The World of The Story

If you want to create an apple pie from scratch, you must first create the universe.”

Carl Sagan

A failing of many films is that they have a solid, three-dimensional prot­ag­onist at their centre but the world in which the action takes place is wispy and diffuse at the edges. We believe in the char­ac­ters but we fail to be convinced by the setting of the story.

The “World of The Story” is a term coined by William Goldman in his enter­taining and inform­ative book: “Adven­tures in The Screen­trade.” Goldman uses it specific­ally in talking about the begin­ning of feature films, where he sees the period of time just before or during the credits as an oppor­tunity for the writer to estab­lish a specific “world”.

This world can be shown through a phys­ical setting; a geograph­ical loca­tion for the story (for example the familiar swooping aerial shots of a city, coast­line, or country.) It can be temporal, setting up a histor­ical period (busy streets, swarming with horse-drawn carriages and vendors); or it can be a scene, or scenes, that attempt to go to the heart of the theme of the story; estab­lishing a style or a set of values, or even a prevailing mood.

Goldman uses it solely in the context of feature films but it has wider applic­a­tion. Part of the task of writing any story is the creation of a micro­cosmic world. Film being a highly concrete and specific medium, the care and detail you put into defining that world, your intimate under­standing of its bound­aries and its rules, will make all the differ­ence.  Good films have a sense of integ­rity about them: however outlandish their partic­ular universe, we accept its rules and allow ourselves to be convinced by them.

The setting is like another char­acter. So try to make it as three-dimensional and inter­esting as all your other characters.

Xander Bennett, Screen­writing Tips You Hack

The setting is all about making the reader believe in the world you are trying to create. I emphasise reader because it’s easy to forget that the screenplay’s first audi­ence is made up of readers – produ­cers, script exec­ut­ives, devel­op­ment peopLe, finan­ciers, directors and actors. I see a lot of scripts written in the minim­alist Holly­wood style. In the worst of these, stage direc­tions are terse and make little effort to create the illu­sion that this world is real.

Ronan Bennett, scriptwriter, On how to write with a sense of place

Value System

Every story contains a theme ; meaning that, either consciously or uncon­sciously, it makes a state­ment about the universal human condi­tion. This is express­ible in terms of an “ideal value” which gives a value basis and appro­pri­ate­ness to other ideas in the story. For example: Optim­istic – love conquers all; Pess­im­istic – evil triumphs; Iron­ical – love is an exquisite pain.

Robert McKee

As well as the phys­ical setting, most stories contain a value system that is relative to the theme of the story. This also sets up a point of iden­ti­fic­a­tion for the audi­ence (some­times called “the point of good”). For example, the Corleone family in The Godfather films are empath­etic char­ac­ters, despite being gang­sters, because the world that surrounds them is even darker and more dangerous than them.

The relat­ively flex­ible nature of this value system within a dramatic construct allows us to tolerate qual­ities in char­ac­ters that we would not tolerate in real people.

Chaos and order

There is also another dimen­sion to drama: the struggle between chaos and order which is part of dramatic devel­op­ment (this is further discussed in the section on Arche­types and Villains and Monsters).

AlignmentIn role-playing games, players roll dice to generate the attrib­utes of their char­ac­ters along two different axis – good and evil is one, chaotic and lawful the other.

Under this system, Hitler, for example, would be defined as lawful-evil, while Dr Who would be chaotic-good. Gamers refer to this as the character’s ‘align­ment‘ and it is a useful predictor of how a char­acter will behave in the game.

Using this second axis, instead of just the moral one (good vs evil), is a very old idea in dramatic writing. It under­lines yet again the deep connec­tion between char­acter and struc­ture in story-telling. (You can read more about this in the sections on Char­acter)

Value system and theme

The value system that is either implicit or explicit within the world of your story is of course also very much connected with the theme of the story itself.  But, as we said earlier, (see Story Devel­op­ment), it is unlikely you will be fully aware of these niceties when you start to write.

Most writers will concen­trate on finding a story-line first. It may take longer before you can put your finger on what the story is ‘saying’ or is capable of saying.

Don’t worry about it – really. Let the story reveal its poten­tial as it develops.

Two Worlds

This could also be called the “we’re-not-in-Kansas-any-more” rule.

Charles Deemer, in his book Prac­tical Screen­writing, puts forward an alternate model that uses the concept of two worlds. The hero or prot­ag­onist begins in one world; gener­ally the everyday world they normally inhabit; and then crosses over or is trans­ported into another world.

This world might be a completely different place – like Oz or Narnia – or simply one that has been trans­figured by some­thing they do or some­thing that happens to them (for example the ordinary person who gets acci­dent­ally caught up in the world of inter­na­tional espi­onage or drug trafficking).

This may well be a useful model for certain types of story; although gener­ally there will tend to be one world that is the dominant – espe­cially if the film belongs to an iden­ti­fi­able genre.


The complic­ated premise

Your setting is allowed to have one huge differ­ence from our reality and audi­ences will accept it. But when your world has two or more devi­ations from the norm, disbe­lief gets harder and harder to suspend.

Try this pitching exer­cise: imagine a future world in which every­body talks to ghosts telepathically.

See how you reflex­ively rolled your eyes? That’s because it’s an example of double jeop­ardy – two outlandish setting elements combined. For whatever reason, it’s easier for audi­ences to accept ghosts or tele­pathy than to embrace the idea of a world in which the prot­ag­onist always knows what Prin­cess Di’s ghost is thinking.”

Xander Bennett, Screen­writing Tips You Hack

This is effect­ively a restating of the reminder that adding complic­a­tions to your story is not usually the best way to keep your audience’s interest – espe­cially when those complic­a­tions concern the basic premise.

Quite often students will choose a premise that is trying to roll up a whole raft of different genres into one package  – a science fiction story and a ghost story and a conspiracy thriller and so on … This kind of confec­tion is usually dreamed up to disguise the basic weak­ness of an idea. It rarely works.

Good story ideas, like good stories, tend to be both strong and simple in concept. They hit you between the eyes with their obvi­ous­ness and make you exclaim: “Why has nobody ever thought of that before?”

David Clough ©1995

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