Originally published to West Virginia Filmmakers Guild’s blog on June 17, 2017.
By Guest Blogger and WV Filmmakers Guild Member, Paul Nandzik
Advice on Worldbuilding
There’s nothing particularly easy about writing a good script, but if there was anything easy about it, worldbuilding would definitely not be it! It’s easy to get overwhelmed with having to imagine up a whole world (or worlds, depending on the scope of your work) with various combinations of unique or otherwise distinguishing elements such as cultures and sub-cultures, sentient species, geography, architectural designs, city layouts, flora and fauna, mythology and folklore, histories, technology levels, and metaphysics.
The primary goal of worldbuilding is to create an enriching, immersive, coherent, and consistent universe or “constructed world” that sets the contextual foundation for your story. This is important, sometimes, for tackling subject matter that might be taboo (e.g., using vampires to talk about the danger and consequences of STDs in a sexually repressed society).
Step 1: Know Thy Story
Know what your story is about (e.g., boy meets girl, redemption, man vs. self) and develop an outline of it so that you have an easy way to refer back to what is driving the plot and characters in your story.
The original trilogy Star Wars films are stories about coming of age and redemption. It is not a story about intergalactic trade politics, planetary climate zones, lightsabers, or even the Force – these elements are merely incidental to the heart of the story.
Likewise, Blade Runner is a story about transhumanism, identity, slavery, societal indoctrination, and societal decay. It is not a story about flying cars or space colonies even though we see and hear about these elements.
Step 2: Build Thy World
There are several methods of worldbuilding, including top-down, bottom-up, and inferred.
With the top-down method, you create the world in broad strokes such as technology level, world history, sentient species, continents, and climate. From there, you drill down for more in-depth detail, such as local history, politics, celebrities, commerce, sub-culture, and so on.
The bottom-up method is, as you might have guessed, the reverse of the top-down method, where you begin with the specific details of only the part of the world your story is taking place in, and then expand into broader strokes as is necessitated by the needs of your story.
The ideal, really, is to start with the top-down method, then switch to the bottom-up method, which would yield the greatest overall consistency. However, doing so is literally double the effort and double the time.
Of course, not every location or aspect can or will be explored. And so the inferred method requires you simply to provide enough detail about your constructed world that your audience can infer specific details about it that were not explicitly provided.
A great example of inferred worldbuilding (which is also a great example of literally showing rather than telling) is in Blade Runner where we see both modern style cars as well as VTOL flying cars (“spinners”). Without addressing it in any direct way, the film shows that the police possess spinners, and the dregs possess modern cars. This inference is reinforced by Police Chief Bryant’s line of dialogue, “If you’re not cop, you’re little people.” And so we can infer that only the police or others with influence can enjoy the luxury of owning or operating a spinner.
Another example is in Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers when Frodo traverses the Dead Marshes. Although this location has a rich history within the constructed world, it is not the focus of the story at hand, though we can infer some of its morbid history by way of the (ghosts of the) dead soldiers trapped in it.
If you’re working within a shared (read: pre-established) universe, some of the work is already done for you. Star Wars, Star Trek, and Harry Potter all have rules set forth about metaphysics/magic and technology, society, settings, and so on. So you wouldn’t necessarily need to explain lightsabers, teleporters, or patronises, let alone the conflicts between the Jedi and the Sith, the United Federation of Planets and the Klingon Empire, or why squibs look down their noses at muggles.
Possessing a real understanding of your subject matter will make your original universe feel real. That is to say that if you’re writing about the first contact between humans and an alien species, read up on what happened in history when two different civilizations met. How did they deal with the language barrier? Or differing cultural values? If there was a significant difference in technology, how did that impact perceptions and relations? What were the goals and motivations of each civilization?
If you’re writing about the advancement of technology, research the impact of technology on culture. For example, how did the advent of the locomotive impact warfare and agriculture? How has social media impacted commerce and security?
If your story features aliens or monsters, you might research microbial or marine life to find inspiration in how they look or how their biology functions.
And if you’re trying to come up with non-standard names, one of my favorite methods is combining two common names. For instance, Samandrea is a portmanteau of Andrea and Samantha, and Tirsef is a portmanteau of Timothy and Josef. This creates a sense of familiarity while still being different. And of course, if you think that Simundrea or Triseffin works better, then that’s fine too. This is just a guideline, after all.
Another consideration is for symbolism. Mr. Spock in Star Trek symbolizes the otherness of being biracial, and the vampires in Underworld represent white slavers (with several scenes prominently depicting whips to punish the Lycans). Lightsabers in Star Wars represent honor, tradition, and a bygone warrior’s code.
So whatever sci-fi or fantasy element you’re writing about, be sure to spend some time thinking about what value they might bring to exploring the human condition.
Step 3: Write (And Remember) Thy Story
A unique stumbling block of worldbuilding is overwhelming the audience with information overload. So be careful not to lose your audience – or yourself – in the minutiae of your constructed world, whether it’s one filled with steam-powered automatons, rival space-faring civilizations connected by jump gates, dark kingdoms ruled by evil necromancers, or something equally fantastic or visionary.
As your constructed world will be different from hard reality, you must determine what is mundane and what is not. For anything that’s “normal” and not central to driving the plot itself, like flying cars ala Blade Runner, there’s not much call for spending much time talking about them. One way to tackle this is by the “fish out of water” method, wherein the protagonist is introduced to a strange world, and so its elements (which are mundane to everyone else) are explained to him. The fish that’s out of water becomes your audience’s surrogate, then. You can see this method used in films such as Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and 13th Warrior.
Review your outline as you go – especially whenever you get stuck. The Harry Potter series isn’t about magic, even though magic figures strongly in it. Rather, it’s about coming of age and figuring out how to deal with death and loss. And as the story unfolds, sequel after sequel, we learn ever more about the characters, politics, rivalries, and history of that magical world.