WORLD BUILDING: Defining the Rules That Govern Your Universe

World Building Defining the Rules

By Armaan Uplekar

One of the most foundational elements of any story has to do with the nature of the world that your script takes place within. Whether your screenplay is set on a lunar space colony or on a 17th century pirate ship, it’s your job as a writer to establish the “rules” that make your story possible. On the outset, this might seem like a daunting task — the very term “world building” can sound enormous. And while, yes, world building can sometimes be a sizable undertaking, it will undoubtedly make you a stronger, more confident writer, and equally important, it will make your script feel more cohesive and accessible.

It’s Not All Sci-Fi

One common misconception related to world-building is that it’s a term that only applies to science-fiction and fantasy films. While yes, movies like “The Matrix” or television series such as “Game of Thrones” might require more obvious heavy lifting in this department, this assumption isn’t always true. World building applies whether you’re writing a space opera or a period film — essentially, you’re tasked with establishing how the mechanics of the setting you’re writing for functions.

What does that mean? Well, if you’re telling a story focused on Roman senators during Julius Caesar’s reign, it’ll mean that you want to clearly communicate how that particular segment of society would function in that time period: What responsibilities might surface for someone in that specific station of life? What settings would they frequent, and what situations might take them out of their element? How did Ancient Rome as a whole work as a civilization, and what concerns might a senator be tasked with addressing?

And if you are writing science-fiction or fantasy — lets return to the example of “The Matrix,” which posits the existence of a virtual universe run by machines in order to effectively harvest human beings as resources. Understanding the mechanics of this world — the “Real World” and the titular Matrix — is essential to understanding and enjoying the story.

Be Detailed

One of the greatest gifts you can give yourself as a writer is to be detailed about the world that your story takes place in. Whether your script takes place in a real place — say a remote Alaskan town — or a completely fictional one — Hogwarts, Middle Earth — you’ll want to take the time to research and understand your setting, and the way it’ll influence how your story works.

If you’re writing a screenplay set on an off-world starship. Consider the kind of technology your characters will have at their disposal, and the day-to-day obstacles they will be confronted with on their mission. If they’re traveling long distances, how do they pass the time? Part of the reason some of your favorite films feel so rich and textured is precisely because this element of world-building plays such a crucial part in how these stories take shape. Consider “Alien” or “Blade Runner,” films that are set in entirely unique worlds that always feel as if they operate by well-defined and extremely detailed rules.

Set Limits

Just as important as defining the details that govern your universe is being clear about the limitations that govern your world. The painful truth is that an “anything goes” environment is anathema for exciting drama. If the heroes and villains can do anything in your world, then the only thing limited are your dramatic stakes. Limits are part of what makes stories exciting. These limits can be anything from defining the weaknesses that an otherwise unstoppable hero might have (Like Superman with Kryptonite), to dictating the kind of tools and weapons that your characters might have at their disposal (There’s a reason why Ellen Ripley doesn’t run around with laser guns in “Alien.”). Limits are an important part of understanding the rules that govern your universe — while you don’t have to always make them explicitly clear to your audience, having a real sense of what’s possible in your story will make your writing more believable and immersive.

Build Clear and Gradual…

A common mistake when it comes to world building is a failure to communicate the rules of a world with absolute clarity. It’s very important that you don’t contradict yourself when it comes to world building. Contradiction doesn’t lead to your audience being surprised as much as it causes them to be frustrated and confused. The best examples of world building are stories that communicate these “universal rules” at a measured, gradual pace.

You don’t want to dump too much information on your audience in a short amount of time. Doing so will very likely cause their head to spin and make your story seem impenetrable. Rather, try to really control the way information is dispensed throughout your story. Consider the case of “Game of Thrones,” which does an excellent job of slowly communicating the larger world of Westeros by largely limiting the characters we meet in the pilot episode.

The bulk of the pilot is told from the perspective of the Starks: our understanding of the politics and competing forces that shape the universe are filtered through characters who are, in some sense, outsiders. This is in contrast to the later episodes of the show, which introduce more complex and ambitious elements of the universe as the audience’s grasp on the mechanics of the world begins to grow. Similarly, in “Star Wars,” Luke Skywalker is the main conduit through which we learn about the wider galaxy.

…But Don’t Be Afraid to Use a Little Mystery

It is perfectly OK to introduce a little bit of ambiguity into your sense of world-building. After all, shows like “Lost” thrive on the question marks that appear around the margins of a story. Now, that doesn’t mean that you should strive to keep your audience entirely in the dark — you need to give readers enough compelling, head-turning breadcrumbs to allow them to really invest in the story at hand. But, at the same time, there’s real value in preserving some of the secrets of the world.

How do you do this? You embrace the fact that you’re revealing information to your audience and that there is a mystery being unearthed. Returning to the example of “The Matrix,” the first half of the story is experienced by Neo, a character who is unaware of the “rules” that govern the Matrix. We as an audience are in the dark, but we’re also aware we’re in the dark — we’re learning information about the war between humans and machines just as Neo is. This sense of mystery makes us lean forward and absorb the universe’s rules even more eagerly.

By embracing these simple foundational elements of world-building, you’ll be well on your way to creating a thrilling, multi-faceted screenplay that is consistent and easy to understand, no matter the size.

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