The Path to Canonicity
This is the fifth in a series of posts regarding shared story world design
This post will touch on the issues of managing canonicity for a SSW.
“Canon” is a term applied to content deemed official or recognized as officially part of a shared story world.
Normally, canonical content is generated by the internal creative team behind an entertainment property. In this instance, only internally-produced or contracted/work-for-hire content is deemed to be canon (official), leaving everything else in the realm of apocrypha or fandom (unofficial content).
But SSWs are all about inviting audiences to contribute canonically to the entertainment property. In fact, there is an expectation audiences will collaborate with the SSW team.
And when that happens, things get equal parts more interesting and challenging.
The SSW team must define and communicate the conditions for audience contribution (or what I like to call the “path to canonicity”). The path will have certain hurdles or barriers that audiences must overcome: submission guidelines, the need for understanding the existing canon, required skillsets, etc. Further, not only will each property have a fairly unique path to canonicity, a property can have multiple such paths, each with their own unique sets of barriers.
A helpful metaphor is to view the space where the SSW team and its audience collaborate as a sandbox. The sandbox occupies the space between canon and apocrypha, operating as a kind of bridge between the two. The SSW team sends out invitations to audiences to come play in that sandbox. Once audiences arrive, the SSW team provides a list of guidelines and rules for what audiences can do in the sandbox if they want their contributions to be considered for canonicity. The contributions that meet the guidelines are moved from the sandbox into the canon.
In this metaphor, the path to canonicity involves (a) an invitation for audiences to collaborate, (b) a sandbox in which they can collaborate, and (c) rules or guidelines provided by the SSW team.
The good news is the SSW team can craft paths to canonicity with few and/or low barriers, even for established properties with extensive canons. I touched on this in my last post about Scoping the Audience Participation, and I’ll revisit it in a future post about crafting specific invitations for audiences to collaborate.
Whatever the path, the SSW team must review each audience contribution with care, as every addition to canon has implications that ripple far beyond the confines of the individual submission. In fact, each new canonical contribution – by definition – places limits on all future contributions. The crafting of the sandbox guidelines is, then, as crucial as the need for rigorous review of submitted contributions.
The design of the path to canonicity (the invitation, the sandbox, and the rules/guidelines) will determine the balance between an audience’s allowed creativity within canon and the realistic need to have contributions conform to established canon. Design well!
Some Questions to Consider:
- What are the elements for each path to canonicity you design (invitation, sandbox, rules)?
- How many paths are appropriate for your SSW?
- How will you encourage maximum audience creativity with a minimum amount of canonical limitations?