Whether on the page or on the screen, stories that fully envelope an audience all have a strong and compelling world that their characters live in. Whether it be location, time period, or industry, the believability of your world will make or break your story. Here are some tips to help you turn a narrative into an immersive experience.
First, let's define worldbuilding:
Worldbuilding is the process of using your imagination and/or research to build a layered world for your characters to live in. It can be as simple as an apartment building or as complex as an entire galaxy. It can be setting up the rules of a particular time period like 1567 or teaching the jargon of an industry like the world of magazines editing. Either way, having a fully developed world is vital for developing and maintaining a reader/audience's interest. Below are four crucial steps to take when brainstorming your world.
Research is the key to suspending an audience's disbelief when entering a new world, especially when you, the writer, have never been a part of that world. Imagine if Vince Gilligan went out and started his own meth gang in order to understand the world of meth dealing so he could create BREAKING BAD. Or if Nic Pizzolatto went through the police academy and became a detective in order to see what it takes to be a TRUE DETECTIVE.
Vince would either be dead or in jail and Nic probably would’ve lost his relevance in Hollywood for being out of work for so long. When you research, Google in keywords that relate to the world you are interested in. Write down any and everything that feels necessary for understanding the world or sparks your interest in a document, so when it's time to fill your world with characters and conflict, you’ll have a resource base ready for use.
2. Stick to the rules:
Rules are key especially when you're writing sci fi, fantasy, or horror. Having rules keeps you from creating plot holes or having your audience scratching their heads in confusion. A perfect example of a story that broke the rules of their world is BATMAN v. SUPERMAN.
In the movie, the world is a little skeptical of Superman due to his insane capabilities. So, Lex Luther hatches a plan to frame a massacre in Africa on Superman so the world and Batman could further turn against him. The plan fooled the people of Metropolis, but the most important people who needed to be fooled, the audience, failed. Guess what Lex Luther decided to use to masacre those people in Africa?
Superman has super strength and can shoot lasers out of his eyes. Why in the world would he ever use a gun to kill people? Superman has NEVER used a gun to kill anyone EVER. Couldn’t Bruce Wayne, the greatest detective in the universe, figure out that it wasn’t Superman who killed these people simply by taking a look at the corpses? Couldn’t Lex Luther, an extremely smart scientist, come up with a more believable plan for the audience, the main people you need to suspend their disbelief? If Batman took the time to do the bare minimum as a detective, the film would have been no longer than 30 minutes. But for the sake of the movie, the creatives behind the film decided to take a chance and see if the audience would give them the benefit of the doubt, and consequently the movie was ripped for this and the various other rules and logic that were broken throughout the film. When coming up with your own rules, be consistent or you'll have an extremely dissatisfied audience.
3. Define the culture:
Are we in an egotistical big city where social media is king, a down to earth town where religion is the end all be all, or a country that eats boiled dragon meat? Defining the culture of your world gives it a personality and gives you insight on who populates the world you're creating. Let's look at GAME OF THRONES for example. In the pilot, we are immersed in a Dorthraki wedding between Daenerys and Khal Drogo. During the ceremony a male character is having public intercorse with a female character. But when another male character runs in, knocking the first male character over to get a turn, the two begin a brutal fight ending in a gruesome murder. If this were to happen at a real world wedding, the cops would have shut all that sh*t down and the bride and groom's big day would have been ruined. But as Magister Illyrio Mopatis tells us: A Dothraki wedding without at least three deaths is considered a dull affair. I don’t know about you guys but that's not my type of party. But in the Dothraki world, it’s a normal occurrence. Taking the familiar like a wedding and changing the festivities to fit your world is key to creating a culture that is new but familiar, making your world textured and immersive.
4. STEAL STEAL STEAL!:
This by no means promotes plagiarism, but the ability to take what others have done before you and mold them into something new and revolutionary is what storytelling is all about. As the saying goes: Good artists copy but great artists steal. Let's take WEST SIDE STORY written by Ernest Leham.
WEST SIDE STORY was a brand new take on ROMEO AND JULIET. It uses the same concept of rival families vying for power with two young lovers, Maria and Tony at the heart. But the only thing that Ernest stole was the concept. By using his creativity he changed the world to New York and opened us up to the world of street gangs and touched on the current situation of gang violence and how it destroys families. Stealing like Ernest Leham is what you should strive for when you look for inspiration for your world and your story. Watch and read stories similar to yours, write down aspects of the story you like, and brainstorm different ways to execute them to serve your unique story.
So the next time you come up with a new script idea, take a minute to brainstorm and flesh out the world you want to immerse us in. It’ll prove vital to the success of your story. For another look at worldbuilding, check out the video below, and if you need some extra help getting your idea to the finish line click here, for more.
-Written by Collin Shaw