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In-Jokes and Crossovers In Fiction: Love ’em or Leave ’em?

Quick poll, dear readers: what’s your opinion of crossovers?

I ask because I’m still working my way through the Outlander series (only the most recent one left to race through, and then I’ll have to wait like everybody else for Gabaldon to write the last book), and the book I read most recently didn’t draw me in as deeply as its predecessors. After some reflection, I’ve concluded that the main reason for this is because, unlike the other books, this one felt as though it expected readers to be fluent in a whole different set of characters.

Essentially, the Outlander universe consists of two related series. The Outlander books, the first of which I reviewed here, center on Jamie Fraser, his time-traveling wife Claire, and their family’s adventures in the 18th and 20th centuries. A comparatively minor character from this series, Lord John Grey, is also the hero of his own set of books, described in the reviews I’ve read as crime/mystery novels. Since I’m not a mystery fan, I’ve not made an effort to hunt those books down, and through the first six books of the Outlander series (of which Lord John appears in five), I didn’t feel their absence. But when I encountered Lord John’s first viewpoint section in Book 7, An Echo in the Bone, I suddenly felt out of the loop. There were winking references to events I didn’t remember; Lord John had conversations with people I was clearly meant to recognize; again and again, I noticed things going over my head. And it detracted from my enjoyment of the book.

Of course, Gabaldon is hardly the only author to craft a set of interlaced stories. In Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn books, there are several places where the readers are presented with Mysterious Characters who feel like they ought to be significant. These characters, Sanderson’s committed fan community will gladly explain, have detailed backstories which fit them into the larger cosmology that links Sanderson’s otherwise-unconnected series, but within the pages of Mistborn, their identities are left unexplained. And there are others, large and small. George RR Martin threads moments from his Dunk and Egg stories into the background of the Song of Ice and Fire novels; Robin Hobb has a number of ostensibly unrelated series that take place in different corners of the same world. During the four years Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel were airing simultaneously, the two shows had so many instances of interlaced plot that there are whole episode guides devoted to iterating proper viewing order.

Don’t get me wrong: I like Easter eggs as much as the next person. My favorite show as a pre-teen, Space Cases (may it rest in peace), reliably included in-jokes for its especially-nerdy viewers, including everything from throwaway lines about “Minbar chess,” or a character’s declaring that the best response to encountering new life is “Fascinating” to directions like this:

Okay, now, Alpha Epsilon is to port, and Centauri is to starboard… triangulating to the Narn homeworld…

If you’re coming from the Delta Quadrant, turn left at the Bajoran wormhole, then take the Vogon Hyperspace Bypass to Exit 42.

These references  are fun for those who catch them, but to those who don’t, they slide right past without feeling like they should be important. This is the level of cross-reference I strive for in my own writing: if I’m writing a short story that draws on the world of my novel, I might put in a throwaway line or two aimed at my “constant readers,” but I’d also want the story to stand on its own legs, without leaving casual readers standing on the outside.

I certainly get the appeal of crossovers, both as an author and an insider fan. Stephen King’s Dark Tower series includes everything from throwaway lines about King’s made-up Maine cities to the reappearance of characters from earlier books; as a longtime and committed King fan, I found it a lot of fun. I regularly and enthusiastically recommend this series, and I’d still say it has one of the best endings I’ve ever seen – but I do admit that its target audience is King fans. Readers who don’t know the rest of his canon could still enjoy the books, but I suspect they’d be just as jarred by the in-jokes and sly cross-references in Roland of Gilead’s story as I was with the ones in An Echo in the Bone. If you haven’t read The Stand, It, ‘Salem’s Lot and a handful of others, you could read all 7 books of the Dark Tower series and still feel like you’d missed something.

And maybe that’s the crux of the problem for me, why it gets under my skin: because in all the crossovers I’ve mentioned here, the (ostensibly self-contained) series making the references is a commitment on its own. Three books, or four, or six, or nine; maybe 100 or 150 hours of TV. As a longtime fantasy reader, I’m very comfortable with long series, and very conscientious about starting from the beginning and making sure I read things in order. But if I’ve done my due diligence and started from Book 1, when I come to a scene or a plot revelation that’s clearly written to make the audience gasp, I want to know what I’m gasping about. In the same way that I try to build each book in a series with a self-contained story so that readers don’t feel like they’re being bribed to buy the next book, I feel that if a reader’s followed a series from the beginning, they shouldn’t trip up halfway through with the feeling that they should’ve bought all the author’s other books, too.

I’d be curious to hear other authors’ and readers’ opinions on this: how do you feel about encountering material in a story that you know isn’t there for your benefit? If you’ve got a large world with many stories in it, how do you maintain and manage the boundaries between them?

Leave a comment


  1. Either it doesn’t bother me or I really like it – I didn’t get some of the interludes in the Stormlight Archives at first, but it prompted me to go online and look them up, which was how I found out about Sanderson’s Cosmere universe. I’m a big fan of the huge interrelated universes. I’m watching Agents of Shield right now, and I love how they tie it into the Marvel movies.


    • As I wrote the post, I was musing that the ease of cross-referencing has probably significantly increased the amount of interrelation between ostensibly-distinct stories in the same universe — because people CAN go and look up the in-jokes more easily now.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Jerenda

     /  March 16, 2015

    I think I agree with your opinion. If I’m reading through a series, I don’t want to be put off halfway through by having to read an entirely different book to “get” this one scene. I’m unlikely to do that, and I want to remain engaged. References to other books that aren’t expressly part of the series will throw me and frustrate me – because if it WAS part of the series, I would totally have gone and read it before starting on this. It makes me feel like the author didn’t tell me what he/she expected from me. I’d like to give the author a fair chance, but how can I do that if I’m not given the chance as a reader to know what should be read first or second?


    • Thanks for the comment! I do appreciate it when authors with complicated series give readers/viewers a road map to what order to read things in (Robin Hobb does this, more or less). The one I wonder about is the Angel/Buffy crossover order — because after all, for much of their crossover time those shows were airing on different networks, different nights of the week, and before wide-ranging Internet access to allow for easy communication between creators and fans 🙂 I wonder how people watching them “in the moment” kept things straight?



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