters and their arcs you need to consider. If your tie-in piece features a major character from the original work, you need to consider the development of the character and how your story fits into the overarching narrative. Readers love a good character arc and they hate a bungled arc, so it’s important to keep that flow.


On the other hand, if you’re working on original characters that live in the tie-in setting, an important thing to note is how well they fit into said setting. If a robot wouldn’t appear in a story, for instance, don’t make yours a robot. This is where the pre-mentioned research comes in, because with a thorough knowledge of the setting you can create an environment where you character will flourish and connect with the broader story that’s being told in the original media and tie-ins.


Do something new

Now this may seem like somewhat of a contradiction given all the restrictions and guidelines I previously mentioned, but this is just as important as understanding the continuity of a series. Bluntly speaking, people are getting tired of just straight up nostalgia. It’s been a common complaint for a while, spawning the phrase “franchise fatigue” and even juggernauts such as Star Wars and Marvel Comics have had to reckon with it.


For me, this was easy; Academy 27 itself was already a massive departure from what people had come to expect from the WARSONG universe, being a slice of life school drama and all. That being said, I knew that I had to do something with the setting and what better to do than a homage to Phantom of the Opera? The theater department plays a decent sized role in the setting and given how much I adore both the book and the musical, I figured I could tie the two together to give a new spin on WARSONG and make the story memorable in the process.


Above all, the most important thing is to have fun and enjoy the process! Writers and creatives are often protective of their work, so to be able to contribute to another person’s universe is always a treat and a privilege. Take pride in it!

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