5 Keys to Building the World of Your Screenplay

by ScreenCraft - updated on August 19, 2019

Brianne Hogan is a freelance writer and screenwriter (and sometimes actor) based in Toronto. She has a degree in Dramatic Literature and Film Studies from NYU, but has probably learned more about the art of screenwriting from watching Netflix all day. Her byline's appeared in Creative Screenwriting, Elle Canada, HelloGiggles, among others. You can follow her on Twitter @briannehogan.

I am an impatient writer. Though I appreciate the value and importance of outlining now, I used to hate it (I kind of still do). So it’s not a huge surprise that I didn’t enjoy the prep work that goes into creating a world for my story. I used to just wing it, and plunge right into the story, including arbitrary locations and hope for the best. Bad idea. Not only would I write myself into corners, but my scripts were also missing the kind of uniqueness that only the specificity of place can bring.

Just as we humans need our Mother Earth to live and breathe and have something to interact with, your characters also need a particular world — whether it’s another planet in galaxy far, far away or a neighborhood in Brooklyn — to live and breathe and interact with.

That’s why creating a story world is one of the most important elements of your screenplay. You got the story, the characters and plot — now where will they play? In the world you’ve created, of course.

As you begin creating, outlining and writing, here are some things to keep in mind while you are building the world of your screenplay.

1. Every Script Needs a World

When most writers hear the term “world building,” we often think of fantasy flicks and sci-fi stories, like Star Wars, Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings. While these genres thrive on creating unique universes, don’t think for a moment that your rom-com spec won’t also sing from being specific with place. A romantic comedy set in New York City will be very different than one set in Wisconsin. Can you imagine Sex and the City in a city other than Manhattan? Me neither. That’s because its location was so vital to the characters and their stories. Like a good real estate agent, remember: location, location, location! The story world you create in your screenplay can be as big as a magical kingdom, or as small as an apartment. In this case, size doesn’t matter — but where you place it, does.

2. Every Character Needs a World

John Truby, in The Anatomy of Story, writes: "creating a unique world for the story — and organically connecting it to the characters — is as essential to great storytelling as character, plot, theme, and dialogue." Your character’s world is a big deal to her. If she’s a shy country mouse moving to a big city for the first time, you better believe that the city — her world — will have an impact on her. Just as the protagonist’s interaction with characters give meaning to your story, so does her interactions with her world. As Truby said, “the world of the story is an expression of who your hero is.” Whether your characters routinely frequent a coffee spot like our favorite Friends, or they are battling the wilderness like Leonardo DiCaprio in The Revenant, their world helps tell their specific story. As Truby says, “you create a story world to express and manifest your characters, especially your hero."

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3. Become an All-Knowing Zuul of Your World

Stephen King once said, “Belief and reader absorption come in the details,” so in order to get a reader’s — and audience member’s — undivided attention, go nuts with the nitty gritty! When creating a world that’s un-Earth-like, or even from another historical time, you need to think of everything: government, laws, technology, customs, religions, food, how people talk, what they wear, etc. J.K. Rowling does an amazing job of world building with the Harry Potter series, and it’s because of her awesome attention to detail. From Butter Beer to Quidditch, we know so much about these characters and the world in which they live. Have fun with it. Stretch your imagination. Do your research. Know the ins and outs of your world. Most importantly, believe in the world you have created. If you don’t, then no one will. It’s your attention to details that will reveal your originality and unique voice.

4. Stick to the Rules

Consistency is key, especially when one is creating a whole new world whether it’s fantasy, science fiction, or comedy. Rules are crucial. Having a set of rules prevents plot holes and head-scratching moments. If you don’t set up the rules of the universe right away, your superhero suddenly having night vision on page 70 will seem pretty darn convenient (not to mention confusing). Similarly, you must adhere to the rules of your world throughout the entire story. By setting up the customs of your aliens/vampires/magicians in the first 10 pages of your screenplay and sticking to them, you will not only create a tone and style to your screenplay, but you’ll also be writing a solid project that makes sense in and of itself. Making up things as you go along and changing “rules” willy-nilly will leave your reader confused and irritated. No bueno.

5. Let the World Serve Your Story, Not the Other Way Around

Stephen King also said, “Remember that word back. That’s where the research belongs: as far in the background and the back story as you can get it.” Sometimes writers get so wrapped up in their new worlds that they often lose sight of their story. As much as you think your world is so creative and cool, if you pay more attention to it rather than to your story, then you will no doubt bore, and possibly confuse, your audience. The world must accommodate and reflect the plot, theme and the protagonist of your script — not the other way around. Incorporating tons of imagination and research into your story is great — and sometimes necessary — but don’t let it highjack your screenplay.

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