By David Flin
Any story-driven alternate history will inevitably develop potential spin-off stories as it develops. If it’s any good, that is.
That might seem like a dogmatic and controversial assertion, and as such, needs justifying.
Alternate History, whether the emphasis is on the story or on the history, is all about worldbuilding. What would have happened in the world under these different circumstances? What would have happened if Hitler had launched Operation Sealion? How would things be different if the Confederacy gained independence? What would have followed had both Harold and William been killed at the Battle of Hastings?
All of these lead to stories that look into how the world develop in each case. If the world-building is going to be interesting, then there will be things of interest along the way for the reader. Unless the story is longer than War and Peace, a lot of these things of interest will be mentioned in passing.
This leaves the reader wondering about what happens in these areas, which gives the author the option of a spin-off should they wish.
It’s at this point that I have to declare an interest. I’ve written a couple of books for Sealion Press that have possible spin-offs within them, some of which ended up being developed. For example, Six East End Boys is a self-contained story. Very briefly, it’s a story of Britain falling apart, and what happens to London during this. There’s a sequel to the book, Tales From Section D, which arose organically from the first, focusing on some of the characters introduced in the original. This led to a second book in the Tales sequence (at time of writing this article, this book is undergoing proofing prior to publication). This story introduced characters who went on to be central characters in another two stories, while events in this book led to two other spin-offs. (Respectively: Apostles of Section D, Reports from Independent London, Guided by Justice, and Toon Navy. These last two were written by other people). Six prequels, one for each of the East End Boys of the title work, have been proposed, explaining how they came to be where they were at the start of the book. Another book has been proposed looking at the events in the book from a totally different viewpoint. By my counting, that has: two sequels, which inspired two spin-offs from the sequel; three spin-offs, and six prequels. One book giving rise to eleven follow-up stories.
A spin-off, as distinct from a sequel, needs to be able to stand on its own, allowing a reader to be able to follow one without having read the other. A good world-building exercise will give rise to many areas that different readers will find interesting.
What do you need to develop a potential spin-off? First off, you need interesting secondary characters. They don’t need to be detailed, fully-fleshed out characters. Indeed, it is probably best if they aren’t. They need enough characterisation to be interesting, but they need obvious room to grow, so that readers can become invested in seeing this growth.
There needs to be a consistent world, with plenty of things obviously going on in the background. There needs to be a sense that there is a continuance. It’s a bit hard to do a sequel to a story which has as its climax the end of all life on the planet. Not impossible, as Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy demonstrated, but not easy. And, obviously, the initial story has to be interesting enough that people care what happens to anyone in it.
To take an abbreviated example from a story I’m currently working on (at the time of writing this article), set in 1921 in a world where WW1 never started:
The first person off of the airship was a Naval Commander. A tall man, with a carefully designed white turban instead of a cap. He had a beard big enough to hide small animals in, an exquisitely tailored uniform, and the air of easy command.
“Colonel Dalkeith,” he called out in a deep voice. “Commander Digvijaysihnji. Royal Navy liaison officer, which is jolly pleasant. My job is to conduct liaisons. May we liaise?” As he came down the steps, his eyes roved over the scene. “I’m sure it will be so much more comfortable to discuss so many matters over tea.”
“Prince Digvijaysihnji, isn’t it?” Colonel Dalkeith asked, leading the way to a tea shop.
“Courtesy title. It’s complicated, but isn’t everything? The Navy doesn’t really know what to do with us, so we’ve pretty much got a free hand, which is jolly useful to small ship types.” He took a sip of tea, and stretched his legs. “I heard that you were recruiting some locals, which got my old brain box ticking. Some of my boys are jolly keen to show you groundlings how it’s done. They aren’t technically part of the Navy, so there’ll be no problem from that end.”
From this, the suggestion was raised that this hinted at a series of short stories, tentatively entitled: “The Ripping Yarns of Commander Digvijaysihnji”, and this is now on my pile of things to consider in my copious free time. Airships, Boys’ Own Adventures, exotic locations, what’s not to like?
Famous works of fiction have inspired spin-offs. Take Oliver Twist as an example. Possible spin-offs include: What happens to the Dodger after the story? What happens to Fagin’s gang? What about Mr Bumble’s poor house? There’s a long list of possible angles to follow.
Potential spin-offs are a good thing. They are indicators of a rich world that has been created, with a lot worth exploring. Long may the spin-offs roll on.