With the release of Avengers: Infinity War, the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) tied nineteen movies together. The huge cast of characters have new and interesting pairings, sometimes for power, sometimes for comedy, and occasionally for a hint of romance.
I am certainly not calling it a rom-com, but I do think there is a lot that romance authors can learn from Marvel about engaging their fans in the storytelling process.
Series Are Serious Business
Creating a series is the key to building an author business. Publishers are more interested in manuscripts that will lead to series, and self-published authors know that releasing new books drives sales for the back list. It seems that the people involved in the MCU knew that from the beginning or, at the very least, figured it out early on and made it central to their strategy.
Romance authors can do the same. Maybe you are not building up to a grand space epic where the fate of the world is at stake, but using these same strategies will weave your stories together and encourage readers to become fans.
Rule of Three
If nineteen interlaced, cross-genre, overlapping books feels overwhelming then start with three. Write three connected books and then move on to something else. They can include an overarching story line that takes three books to be resolved, or they can each stand on their own.
Three is a magic number in storytelling. There are three bears, three-act plays, and three Avengers movies. Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness. Stop, Look, Listen. Beginning, Middle, End. Thinking of the series as three books allows the author to go a bit deeper into the world or town where the story takes place. It also limits the number of characters to develop and track.
You can certainly expand beyond three in your series. Clearly, Marvel went beyond that. But they did limit the number of movies that focused on any one character. Iron Man has three movies, so does Thor and Captain America. It feels like they are in far more movies because the characters appear in each other's films.
I’ll Be There For You
If you are writing a series that includes a group of friends, think about how they will show up in later books. Certainly, you want to keep the focus of the story on your featured couple, but bringing those previous heroes and heroines close to the center allows readers to peek into their lives.
Back in 2008 Iron Man, the first MCU movie, was released and it was a romance novel come to life. Stay with me here. Over the course of the movie, Tony Stark falls in love with Pepper Potts, his assistant, and it is clearly a billionaire-bad-boy-falls-for-the-good-girl trope. Along the way, he also creates a new power source, a robot suit that flies, and an early Alexa prototype named Jarvis.
Over the next ten years, Tony appears in a total of nine MCU movies and Pepper appears in six. Yes, three of those are Iron Man movies, but we also get little peeks into their lives through cameo spots in other movies.
These peeks are fun for the fans. They remind us that the world you created is full of life and continues beyond the edge of the original story. This is not to say that these peeks overtake the central couple or the central story. But remember, you have already done the hard work of developing those characters, so let them do some of the work for you.
In the romance world, it’s tempting to focus these peeks on things like wedding prep and pregnancy announcements. There’s nothing wrong with that, but remember that there’s also more to life. If the characters were work friends, how do their careers progress? Does one person leave the company to start something new? Do they have expertise to bring to the new story? If the characters were childhood friends or neighbors, there could be an evolution in that relationship that gets them closer or, alternatively, moving apart. You could talk about their families – parents and grandparents age and their lives change, which could have an impact on their day-to-day life.
Take a Stan
Stan Lee was a writer for Marvel Comics and later became the editor-in-chief, publisher and chairman. He is an industry icon and one of the few recognizable "behind the scenes" faces in the comic industry. He appears in nearly every MCU movie, including the animated Big Hero Six. These scenes are usually about 10 seconds or less. There’s not a lot of build up or character development. You just see Stan walking the red carpet or driving a truck or chatting up an alien counsel.
That’s what really makes the Stan Lee cameos fun; he could be on any planet or in any town. This kind of referential humor requires the reader to be a little more in the know. That might seem odd for a new writer, but again, you want something for the fans to enjoy when they go into the back list.
Consider using names that mean something to you. A significant other, a dog, the street you grew up on. Just a little something that can appear in your stories regardless of series or genre.
Of course, Stan Lee isn’t the only thing fans look for in a Marvel movie.
Egg Them On
Marvel wasn’t the first to do it, but one of the best fan-engagement things they have done is drop Easter Eggs into every movie they create. These references are often call backs to the comics, previous television shows, side characters from the movies, the creators, and even a reference to a completely separate universe. (Although, technically Disney also owns Star Wars, so it counts.)
This is certainly easier in a movie since they can just put a framed poster on a wall and no one has to actually say anything about it. That said, you can drop details here and there that don’t detract from the central story but add a little fun for the fans. Maybe use a character name from one series as the name of a coffee shop in another. Take the name of a small town from one series and use it as a pit stop during a road trip in another.
Pixar (which is also part of Disney so it counts, too) is known for not only putting a Pizza Planet truck into most of their movies but also references to their works in progress, and the number A113, a reference to a classroom at California Institute of the Arts (aka CalArts) where John Lassiter and Brad Bird went to college.
Think about these little details and how you can incorporate them into the stories.
Make sure they stay to the end
Everyone knows you can’t leave a Marvel movie until the after the after-credits scene. That scene sets up something that will happen in another movie and gets people talking about what it all means.
When your story ends, make sure you are doing something to get readers thinking about the next one.
The moment they finish the book is the best time to ask them to buy the next one. You don’t have to make it a big long thing. If you have it, the first chapter is a popular choice. You could also choose an excerpt that includes the set up of the story, or an introduction to the hero or heroine. Those post-credit scenes are usually about thirty seconds. Barely a hint. A little taste. Just enough to get them interested in what comes next.