One of the more annoyingly misused phrases in our current era of shared multi-verses, trans-media franchises, and other pan-galactic gargle blasters is “world-building.” It’s an annoying expression because it comes up when someone, who commissions movies, television shows, or whatever filmed entertainment is called in our always-shifting modernity, describes the result of years of work by a large group of very creative people…usually while demanding the same of a single artist in the space of weeks or months.
Of course, it is possible for a single creator to create immense and richly detailed realms individually. I’ll rattle off the holy trinity of fantasy literature—J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and Mervyn Peake—and let you fill in the blanks from there. Even in the fast-paced, high-world of television, at least one man—J. Michael Straczynski—is reputed to have created the entire universe and story arc of a five-year science-fiction “novel for television” before a single frame of film was shot.
While I have never fully bought into the narrative that all five seasons of Babylon 5 were completely crafted in its creator’s head before the show was made—and that the plan was so thorough as to include a set of “trapdoors” to account for possible contingencies (like the departure of the show’s star after the first season)—Straczynski’s accomplishment is towering. He singlehandedly wrote almost every single episode of a densely serialized sci-fi series that did, in fact, describe an entire universe, and we are all the better for it.
Still, Straczynski’s Olympian feat is not a sustainable template: Babylon 5 was made in a different era, with a very different and now non-existent business model (first-run syndication) which could sustain a very niche property for a much longer period than possible in the current media landscape—and which allowed a great deal more space for experimentation, vamping, filler, and the occasional complete failure of an episode. As much as Babylon 5 makes the case for the skill of its creator, it is also a singular work in the history of the medium: one which also showcases many reasons why in television, collaboration between many gifted artists under a strong shared vision tends to yield the most successful results.
Similarly, Tolkien, Lewis, and Peake had years to craft their novels (The Lord of the Rings was more than ten years in the writing), not to mention the ongoing feedback of colleagues and editors (Lewis and Tolkien were good friends who read and encouraged one another, as did Lewis and Peake). So where does that leave us mere mortals working in broadcast/streaming media with deadlines and budgets and executives breathing down our necks? How did the creators of successful world-building television series get there? How can you convince others that what you have created can withstand years of dramatic examination?
I have some answers. They are not THE answers, but rather pieces of a much greater answer, which I have seen work best in a lot of different environments from the Lost island, to the post-apocalyptic Earth of The 100, to the fantasy worlds of The Dark Crystal, and The Witcher. I bring these projects up specifically because none of them were my creation. They are all worlds to which I was invited as a collaborator, and which, I believe, succeeded because of the influx of creativity from multiple parties operating under a strong, clear vision. To me, these worlds succeeded in convincing the audience of their existence because they met one or more of the criteria I outline below.
We all want to believe that a lone genius blazing a heretofore unknown trail into the great narrative mystery is how “world-building” is done…and there are ample examples of this across many different media.
But here are some hints for the rest of us mere mortals…
ARTICULATE A CORE VISION
(AKA, WHAT’S PISSING YOU OFF?)
When George Orwell created the world of 1984, he was pissed off about the rise of fascism in Europe and the spectre of totalitarian authoritarianism rising by other names throughout Europe. Aldous Huxley was pissed off about current trends leading to a completely entertainment-driven culture that would eventually lead humanity to a Brave New World punctuated by a cruel and willful ignorance of reality. Margaret Atwood took real-life examples of horrifyingly misogynistic government policy around the world, rolled them all up into one dysfunctional state, and gave us The Handmaid’s Tale and The Testaments. Terry Gilliam saw the second half of the twentieth century as an era of individuality-destroying societal compromise and created Brazil. Suzanne Collins was pissed off about the deleterious effect of competitive reality television on the popular imagination, and that led her to create The Hunger Games.
While these worlds all exist in the sub-genre of dystopia, they clearly illustrate something important to world-building in all genres: much successful world-building balances on a central point that provokes a strong emotion in both creator and viewer. Knowing this point—and the emotions you want it to provoke, be it fear or wonder, or joy or sadness—and being able to articulate clearly and cogently to a television writing staff, or to collaborators in a feature film, is crucial to the success of the world being built.
Even a show ostensibly set in the real world—say Breaking Bad—depends on the successful creation of a world based on the development of a strong central organizing conceit. The world of Breaking Bad is every bit as fantastical and far-fetched as any science-fictional world I know: a realm of surreal coincidences, colorful over-the-top criminals like twin hitmen, paralyzed drug cartel masterminds who can only communicate by ringing a bell, hyperfocused fast-food franchise owners who occasionally conduct byzantine James Bondian international assassination plots, biological weapons of mass destruction created in basement labs, giant evidence-destroying electromagnets, and an endgame in which the protagonist is able to defeat his enemies by becoming an evil hybrid of Batman and MacGuyver who can kludge machine guns and a garage door opener into a remote-controlled robot weapon.
The universe in which Breaking Bad takes place is every bit as “constructed” as that of The Handmaid’s Tale. Though it shows us institutions we may think we know, the world of Breaking Bad built essentially a machine designed to ensure that Walter White goes—as Vince Gilligan’s pitch famously stated—”from Mister Chips to Scarface.” Breaking Bad was, then, built for—and organized around—the sole purpose of facilitating the spiritual corruption of an individual we assume to be a good man. The great feat of narrative storytelling the series so masterfully pulls off is to convince the audience episode in and out that the series takes place not just in our reality, but that the outlandish events of the series are somehow gritty, grounded, and completely plausible.
Similarly, one of the best and most built-out “worlds” in modern media is that of Star Trek. In this case, hundreds of hours of film and television have been made to support Gene Roddenberry’s belief that the human race can ascend to great heights by embracing diversity and tolerance. “For the human race,” Roddenberry once declared, “there are no limits.” Roddenberry even named the motto and sigil of the hyper-logical Vulcan race “the IDIC,” an acronym for “infinite diversity in infinite combinations.” Even though his creation first spawned from the sentence “Wagon Train to the stars” it is Roddenberry’s core belief in our capacity to follow the better angels of our being that has driven the success of the franchise.
Regardless of how frequently in its fifty-plus year history Star Trek has tried to go “dark” or to examine the decay of institutions and morals Roddenberry might have imagined eternal (“democracy” and “civil rights” come to mind) the material always comes back to the optimistic core that powers its sense of awe and wonder. Star Trek has one message across its many iterations: humanity can improve its ways, humanity will improve its ways, and—having improved its ways—humanity will forge a path to the stars based not on its sins but its virtues.
To me, this is one of the greatest, strongest, and clearest visions I have ever seen in world-building, and the longevity of the franchise proves it. The universe of Star Trek is damn near infinite, but what makes it “Star Trek” is that conviction and how it keeps coming up on top no matter how many writers, directors, and producers—and they are well into the hundreds by now—get their chance at telling a story in this galaxy.
This doesn’t mean that all successful world-building can only take place if begun from a burning political, philosophical, or thematic concern. Many successful worlds start with something as prosaic as “Wagon Train to the stars” and become a defense of the very essence of humanity. The CW series The 100, for example, was based on a series of Young Adult books about a post-nuclear Earth orbited by a space station in which teenagers had to live under horribly oppressive conditions in order to survive, and was primarily concerned with the interpersonal relationships between these teens as they were cruelly jettisoned to the blighted planet below.
As adapted for television, The 100 found its footing and focus by pivoting away from its YA origins to focus on the moral compromises necessary for survival: a topic that made the show considerably bleaker, more brutal, and bloodier than its source material. The nihilism inherent in that belief—that survival and morality are fundamentally incompatible but we nevertheless struggle for both—also provided a narrative engine that powered seven seasons of television.
Similarly, Frank Herbert was already deep into a hobbyist/journalist’s study of hallucinogenic mycology and political ecology before the ideas that ultimately made up Dune coalesced into the whole we know today. The concept that appears to have unified many of Herbert’s varied interests was his growing interest in messiahs, cultures that have strong messianic traditions, and the danger inherent in seeing such figures as crucial to human advancement. From that more immediate and more political concern, all of Herbert’s obsessions coalesced into a massive universe that spawned not just his original novel and its five sequels but also three filmed adaptations—two of them with sequels—an upcoming television series about the Bene Gesserit, and a suite of almost twenty prequels, sequels, and equals shepherded by Herbert’s son. That a single—and also profoundly weird and druggy—novel from the sixties spawned all of this material over several decades just goes to show the importance of a compelling unifying concept in defining and designing a world. The right thematic concern in the right hands can release an incredible amount of narrative power.
All of which is to say, when creating a world, your most important question is, quite simply…
“What is my most important question?”
TROPES ARE YOUR BUILDING BLOCKS
DON’T FEAR THEM
The current vernacular of executive notes includes the homicidally annoying criticism that something “feels tropey.” What they actually mean by it is that something feels “clichéd” but I suppose enough of us sensitive snowflakes have taken umbrage over the years so as to require a less loaded term to lubricate the discussion.
There is even a website, www.tvtropes.com, that catalogues the use of tropes by media writers…with a not inconsiderable amount of attitude, I may add. That aside, the creators of this website are wise, and know something essential that even most writers and executives don’t. It is right in their introduction:
“A trope is a storytelling device or convention, a shortcut for describing situations the storyteller can reasonably assume the audience will recognize. Tropes are the means by which a story is told by anyone who has a story to tell. We collect them, for the fun involved.
Tropes are not the same thing as cliches. They may be brand new but seem trite and hackneyed; they may be thousands of years old but seem fresh and new. They are not bad, they are not good; tropes are tools that the creator of a work of art uses to express their ideas to the audience. It’s pretty much impossible to create a story without tropes.”
Next to highlighting the idea that tropes are neither bad nor good, the most important part of those two paragraphs is that tropes are the basic building blocks of narrative: a set of commonly agreed upon units of story serving the purpose of mutual understanding. Saying you dislike “tropes” is like living in a house but you dislike bricks.
What does this defense of tropes have to do with world-building?
Because once you know what you have to say to the world, and perhaps some ideas for how you might (“hey, I’m an optimistic humanist who wants to make a ton of money by selling a TV series that’s essentially going to be Wagon Train to the stars”) the next step is to build it out. Roddenberry already had a trope around which to wrap his idea: the travails of brave explorers going, perhaps boldly, into an unknown frontier.
Like many of his colleagues in the television writing trenches of the late fifties, sixties, and seventies, Roddenberry was also a veteran of the Second World War (after which he served as a commercial pilot and, later, a police officer). It makes complete sense then that the tropes Roddenberry used to build out his world all center on the distribution of command responsibility and labor in, and organization of, the military and other paramilitary organizations (and so did the writers of Forbidden Planet, whose influence on Star Trek is palpable). Though the United Federation of Planets at the center of Star Trek is intended to be a peaceful and utopian organization, pretty much everything about the basic layout of Star Trek—from the command structure of the starship Enterprise to the political organization of the ruling body that deploys it, and the Cold War-like detente between it and the Klingon and Romulan Empires—is strictly constructed with the kind of tropes one would expect would have permanent residence in the mind of a man with Roddenberry’s background, if not his philosophical leanings.
A generation later, George Lucas would anchor his own sci-fi saga with the tropes of his generation: rebellion against authority, suspicion of the military/industrial complex, and concern for the environment. In early drafts of Star Wars, the Death Star was brought down in an attack led by wookiees, similarly, the triumph of the Ewoks at the end of Return of the Jedi was informed by the Vietnam War era reality that the highly mechanized industrial war machine that won World War II could be brought down by guerillas armed with far less sophisticated equipment but aided by a knowledge of, and closeness to, their environment.
Of course, having grown up on a steady diet of triumphalist, “American Century” TV and film depicting America’s glorious victories of World War II, Lucas also helped himself ravenously to the tropes of those influences. World War II is all over Star Wars. The final battle of his first Star Wars was famously edited using footage taken from the British war movie The Dam Busters due to the time constraints posed by the completion of the film’s VFX. Similarly, pretty much every TV series or film set on board a starship in the last fifty years has either taken from Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek the basic structure of captain/science officer/doctor/warrior/engine room guy, or been a response to it in some form.Star Trek itself has gotten to the point where its own spinoffs (Discovery and Picard especially, and to some lesser degree Star Trek Into Darkness, though the stupidity of that film begs the question of intellect and intent) have become a sort of revisionist commentary on the very tropes the franchise’s creator carved into the zeitgeist decades prior.
Coming closer to Earth, consider the The X-Files. The world Chris Carter and his writing staff built over eleven seasons of television—and two feature films, and a short-lived revival series—is an intricate web of conspiracies involving an alien invasion, several equally alien races aiding in the invasion, shadow governments, powerful cabals secretly in league with the aliens, Watergate-style meetups with highly paranoid secret agents, and a black oil that can turn humans into slimy proto-aliens. Also, bees.
What made The X-Files hook so many viewers into its far-fetched mythology is that it was—from episode to episode for twenty-two weekly episodes a season—a police procedural down to the end-of-the-first-act/first-commercial-break-body-drop. The X-Files fooled a great deal of the world into entering a batshit insane universe by pretending to be about two cops who get a case handed to them at the beginning of every episode, hop onto an unglamorous unmarked car, and usually wind up somewhere local law enforcement whines to them about jurisdictional issues.
World-building, then, is the creation of a completely new milieu from the novel arrangement of tropes around a unifying central concept of great concern to the creator of that world.
Yep. It’s that simple.
Kind of how to write a novel you just have to take a bunch of words and arrange them in the right order.
THINK IT THROUGH
Let’s say you are pissed off about wealth inequality. As an allegorical analogy, you have created the notion of a world not unlike our own in any way other than a new technology has turned time into a currency—by merely shaking hands with another person. Everyone stops aging at 25, preserving their youth, and can trade minutes, hours, or years of their own life with others: they get to extend their life, you get whatever goods or services were on the table.
As a consequence, the poor die looking like twenty-five-year-olds the moment they run out of time, and the wealthy extend their youth for whatever amount of time they can hoard. Time taken from the lives of others is the greatest and only measure of wealth. The super-rich are essentially nigh-immortal vampires.
This is the premise of writer/director Andrew Niccol’s film In Time. As a world-building exercise, In Time is inadequate because of how obvious it is that Niccol only thought through a very small number of the potential ramifications of such a technology. The film deploys its central concept so narrowly as an allegory for income inequality that it ignores how radically different a world this technology would actually make: the result is that as the film devolves into a fairly routine action story, the audience is left to ponder just how different a world this technology would make.
An interface that would allow one to take literal, physical time from others would most likely involve quantum manipulation and an ability to control the physiology of human beings on so advanced a level that it is hard to imagine that the world in which it exists would only look like a slightly spiffed up version of the ghettoes and penthouses of Los Angeles with only a few more electric cars, fancy flat screens, and leather overcoats. The most important question Niccol could have asked himself is “what other changes could this have caused” and yet that question remains unanswered, and the allegory feels ham-fisted. The world only works to further its own premise, as opposed to feeling like it is a place that existed before it was disrupted by this technology. By the time the protagonists, played by Justin Timberlake and Amanda Seyfried, are on the run from The Timekeepers (the only police force, in fact, the only government agency in this world) and running time bank heists in order to give time back to “the people,” it is clear that this premise has a very slim bandwidth to support the world it implies. All that’s left is to run, jump, and gun and hope the audience goes along for the ride.
Speaking of guns—why are the weapons in In Time gunpowder/projectile-based? If this is a world where a handshake can cause a person to give up time in their own life to another—or where time can be banked in memory cores—wouldn’t the police have something like a Bluetooth-enabled long range time disruptor that could freeze a person’s time? Or take away enough of their time so that they have no choice but to stop whatever they are doing? Or to stop that body’s time altogether in order to paralyze the person in a timeless stasis? Could someone clever enough create a “time bomb” that robs people of their time en masse?
No one thought it through.
In Time is so hell-bent on making time a metaphor for money that it does little else. The problem is that “time is money” is a metaphor and only a metaphor. “Time is money” is not a direct correlation: a world in which time is money would be at the very least, different from ours in a million little ways that would make it infinitely interesting, but Niccol stays narrowly focused on this one idea, and the casualty is his story, and the point it tries to make.
Most manufactured worlds exist to elucidate a small number of concerns (unless your concern is “dude, would THIS look cool?”) but the world’s creators(s) have a responsibility to crowd—at the very least—the margins outside of their main story with enough material that the world they have made is much greater than what is merely on the screen or page. The film Daybreakers, written and directed by the Spierig brothers, is a good example of a modestly budgeted feature that nevertheless does the work of creating a believable framework for its world.
The premise of Daybreakers is that vampires have come out of the closet and become the dominant species on the planet. In the first fifteen minutes of the film, the Spierig brothers drop one bomb after another to show how their world works: cars are equipped with sun-blocking shades, blood is served as an additive to coffee as well as fast foods, subways are the preferred mode of public transport, advertisements targeted to vampires are everywhere, and massive farms keep non-vampires in comas while feeding and bleeding them until they die. While Daybreakers ultimately falls apart in much the same way as In Time—both become run-and-gun shoot-em-ups in which the main premise is secondary, its first twenty minutes are truly remarkable.
World-building is hard, precarious, and subjective work, especially when juggling the demands of both creating a new reality, remaining consistent within its parameters, and making sure that the issues faced by the characters are relatable to the audience.
The best example I can think of a movie that does all of this without a misstep is Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men. The first act of Children of Men is extraordinarily dense with information. It is the near future, the human race has gone completely sterile and has been so for the balance of two decades, the youngest people in the world are revered, the planet’s nations have collapsed, and only England has soldiered on thanks to a militaristic, authoritarian government that has turned the entire north coast of the island into a prison camp where immigrants and minorities have been ghettoed. Terrorism is endemic, public services are woeful, the government hands out suicide kits due to rampant depression and ennui, and many have resigned their lives to apocalyptic religious cults.
Within ten minutes, Children of Men not only establishes all of this, it even manages to redeem the incredibly hackneyed device of using newscasts to deliver information, presents its main character as a likable if apathetic functioning alcoholic, and serves up a shocking terrorist attack…all before it even flashes its main title.
Most importantly, every single piece of exposition presented in Children of Men remains consistent through the film’s running time and serves to complicate the plot. Every bit of this world is necessary to the functioning of the story, every bit is eventually made into an obstacle to be inflicted on the characters, and every one of the characters’ problems feels like it could happen to a member of the audience, though only in the film’s reality.
As world-building goes, Children of Men is so absolutely flawless in its integration of concept and exposition with plot and character development that, by its final, wrenching, action sequence, when the film’s protagonist loses his shoe, you know the world so well and are so scared of it that you feel that losing a shoe in this world may just be the worst thing that could happen to someone. In addition to the global infertility, wars, collapse, xenophobia, and genocide.
Thinking it through means one thing: while watching your story, the audience should never be able to think of a better idea about how your world should work than you did.
ARE THERE WIDE OPEN SPACES?
From the moment I saw Star Wars in 1977, I have remembered, and wondered about, “the spice mines of Kessel” and “the ship that did the Kessel run in less than twelve parsecs.”
With those two short lines, George Lucas opened what I call “a Wide Open Space.”
A “Wide Open Space” is exactly what it sounds like: when a line or visual evokes something offscreen that indicates a much greater world. A Wide Open Space engages the audience in the narrative by switching on their imagination while keeping them involved in the story. The “spice mines of Kessel” line takes place at a moment when a character fears for their fate: the line doesn’t distract from the scene’s dynamic, it instead makes the stakes clear while implying that there are worse, much worse, places to be sent to than their immediate danger, and you are free to consider what they may look like from a few very tantalizing cues even as you continue to enjoy the story.
The path to a Wide Open Space can be something as simple as a throwaway line like the ones above, or as involved as the opening of the scene in Children of Men in which the protagonist must ask a favor of his cousin, who runs “The Ark of the Arts.” The scene opens with Clive Owen’s character, Theo, entering a massive, loft like space dominated by Michelangelo’s statue of David. Part of the statue’s leg is missing, and the space between the knee and foot has been replaced by a metal strut. Theo’s cousin enters the scene, dressed in jeans and a white t-shirt, playing air guitar while explaining that his team barely got David out of Italy before some horrible cataclysm took place, but missed La Pieta.
In a very brief exchange, the film not only fulfills the narrative goal of introducing a powerful, wealthy, and influential person tasked with preserving humanity’s artistic legacy in a world with no future, but also invites the audience to consider just the scope of the horror going on in the film’s blighted and unstable world. Italy, the film tells us, is in no better shape than anywhere else, and yet the carnage on the streets is unspeakable. What your imagination can conjure up as it hears a few details about it is probably much worse than anything the film can show.
Wide Open Spaces are crucial to world-building for two reasons, one, they indicate what cannot be shown: “world-building in progress.” Wide Open Spaces tell the audience that they are in the hands of someone who has an entire geography for a vibrant universe in their mind—maybe they can’t show it to you just yet, but it’s there in the margins. Wide Open Spaces tell the audience that, if the camera were to pan away from the scene at hand, there will be a world there waiting to be discovered and not just the boundaries of the scenery the film’s crew built to convince you.
The other purpose of Wide Open Spaces is that they provide directions in which to build. In television, that is crucial. As a series goes through its allotted number of episodes, be they four, six, eight, thirteen, or twenty-two, it eats plot at an astonishing rate. Even in a show with what is now called “a decompressed narrative,” Wide Open Spaces establish destinations toward which to navigate and locations or events that the audience will recognize as part of the narrative, even if they have not seen them before.
A good example of this is the very line with which this began—the spice mines of Kessel. Forty years after the original, as part of the Disney Company’s expansion of the franchise, the film Solo: A Star Wars Story featured a second act climax involving an incursion into the spice mines of Kessel, and the run described in the original.
The narrative merits of the film aside, it is very much a testament to the power of the Wide Open Space: forty years later, people still wanted to go there.
CREATE OPPORTUNITIES FOR ASSUMPTIONS
AND LEAVE THEM ALL ON THE FIELD
During my justifiably short career as an improv performer, I learned the concept of “opportunities for assumptions.” A performer, who is doing their job properly by watching and listening to their scene partners, can then take something that has been said or implied—an opportunity—in the scene and make an assumption about it that furthers the scene, preferably in a novel or unexpected direction. The website ImprovDr.com presents a great example:
Player A takes great care in setting up a garden, obtaining a shovel, making sure that no one is looking, and then making the first few efforts to break the ground.
Player B slowly enters, with great effort, apparently lugging a heavy object behind them. They pause for a moment, clearly winded, and turn to look at Player A’s progress:
Player B: “I don’t know how I’m ever going to be able to repay you for this…”
This is not only funny, it also shows how something built by one performer can become very different when another picks it up, makes a very creative assumption about what it means, and turns it into something else entirely that creates the fertile ground for an unfolding scene.
When world-building, it is crucial to leave as many potential opportunities for yourself and others to make “assumptions” on the field. This is not unlike creating Wide Open Spaces. My example from Star Wars could just as easily be used in this context: someone thought of something to do with the spice mines many years after they were merely spoken of.
Opportunities for assumptions, however, don’t have to be so large or wide open, they just have to be there. Some of them are microscopic, some of them are the size of galaxies: they just have to be there to be picked up, looked at, and used in such a way that “mere serendipity” starts looking like “planning.”
Here’s a simple example, in The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance, we had a running gag in the writers room about washing podlings (the podlings, little potato-like creatures, were one of the many species in the world of The Dark Crystal). As we hunkered down to break story on individual episodes, we came up with the idea that a character was to be punished by being sent to “The Order of Lesser Service,” a sort of monastic/janitorial organization. As soon as the question came up of what sort of menial tasks the Order of Lesser Service would have to perform, the idea of washing podlings suddenly stopped being a joke and became a very real option.
In the hands of episode writer Vivian Lee, the concept of “washing podlings” expanded into a delightful extended sequence set during the time known as “the deterge” in which podlings were washed en masse. This not only created many—many—opportunities for physical comedy, with the adorable podlings resisting their baths in every way, it also opened a space to not just understand the plight of one of our main characters, but to also add a unique and whimsical element that further built up the amazing world Jim Henson and his cohort built decades before.
Opportunities from assumptions can even come from a writer/creator’s observation of the design of a prop or a costume. Consider how Obi-Wan Kenobi’s humble desert robes eventually became the template for the uniforms of all the Jedi Knights appearing in the Star Wars franchise. Somewhere before Star Wars became a pop-culture hegemony, a costume designer had an idea that was approved and executed…and, years later, the entire franchise ran with it.
A similar, but much larger, example of taking an opportunity for an assumption that eventually defined a franchise (or even saved it from extinction) is the set-up to the film Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. At the end of the episode “Space Seed” in the run of the classic Star Trek television series in the 1960s, Captain Kirk decided to exile the unfrozen 1990s supergenius and criminal mastermind Khan Noonien Singh and his followers in a small and verdant moon to start their own isolated settlement. Kirk and his crew mused that they had planted a seed in space, and hoped that Khan and his followers could build a benign civilization in their new world.
When the time came to make a sequel to 1979s Star Trek: The Motion Picture, the creators tasked with its creation looked back and found this incredible seed waiting to be sown and harvested. The greatest villain the original series created had been wisely put in a place from which he could return for vengeance. Deciding to take this idea to its most dramatic extent, the creators of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan made a film that is not only understood to be the finest in its over half-century old franchise, they also saved Star Trek by proving the films could be made on time and budget (issues which plagued its predecessor and made a question mark of the future of Star Trek) and succeed commercially.
It bears mention that by the time this sequel was made, none of the players who worked on the original series or the first film were involved. Even the series creator, Gene Roddenberry had been sidelined to the role of “Executive Consultant.” The inception of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan was strictly a case of a present-day creative team being handed the reins, reaching to the past, finding an opportunity, and exploiting it for all it was worth.
In the early aughts, I worked on a series called The Chronicle. It was set in the offices of a tabloid newspaper covering the weirdest stories imaginable—UFOs, chupacabras, that sort of thing. In the pilot episode, a member of the guest cast delivered a single line with such flair that it was decided we would bring the actor back in another, perhaps larger role. The actor returned in another role and was, once again, so terrific, that the room wanted him back. The problem was each of the characters he had played had been specific to the story of the individual episode.
Finally, we just decided that we didn’t care and kept casting the actor—only now with the intent that he would always play some sort of annoying foil for the heroes. By the time the show had filmed its twenty-two episodes, this actor had appeared in six episodes as a variety of supercilious and hostile public servants who always made the lives of the main characters harder. Had the show gone to a second season, we would have eventually revealed the character to have been some sort of alien sent to test the heroes, and perhaps even built a story around him.
All of this activity from him delivering a single zinger with unique style.
The trick to successfully dropping, and then taking advantage of, opportunities for assumptions, then, is to understand that building a world isn’t merely telling one story. World-building demands that creators saturate the field on which the world is being built—and then every beam, girder, post, and furnishing—with enough conceptual mass that new ideas big and small eventually spring and take on life on their own. As with radioactive isotopes—in which an amount large enough will attain the critical mass necessary to provoke fission and energy—so artificial worlds depend on the attainment of a critical mass of ideas, and they don’t have to be central to the plot, they just have to sit there, waiting to be found and developed into something great.
There is no better feeling than finding one of these opportunities and making it work. In more than one writers room, when this has happened, we smile and high-five and say “it’s like we planned it!” Of course, once when I made this declaration, a more seasoned writer looked at me and replied…
“That’s because we’re planning it right now.”
GIVE IT TO OTHERS TO EXPAND
LEST IF BECOME YOUR FETISH
J.R.R. Tolkien took ten years to write the Lord of the Rings. Before setting off on this endeavor, he had already written The Hobbit, as well as a draft of The Silmarillion, both of which were set in, and helped establish, the world of Middle Earth. For a single creator, what Tolkien wrought with Middle Earth as a whole and The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, specifically, is nothing short of magisterial; not to mention category-defining in terms of what it means to “world-build.”
Had Tolkien been writing The Lord of the Rings for film or TV, his timeframe would have probably not “worked out” for his corporate overlords. World-building in movies and television has to be done on call, with deadlines, release dates, and millions of dollars at stake from the moment a series is ordered.
Mercifully, TV, and increasingly film writers, have access to writers rooms tasked with aiding in the creation of new universes. While this is a timesaving investment for the studio/streamer/network, for creators willing to let others truly play in their space, it is nothing less than a gold mine.
Television especially has always revered writer/producers like Aaron Sorkin and David E. Kelley, both of whom write or have written the majority of the episodes of the shows under their aegis. The problem with this is that every creator—regardless of the extent of their genius—is limited in some way, whether in their ability to generate plot, to write unique dialogue in the unique voices of the characters, or to let their characters, or their world, be disrupted in ways that may actually make it richer and more expansive.
Entire blogs have been dedicated to how frequently Aaron Sorkin recycles entire stretches of his own dialogue and situations. During the nineties, when David E. Kelley was writing both The Practice and Ally McBeal simultaneously, it was not unusual for both shows to repeat one another’s plot beats. In fact, during the same week, both Ally McBeal and The Practice featured an endgame in which a character wore a wire to trick another one to confess. In its seven-year run, The Practice did multiple arcs involving serial killers, on more than one occasion resulting in the titular lawyers successfully defending/confronting an accused killer who is eventually acquitted…and then, in a shocking twist, revealing that he somehow fooled the lawyers about his innocence, or framed another for the crime.
This is where a writers room is a boon to all showrunners, but especially the world-builder; and if not a room, at least feedback from collaborators whose honesty and expansive creativity can be trusted. When a single person builds worlds, especially under the time pressures of film or TV, the result is that they fall back on their obsessions and fetishes to a fault, and demonstrate the limits of their own creative abilities.
No matter how big a genius, how hard the work ethic, or how experienced a writer may be, world-building on a schedule requires a knowledge of story, plot, and character that most ordinary mortals, and even extraordinary ones, cannot always sustain. The result is repetition, holes in the fabric of the world’s reality, and an over-reliance on “what’s pissing you off” as opposed to “there is an entire world in which the thing that pisses me off is happening alongside a lot of other stuff that makes this world feel real.”
As mentioned before, J.R.R. Tolkien took a decade to fill Middle Earth to the fullest, going as far as to create an Elven language as part of his work. He also got feedback from C.S. Lewis, which must have helped. Compare that to the creation of the world of The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance. Though based on the venerated 1982 film, that film was much more of an allegory and a pastoral than a model of airtight drama and world-building. We had to create hours of plot and conflict and build out the milieu to ensure that it all held together.
While the writers who developed the show spent over a year putting together a pitch, a pilot episode, and an outline for the sweep of the series, the writing team had all of six months to expand that world, develop what it might have looked like decades before the original, populate it with a civilization at its peak (in the original film the race of the protagonist had been reduced to two survivors), and create a unique language for the aforementioned unwashed podlings.
On The Dark Crystal we had the additional challenge of not only conforming the world we were putting together with that shown in the revered original, but also making sure that it remained faithful to three decades worth of tie-in books, novels, and comic books. What made it possible to create the necessary believability to sustain the show’s considerable narrative was an incredibly open collaboration between the writers, the director, the producers (starting with Jim Henson’s daughter Lisa, who Executive Produced the series, runs the studio, and is extremely invested in preserving, protecting, and expanding the original’s legacy), as well as the creature shop, production design, and costume design. We were also lucky to have Brian Froud—the designer of the original—along with his wife, who is one of the great unsung heroes of both projects, and his son as a day-to-day head of design.
Working over six months, during which the creatures, sets, props, and costumes were built in conjunction with the writing, all of these disparate departments kept one another in check. It was as expansive a simultaneous collaboration as anyone could possibly imagine, with the writers continually checking in with all departments with ideas and character concepts, some of which, we learned, could not be executed in the allotted time.
The result of all this was that no one person could control the entirety of this world, and that all of us were each other’s check-and-balance. At the risk of arrogance, I believe that we created a truly special place that holds fast to its own laws and promises a lot more. At no point in the series do you consider what may be beyond the screen and believe there is nothing there. The world of The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance practically lives and breathes on its own.
I also believe that we accomplished this because we were not only in a constant, ongoing conversation, but because all of our ideas cross-pollinated one another. Every department on the show wound up contributing opportunities for assumptions during the writing process that we were able to take and exploit to the fullest. Guided by all of our interpretations of the original, we all came together to ensure that our creation was true to the ideals expounded by Jim Henson and his team decades prior (the ideals? an ecological fable showing how a world once in perfect symbiosis could be destroyed by the lust for power).
Compare that to, say, the world-building in a single, auteur-driven genre project like the Superman film Man of Steel. The film opens with an extended prologue set on the planet Krypton…a prologue in which the film makes clear its preference for striking visuals over creating a viable setting. The locations and technologies seen during this prologue do not appear the product of an ongoing, viable society populated by individuals. It was impossible for me to believe that anyone could live in this world, that anyone in this world had anything resembling their own individual aesthetic.
Watching the first fifteen minutes of Man of Steel, I found myself asking questions like “why do all the displays in a society advanced enough to build a ‘world-engine’ (ironically, a machine that build worlds) look like one of those pinpression boxes that used to be available at Spencer’s gifts?” “Does anyone own an old chair or sofa in this world?” “Was every location in this world designed by the same architect?” and, of course, the hardy perennial “where are the bathrooms?”
These are questions you never want your audience to stop and ask when you are trying to tell them a story.
The world-building in this movie—the believability of which is crucial to the plot of the film as it moves into a setting in present-day Earth—feels less like an attempt at creating a believable reality and more like a collection of fetishes. From pinboards to the flying dragons and penis-shaped prison pods, nothing here feels like the product of a varied, well-populated society at the apex of its technology. The Krypton of Man of Steel, quite simply, feels homogeneous, and, expansive though the visuals might be, I only expected to see green screens and mo-cap suits should the camera stray.
Most world-builders become so stuck on the idea that to succeed at this they must go it alone. What world-builders should understand is that even for the supremely gifted, worlds grow and thrive on diversity. The greater the variety of ideas, the more limitless the world will appear. The help of others will not diminish the genius of the person who originated the world, but rather make that person look like an even greater genius for having the capacity to recognize their own limitations and taking action to make sure the audience never sees them.
The world of Star Trek is one of the most salient, if longitudinal and unrepeatable, examples of this. Created in the mid-sixties, Star Trek has survived and thrived specifically because Gene Roddenberry created an incredibly sturdy frame on which to build. Over the decades, Star Trek has passed through many hands. While it is obvious that many ideas that might have been seen as promising at the time (like the mind control aliens in the first season finale of The Next Generation, or the “warp drive speed limit”) have fallen by the wayside, more important are the thousands of ideas that did not over the course of ten television series, six movies featuring the original cast, four movies with the Next Generation cast, two movies set in the “Kelvin timeline,” and enough tie-in novels and comic books to fill a starship.
Star Trek lives because Gene Roddenberry was smart enough to invite some of the best science-fiction writers of his time to contribute to the original. People like Harlan Ellison, Norman Spinrad, David Gerrold, Dorothy (D.C.) Fontana, Robert Bloch, Theodore Sturgeon, Richard Matheson, and George Clayton Johnson—along with Harve Bennett, and Rick Berman, and Michael Piller, and Ron Moore, and Brannon Braga, and J.J. Abrams, and Alex Kurtzman, and Akiva Goldsman, and Henry Alonso Myers later on—basically form one massive writers room straddling two centuries, all of them building, discarding, enhancing, and inventing within a universe that is now almost a genre into itself.
Every time one creator or team of creators assigned to Star Trek falls into repetition and fetishism—and the audience grows fatigued—a new team comes in to rejuvenate the franchise. Star Trek lives because, now more than ever, it belongs to no one, but is rather a plot of land that many talented writers have been called upon to care for over the years. The foundational ideas of Star Trek were so well defined by its creator, that every one that follows knows exactly what the country looks like and what they would like to explore within its frontiers.
While it is unlikely that any of us will achieve that level of success, the lesson is scalable: the more talented people a world-builder unites under a strong clear vision, the more that creator allows that strong and clear vision to be expanded, adopted, adapted, and improved, the more godlike the feats that world-builder can accomplish.
Otherwise, strap in for a decades-long solo flight…or a really, really fragile sense of reality.
IF ALL ELSE FAILS, MAKE IT LOOK GREAT
BUT IT HAS TO LOOK REALLY GREAT
The unkind words hurled at In Time above notwithstanding, Andrew Niccol is one of my favorite writer/directors; mostly on the strength of two of his films, Lord of War and Gattaca. The latter of these two is a masterpiece of science-fictional world-building. You may wonder, then, why I bring it up under so flip and snarky a heading as “If all else fails, make it look great.”
Gattaca is set in a futuristic world in which genetic engineering has made it possible for humans to order nigh-perfect children. As the film’s society progressed, two classes evolved: the “valids” and the genetically inferior “invalids.” Invalids are systematically kept from the upper strata of society, business, science, and all other lucrative career paths by a byzantine system of genetic security checks including constant blood draws. The plot of the film involves an invalid who uses the identity of a valid to make his way into the society’s space exploration program.
In truth, I do not know whether the world of Gattaca fits my criteria for successful world-building because, while I have seen the film upwards of a dozen times, I have never stopped to pick it apart. Why? It is one of the few films I have ever seen that actually manages to turn a profound fetishism for an aesthetic into a complete statement of content and purpose.
The style of Gattaca represents a colossal investment in mid-twentieth-century modernism. All the buildings look like they were designed by John Lautner, Philip Johnson, or Mies van der Rohe, the cars are all Rovers, Jaguars, Citroens, and Avantis from the nineteen-sixties (though always portrayed as whirring with electrical power), and the suits are all impeccably tailored in a style that puts Mad Men to shame (at the end of the film, the astronauts walk into their capsules and take-off on an interstellar mission wearing gorgeously tailored black suits and ties).
What makes Gattaca rise above being a primer on design fetishism is that the mid-twentieth-century modern aesthetic, though immediately recognizable, is incredibly rich with variety and accomplishment. Hundreds of designers working individually created the aesthetic, their work in conversation over the course of decades. As a result, the designs curated and created by Niccol and his team for the film are equally varied and in conversation. The working class environments all appear to be in the same society as those occupied by the wealthy, the cars all look as if they were manufactured by different companies but in the same universe with the same technology, the buildings look like they could exist in a real world, because they do: even if their aesthetic varies, it varies within a specific bandwidth, and when the aesthetic veers (as when the characters go to a rococo concert hall) it is with intention and in service of the narrative.
In this way, Gattaca is one of the most interesting examples of world-building I can name: a science-fiction film with a very heady concept, which unfolds both through theme and story as well as a sustained commitment to a singular aesthetic which nevertheless feels part of a real world…because it was. Through selection, curation, and purpose, the aesthetic goes from being a part of our world’s past to being the totality of a future world which, though mannered, feels lived in. Though it presents a density of sleekness and style that would drown a less carefully thought-out endeavor, Gattaca is a world that makes a major impression by being consistent in style, but never so homogeneously that it appears hermetically sealed.
Similarly, whether the Star Wars universe actually makes “sense” is a moot point, but for endless discussions among my nerdy brethren. The franchise might as well be the holy scripture of popular culture in the late 20th and early 21st century, and entire teams of writers, executives, and directors have been conscripted to make sure all the loose ends tie up. That much said, one of George Lucas’s greatest accomplishments in creating this world—back when he made the first film of the franchise—was in his stewardship of the film’s production design.
Prior to Star Wars, the dominant trope in science fiction production design was, ironically, a sort of streamline art deco that evolved into a type of bowdlerized mid-century modernism. While there are many great films in this design wheelhouse (ranging from Metropolis to 2001: A Space Odyssey), many others feel like the production designers merely tossed in a few Saarinen tulip chairs into the bridge of their starship and called it a day.
Part of what made Star Wars so revolutionary was that it presented a science-fictional universe that was extremely junky. As cool as all the roaring starships, and pew-pew lasers, and costumes and bumpy-headed aliens may have been, everything in Star Wars looks beat-up, used-up, and on the verge of a breakdown—and therefore lived-in, real, and therefore within the audience’s grasp. Because of the franchise’s influence, this aesthetic has become the norm in the decades since the film’s release. What making the Star Wars universe so worn in its first, budget-strapped, effort did for George Lucas and his saga was that it simultaneously created a tactile place that felt genuinely lived-in (and occasionally, smelly), and created a great contrast between the more polished surfaces of the world (the sheen of the floors of the Death Star versus the farms of Tatooine and the grime of the rebel base on Yavin 4).
Most importantly, by embracing the notion of a heavily trod-upon reality, the design elements of the Star Wars saga felt like they had been there a long time before the film took place. One of the best expressions ever told to me in filmmaking is “the audience doesn’t know what you didn’t show them,” in the case of the first Star Wars, there is a lot that the audience is not shown. Even after George Lucas went back and added a bunch of CGI shots to make the film appear more expansive, it bears noticing that for a film that kicked off a saga, what’s actually on the frame is pretty modest, especially by today’s standards. Because the film was so richly and cleverly designed, the audience gladly made the assumption that there were many more people, places, and things in this galaxy…people, places, and things that caused everything to be so shabby.
This assumption alone can open Wide Open Spaces beyond imagination.
“Making it look great” doesn’t necessarily mean “create a monolithic aesthetic that dominates the entire picture,” or “have everything in it look cool,” it means “create a sustained aesthetic that nevertheless allows in enough variety—enough air—that your setting starts to look bigger than it really is.” In truth, most forms of world-building consist of just that: creating not what is on the frame, but using it—visually, thematically, textually—to further the idea that there is more, much more, outside the frame.
The world we live in is the result of billions of decisions made by billions of people over thousands of years. The detritus of history, recent and ancient, is everywhere from the infrastructure to the ephemera. Clearly, I believe that the way to best approximate this on a television or movie timeframe is to articulate a strong and clear vision, and then embrace the input of many in order to test and expand that vision.
Even then, creating a convincing alternate reality is a daunting task. There is, however, one collaborator to which I have alluded repeatedly and whom every world-builder should look at closely.
Whenever I am asked for advice on how writers can succeed in a collaborative environment, I tell them that the best education I could have ever had in group storytelling was playing Dungeons & Dragons. In a game of D&D, a Dungeon Master, equipped with detailed maps, charts, and an outline of a story has to not just guide the players—all of them pretending to be characters in the adventure—through a story in which the players have choice and agency, but also narrate the world of the story to the players as it unfolds based on the actions of the characters.
While the story of a Dungeons & Dragons campaign may have a preferred outcome, Dungeon Masters need to be flexible, since the characters all have their own agenda within the game and its story. No one can prepare for every outcome in a game of D&D, but good Dungeon Masters share a gift for improvisation based on preset parameters, an ability to pivot easily without losing thread of the narrative, and to play and introduce characters as the story demands. Good Dungeon Masters don’t have to prove that they know everything in their world, they merely have to inspire faith in their players that they walk on solid ground and there’s world enough and time to convincingly accommodate any detour in the journey.
The audience may not know what you didn’t show them, but they did come to play along. The audience brings with them a good-faith desire to accept the reality, which their storytellers present. What these willing fellow travelers need from showrunners/directors/writers/novelists/producers is a defined enough sandbox, with just enough toys peeking to the surface to make them wonder whether there are more, how many more there may be, and whether it’s worthwhile to try to find them.
Much as this began with the assertion that the term “world- building” is usually the description of a result and not a process, the truth is also that not all successful results need to be as dense as one another, not all the threads need to be tied, and not all the locations need to be seen. In the same way that telling stories requires the audience’s suspension of disbelief, world-building requires that they make a leap of faith. To ask an audience to take that leap is to make an unspoken bargain. To create words, storytellers must promise their audience that even if they land outside the boundaries of the screen, stage, or page there will nevertheless be something, or someone, to catch them.
The good news is, you don’t have to be a god to inspire faith.
© 2023 Javier Grillo-Marxuach