World building often comes out of places of inspiration. The fun part is you get to play God. The hard part is tying it all together. Which is why world building often requires patience. It isn’t something easily fixable later-on. You can’t just claim that something as powerfully mysterious as the force, is made up of tiny microscopic midichlorians, and expect the audience to be alright with that answer.
A good world has different layers to it. Tiny intricate details, and complex working machinery, things that sustain the surroundings, but also, keep our characters in awe – just as the audience should feel. Most importantly, a good world provides a solid foundation for your story which can be built upon, or even destroyed, later. Just like how your screenplay serves as a skeleton of a film production, worldbuilding provides the basis for your story.
On the big scale, which I call the macroscopic level, your world will be your story’s environment, its rules, and its cultural history.
On the small scale, which I call the microscopic level, your world will be tiny Easter eggs, props, actions motions, and set pieces. Things like force powers of levitation, secret languages, and hearts of little battle angels powerful enough to power entire cities.
Your world as a writer is not just the location. Its every reveal about this universe you’ve created. It’s setting the tone and the rules to the story. Which is why, worldbuilding applies to every genre, not just science fiction or fantasy. Worlds are just as important in a romantic comedy, as they are in an independent dramedy, or action thriller.
As such, I’m going to bombard you with many questions to answer about your series. To better prepare you, I am going to breakdown this lesson into three segments: Sensations, Surroundings, and Rules.
Sensory details will be essential to your designers, but more than anything else: your actors. Now, actors and directors hate when a writer steps on their toes. They’re going to take your words and adapt it as their own. Being a purist doesn’t work in this industry – it’s a collaboration.
Here’s an industry trick to work around this: write in a way using actions and sensatory details, about what you think is important. If you can push story elements you care about… you can get into their head. Inception your script readers. Make them feel the way you’re feeling. Have them figure out how to emotionally reach that beat and make them believe they came to that conclusion when in actuality…
It was you, writer.
Action Slug (Instead Of This):
Nero is angry at Dante for arrogantly letting the Sword of Sparda slip away with the guards.
Action Slug (Do This):
Nero glares at Dante. Dante smiles back in return. He then lets his father’s ancestral claymore, the Sword of Sparda, get taken away by hell’s guards.
I use sensational writing all the time. You should be selective with word choice in a script, because unlike a novel, which has more flexibility, all screenplays are written in the third person. You will write every scene from a distance (think of it as your cameraman) but your characters inner voice is harder to convey – which is where the actors come in.
Film is a visual medium. Everything about your character must be seen. Even in deep expository voice overs and speeches, there is usually something onscreen providing context.
Last week, I had you look at the world outside. Had you go somewhere, write it down, and focus on what you thought. You wrote down the most memorable details and kept it just by process of selection. You grounded it in the sensory experience. Look at your results and see how you respond to the world and its features. That’s you writing on the microscopic level of worldbuilding. Now, take some of that sensory details and perception, and put it into your writing.
Try This – Microscopic World Building. Answer the following questions.
- Watch the Alita video. What details can you pick-up in terms of microscopic world building? What elements do you think were specifically written into the script? (Spoiler for those who haven’t seen it: the number she writes on her shoulder is one).
- Early in Alita, we see her focus on food (symbolic for her humanity) and that giant city in the sky (symbolic for social classism). What sensory details does your protagonist focus on that could be symbolic in your script?
- What kind of clothing do the people in your story wear?
- How would you physically describe your characters?
Research plays heavily into how worlds work. At the same time, you shouldn’t just adapt a place that’s already there. For instance, we’ve seen New York City a thousand times in film and entertainment, how do new iterations set in the city differ? What about these stories spin a new perspective on the city?
Here’s a sad truth: most of what you know about your world won’t end up in the story. A good world is one that’s experienced through your characters, believable, and doesn’t read like an encyclopedia. Bigger details of a city (Macroscopic) can be covered through description in the action lines. The tiniest details (Microscopic) should be seen through character interactions.
Luckily, it’s easy to research different surroundings in today’s age. You can google search street view for more information on specific places. Search Instagram and Pinterest for photos. Go to a local library to look up books and databases, research on reddit, or even talk to the people you’re writing about – pick apart their brains, and ask what it was like in this particular place and time.
Try This – Macroscopic World Building. Take a world you’ve crafted. Answer the questions.
- Set The physical parameters of your universe. Does it reach the deepest depths of the ocean or the edge of outer space? Silly, I know, but then consider this: what’s the furthest location you get to see on camera? What location or world does your story take place in? Is it a metropolis, a suburb, or rural area? These things are important in world building. But it also tells a producer how much your project costs, which if I haven’t stressed enough, could make or break your screenplay.
- What kind type of environment(s) is your world set in? Star Wars had very single themed worlds: Tatooine was a desert planet, Coruscant a city, and Hoth a giant ice base. Is your environment dangerous? How does your location affect your heroes’ journey?
- What’s the culture and history of this place? Think Wakanda from Black Panther, which is an amazing example of history and culture in worldbuilding.
- What era does this take place in? How were things different then? If set in current time, what makes this world special? How is your setting different compared to other places in the world?
A big reason fish out of water stories are popular in movies is rule setting. It’s getting to know the implicit versus explicit rules of the world:
The implicit, are things like don’t say Voldemort’s name aloud in Harry Potter. Or never make The Hulk angry or else he will come out. It’s the rules every individual knows that is kept a secret to the viewer. The worldbuilding discoveries that the audience will eventually have to find out as they follow along the journey.
The explicit, are things like hyperspace travel being a way of fast traveling across the galaxy. Wizards performing magic at Hogwarts. Or the idea that everyone just wants to find love during Christmas. The explicit rules are the things everyone should see, know, or get to accept rather immediately about this world, the audience especially.
Your characters must learn about the world gradually throughout their journey because the audience is learning along with them. The viewer then learns the weight of the world by seeing the characters adhere to the rules, but also, by finding them try to break the rules. This teaches boundaries, which in turn, drives conflicts, as nothing gets people more rallied up than being told what they cannot do.
Try This – Rule Building. Take a world from a story you’ve crafted. Answer the questions.
- Who are the people inhabiting your world? What kind of jobs do they have there? How does the world maintain order? What universal rules are established here?
- What is the emotional tone of your world (I.E. are people happy, sad, or even angry)? Why do people feel this way? Is your emotional tone consistent? Describe it using several adjectives.
- Given your genre, what is the most important rule in this universe? Think of a fun way to learn about the consequences of breaking this rule, or even, break the rule.
TYING THE WORLD TOGETHER
You should never be afraid to pull details from your own life. To write what you know, because your experiences make the story relatable and feel genuinely real. Experience is something you can’t get from just reading. It’s where you find inspiration, but more importantly, authenticity – which is difficult for many artists. Especially because life is filled with distractions – things that take one away from the narrative.
At the same time, when creating worlds out of personal experience, the world must serve the purposes of the story. It should start with the question: what would the world be like if this situation happened?
For instance, if your character was a clerk in a comic book shop, what would it be like if the rarest comic book in the world was accidentally delivered there? Maybe the authorities are looking for it? What if a mysterious organization offered a large sum of money to buy the comic, but at a disclosed location? What if this location turned out to be San Diego Comic Con? What if the buyer is allegedly, the child of Stan Lee, asking for the comic to fulfil his father’s last wish and family legacy? What would your character do? What kind of journey would they undertake?
It’s these types of questions that help build your world. In this example, the world is not just the comic book shop… but the world of comics and retail. Good stories are grounded in realism (which should be your world), but they have something else special about them (which should be your story).
Try This – World Building Questions.
- Is there something otherworldly involved in your story such as magic or technology? What is it? How does it relate to the characters in your story?
- What kind of bodies of authority are there? How do they use their power in relation to your protagonist?
- Is everyone here equal? Why or why not?
- Are there languages? Are there barriers of communication?
- Is there a landmark or a heart of the location of your story? Describe it.
- Is there religion or beliefs in something otherworldly? Is this a story about faith or even finding love? How does your world convey intangible concepts?
- If you changed the genders of the characters within the story. Does your world still function?
- If you made the villains the protagonists or reversed your ending (this includes things like not getting the girlfriend, not winning, or having a bad performance). Does your world break? Why or why not? Your answer to this question will let you see how much of your world is built upon the characters, and vice versa.
- Be honest about this one: Does your world serve the purposes of your story? If you could cut parts of it or change it, what would it ideally be?
I hope this lesson was helpful. Next week, I’m going into characterization – the subject that I personally specialize in as a former mental health professional and character writer. I have a lot to teach about that subject, so get ready as there’ll be a lot to learn.