The Story Worlds We Create
How would you like to go:
…somewhere where the skies are blue
the dreams that you dare to dream,
really do come true.
Where troubles melt like lemon drops,
Way above the chimney tops…
That, of course, is excerpted lyrics from the fantastical film The Wizard of Oz. The Frank Baum story The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was translated into one of the most loving and enduring films in the history of Hollywood. Certainly, the acting, the music, the incredible state-of-the-art for their time effects all contributed. But it was the world that Baum created that made it all work. A place that is magical, mystical, dangerous, unique, and always surprising. An escape from our everyday lives. A respite. A dream.
It’s no secret that we’ve been creating worlds for our stories to inhabit for millennia. Going back as far as recorded history, even further back with oral traditions, myths and stories have always had a world commensurate with the tale being told.
Why Are Story Worlds So Important?
In a word, conflict. Inherent in the world that our characters inhabit is the way they interact with those worlds.
Downton Abbey is set in a time of stricture. Society is very stratified and rigidly defined according to your social status. There’s a strict pecking order even down to the servants’ and staff’s interaction with themselves.
Can you imagine dressing in tuxes and gowns every day for dinner? Or pining (without hope, it seems) to become a secretary, a job that most of us today would see as simple enough to achieve? These are the extremes of this society.
Within the walls of the Abbey and the rules of Edwardian England, people may have acted in a similar fashion to any other group of human beings but that behavior was always hidden from view. The threat of exposure and the consequences of the upstairs or downstairs group’s peccadillos in many cases define the actions of the characters.
In the case of the young maid pining to become a secretary, the Rose Leslie character, had to hide her typewriter from staff and house. The very idea of her becoming a secretary was so preposterous that even she didn’t believe she could do it, and the typewriter, the symbol of that conceit, had to be kept hidden. This subplot took up several segments of the show over several episodes and ended when the Gwen Dawson character was successfully placed in an office in London but only with the covert help of Lady Sybil. There was sneaking about, lies, and emotional pain – in other words, conflict, drama – in good measure just because of the way the characters were allowed or not allowed to act in their world.
Although the characters define their path and actions, the world they inhabit defines what causes the characters’ pain, joy, success, or failure. It informs their internal emotional arcs.
The Bridge on the River Kwai, a David Lean World War II film classic, details the story of the building of a bridge for the Japanese war effort using British and American POWs. While you might think that rebellion, even sabotage, would be the duty and obligation of the prisoners, the commanding officer of the POWs, Lieutenant Colonel Nicholson, played brilliantly by Sir Alec Guinness, refuses to allow his troops to engage in trying to escape or in deliberately building a bad bridge. Since they were ordered to surrender, escaping would be, he logicked, countermanding orders. Building a great bridge, the commander’s reasoning also held, would show the superiority of the Allies.
The military overview, the unique nature of the world (WWII Thailand) where this is all taking place in a POW camp provides both plot and character moments that are at times surprising and filled with conflict that is specific to this situation’s storyline.
An interesting sidenote on the film is that the writers Carl Foreman and Michael Wilson were part of the Hollywood blacklist. They lived in England, in exile, but still had to work on the film in secret.
A Best Adapted Screenplay was given not to them but to a “beard”, Pierre Boulle (a man who didn’t even speak English.) In 1984 the Academy officially recognized the proper writers.
A great example of how drama (real-life drama) is created by the world.
Implicit in any discussion about a world, be it “normal” or completely made up is the rules.
Characters can be right or wrong based on the rules you (or society) set up for the film or television series.
Consider the first rule of Fight Club, for example. Or perhaps the engaging, at times genius film, Arrival. Amy Adams’ character, a brilliant linguist, has to figure out the language and intent of aliens who have suddenly appeared in several places on Earth. The aliens exist and communicate within a ship that has no concrete connections with our world. Literally. It floats above the ground.
Adam’s character can’t directly interact with them because they live in a seeming liquid space inside the ship and use ink in odd, complex patterns with which to write that bears no correlation to anything she’s seen before.
The story purpose for all this has everything to do with, oddly enough, our perceptions of time and how it flows in our lives. It’s based on a theory that language, learning it, speaking it modifies our brains. Her learning the language is essential so she can jump back and forth in time; to live in a time stream that’s highly mutable.
Wow. Now those are some rules to follow while writing a story that is essentially about loss.
The world, how it flows, the way it works, who may be in it and so much more is probably at least 40% – 50% of the battle of any script or narrative if you’re creating something like Buffy, Star Trek, or Game of Thrones. Or even 30 Rock. We, as an audience, need to know the RULES – where are the fences, the boundaries?
Shows like Sons of Anarchy (or the new Mayans M.C.) expose us to a society where the rules are different from ours. I can remember a Son’s member (Juice played by Theo Rossi) being deathly afraid of revealing he had a black parent. In the world of this whites-only motorcycle club, other races weren’t welcomed and the penalty for being found out could have been devastating to a member’s health and well-being.
The rules define the world. The world defines the conflicts. The conflicts define the characters’ movements within that world.
Shades Of Life
Bosch, Southland, The Wire, Goliath – are shades of a normal world.
Bosch is a shining example of a familiar world slightly skewed. Although I’m not able to directly verify this, it seems like the television world of Bosch is a deliberate throwback to the hard-boiled cop/detective movies and old TV shows like Naked City. But Bosch takes place in today’s Los Angeles, not the L.A. of the 50s.
Bosch himself inhabits this world perfectly. He’s no-nonsense; at times non-verbal. He listens to jazz, drinks hard liquor – no umbrella or fru-fru drinks for Hieronymus “Harry” Bosch. And he has the worldly eyes and tired effect of a man who’s seen too much and doesn’t know why he bothers to wake up every day which was a hallmark of those 50’s offerings.
Goliath, another show set in present-day Los Angeles, features a similar world and similar character. Billy Bob Thornton’s Billy McBride lives in a strip hotel, drinks himself to oblivion and moves through his daily world as if it was made of thick, foul goo. His favorite haunt is a bar that abuts the strip hotel and is an extension of his living space, his world. In it, he waits for something to force him to act; similar to Raymond Chandler’s Phillip Marlow who used to play chess while waiting for a client to hire him to solve a crime.
The worlds of Bosch and Goliath are shades of our world, the one we see every day. Except they aren’t our familiar places or situations. We can’t inhabit those worlds any more than the characters from those shows can inhabit a “normal” world.
One only has to look at the Game of Thrones books (and then the remarkable series) to see a sterling example of world-building. Maybe what’s not apparent is how much work went into it. And yet, George Martin did have some help: he based Westeros and the clans on the real War of the Roses in England.
Doing this type of world-building is de rigueur especially for Science Fiction & Fantasy authors. Standouts like Anne McCafrey, Ursula Le Guin, George R.R. Martin, Larry Niven, James S.A. Corey, Neal Stephenson read history, dive into civilizations, study such varied topics as commerce, politics, social mores in order to create as consistent a universe as possible. Basing an alien or fantasy world using real-world examples is a great way to start.
Watch shows like Carnival Row, games like Worlds of Warcraft, movies like Star Wars or Harry Potter to get a good sense of how to world-build.
I’ve seen and read many great alternative history works. The Man In The High Castle (both TV show and book) is certainly one that stands out. Rebel Nation by Christopher Stires postulates a world where the South won the war.
Twisting history and extrapolating what our world would be like if an event like say, the Kennedy Assassination, hadn’t happened is solid ground from which to make a world that never existed, real.
The recent film Yesterday postulates a universe where the Beatles never existed. That alternate place is amazing when someone who does know the Beatles suddenly unleashes their discography as his own works. A tremendously original idea which makes for a great film based on a simple one-element what if.
Laurie Penny, an award-winning columnist, wrote a great article for Wired about how her experiences creating Buffy The Vampire Slayer fan fiction helped when she got into a TV writers’ room. Of course, it helped, I thought as I read the article. Fan Fiction gives you the world; all (all!) you have to do is populate it with either characters already established or extrapolated from the world itself.
The exercise teaches you how to properly create a cogent narrative because the world itself puts limits on who or what a storyline can be. You absorb through osmosis of the writing how a solid world is utilized when the characters have to act according to how the rules of the world are set up, and then begin to understand how to write accordingly.
Think Like A Child
Kids are so much more accepting than adults of postulated worlds. Dr. Suess’ Whoville is a great example. The Island Of Misfit Toys in Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer is a brilliant creation – instantly compelling. It probably inspired Toy Story, another bit of brilliance. How about Brad Bird’s The Incredibles? Allowing your inner child to surface can lead to some wonderful creations that become a place you can frolic creatively and with few restrictions.
Don’t judge or prejudge – let your inner child’s wonder guide you.
Mix Knead And Bake
Combining two disparate concepts to create a new world is great fun. Cowboys and Aliens, or Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter are examples. Speaking of classic monsters, Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein is pure genius. All she does is put a unique character (The Monster) in a normal world and voila! A completely singular storyline where the normal rules don’t apply.
How about the tremendous Endeavour or the original Inspector Morse? Staid Oxford, England as the murder capital of the world with a somewhat twitchy intellectual to inhabit it. Genius writing of the first order to be sure, but wrapped around a compelling place that should be safe but isn’t.
A Beautiful Mind tells a (somewhat true) tale of a genius whose mind was almost completely divorced from reality. He lived in an inner world that was filled with betrayal and danger.
Fight Club, American Psycho, Sixth Sense… wow. Worlds of pain and brutality that didn’t exist except in the minds of the protagonists.
In Or Out?
I believe TV series and film franchises are successful because we either love the world or hate it.
Carnival, a new arrival, is a world that fascinates me but I wouldn’t want to live there. The same with Penny Dreadful but not so much because of all the maniacs that inhabit those worlds. No, it’s because of the filth, the illness, the despair – yuck! I have an almost visceral reaction to the time period – I don’t want to stay. But I am too fascinated by the drama to not want to go back.
Game of Thrones is similar. Too much ugliness, pain, injustice. I’m glad to visit, but even happier to return to my own placid (by comparison) world.
Bird Box and A Quiet Place are set in worlds both dangerous and horrifying. Great design with incredible conflict and action. The narrative ends well for the characters (sorta) but there’s such a sense of relief at the end that I am thrilled to be done with these worlds. Except… sequels anyone? Here we go again. Nooooo!
However, I’d inhabit any spaceship in any galaxy at any time gladly. Hell, I’d even put on the red security shirt to live a brief time in space.
Shows like 30 Rock, Friends, Parks and Recreation, – even The Good Wife and Madame Secretary have universes we love because nothing is going to really go badly wrong in them. We seek them out and live in them for a time, sharing and celebrating places where lives are measured and delivered in fun, or places where life is resolved not always joyfully but logically and fairly.
The West Wing was about as fictional as you could have gotten for that time (or now) even though it was based on a “normal” world. It was a place of justice, rationality, and intellect. I loved the show and its attempts to enforce those values in a land of insanity – Washington, D.C. I would have (and still would) gladly have sat in Sam Seaborn’s office or walked the halls with C.J. any time. Have a drink with Donna? Yes, please.
My final point in all this is that these worlds we create should be reflections of your main character’s subconscious mind. I tell my students you start in the character’s “normal world” in Act I and move them into their inner worlds (reflected by the physical world) in Act II. Like Dorothy in Oz, that world is used to teach the lesson that “there’s no place like home.” Characters may tread a familiar path in their everyday existence, but the journey in that world is skewed, meant to change and redeem the characters.
There are thousands of wonderful examples of how writers create places of danger, joy, pain, anguish, insanity, or stratification. Where witches live and men and women of good faith abide. Where life is a happy lark and the absurdity of life is winked at. It is imperative to get this right to maintain a consistent narrative thread and hold your audience rapt, especially in any TV series.
The world must be solid and complete – thought through, rules defined. Then you populate it with players who either own it or burn it down – probably both.
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