“The world of Xanthagar has four factions. The Avian REGLAXIANS, the psychic WOOTMEN, the undead HRASIS, and the multicolored SENTAGAR. They have lived in an constant war for fifteen centuries since the ARTAX CONFERENCE, but it is said a prophesied hero will…” A composite sketch of the opening of a certain kind of bad script. People hate reading these and they never get made.

250px-TSR2408_Dragon_KingsScripts like these are written by scifi loving nerds who grew up reading Star Wars encyclopedias and Dungeons and Dragons source books, and came away with the notion that that’s how screenwriting is supposed to work. Their scripts hit a problem that I call “the Geopolitics of fictional places.”

As of this writing, the current House Minority Whip is Steny Hoyer. I’m pretty certain you didn’t know that, and it’s also a safe assumption that you join me and the rest of America in not knowing who the Rohingya people are, nor are you taking any action to stop the genocide that they’re experiencing in Myanmar.  It’s hard enough to care about real life factions in real life government, so when someone asks me to remember the distinctions between the various trade guilds of the Reglaxian empire, I just shut down. These are worlds that ask for a lot of investment, but generally lack a payoff that might make the reader glad he made the investment. The vast, vast majority of these worlds lack the really great story to justify the effort, simply because all that world building takes up the space necessary to deliver the narrative goods.  Besides, why would they buy the world of Xanthagar, when they could just as easily option a game, comic, or novel?

Targtree2

A disproportionate percentage of writers are nerds, and nerds tend to gravitate towards deeply textured worlds, where the events of the story are like the tip of an iceberg, a fraction of a much greater whole. Worlds like these work well in comics and novels, and it’s these that get made into movies (HARRY POTTER, LORD OF THE RINGS). Movies with dense, original worlds (WILLOW, DELGO) work less well, unless they originated from very famous directors (AVATAR, INCEPTION). Even these stories work in SIMPLE DICHOTOMIES: good/evil, hot/cold, red/blue. When you get a world where there are 8 different factions with a different elemental alignment, you’ve created a world that’s too complicated to follow, that gets crushed under the gravity of it’s own world building.

WRITERS DON’T MAKE THEIR LIVING OFF OF SPECS, they get hired to adapt other people’s ideas. You’re writing a sample with the hopes of getting hired off of it, so focus on character and structure, don’t waste your time rendering a needlessly complicated world. Scripts like the example above don’t get sold, and read more like a wiki for a videogame than a self contained narrative. Remember, you’re writing a screen story for a mass audience, not a political treatise on the geopolitics of a fictional place.

P.S.  I know someone’s gonna say “STAR WARS.”  Look, it was one movie from 36 years ago.  I’m glad it happened, but it’s not exactly a relevant, modern example.

UPDATE: My friend the wise and accomplished screenwriter Garret made the following observation way more eloquent and smartily than I managed to.  It was too good not to use.

Your actual point is about simplifying world-building, which is great advice.  Keep things simple and streamlined, Don’t bog down in labyrinthine details. Don’t overload your audience with minutiae. All of this is very sound writing strategy that has nothing to do with merchandising or even budgets.

And it’s a lesson that classic STAR WARS took to heart and was a better film for it. When the prequels started off by talking about trade disputes and politics, everyone’s eyes immediately began to glaze over.

Or, more succinctly:

starwars4_0250

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8 thoughts on “Common problem: The Geopolitics of Fictional Places (or the perils of world building)

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  1. Great article. But, Matt, STAR WARS is a sterling example of your main points and remains entirely relevant.

    It is EXCEEDINGLY simple in its world building. It’s the ultimate dichotomy. Good Vs Evil. Writ large.

    EVIL EMPIRE. Villain wears a black helmet. Light Side/Dark side. That’s quite literally all you need to know.

  2. When was the last time a studio put that much money into an untested concept and world, and GAVE AWAY THE MERCHANDISING RIGHTS? Seriously, that example is from the stone age. Great movie, terrible case study.

  3. Well, of course the merchandising thing has never happened since and never will happen again.

    And, yes, it’s becoming increasingly unlikely for them to spend tons of money on event movies that aren’t based on an existing IP, or, as you point out, come from tested filmmakers like Nolan and James Cameron.

    However, that wasn’t the real point of your post. Your actual point is about simplifying world-building, which is great advice.

    Keep things simple and streamlined, Don’t bog down in labyrinthine details. Don’t overload your audience with minutiae. All of this is very sound writing strategy that has nothing to do with merchandising or even budgets.

    And it’s a lesson that classic STAR WARS took to heart and was a better film for it. When the prequels started off by talking about trade disputes and politics, everyone’s eyes immediately began to glaze over.

  4. Interesting article, Matt. I’m in the process of writing my first novel and currently exploring how important place is in a story (http://mikhaeylakopievsky.wordpress.com/2013/09/27/space-vs-place/). I have come to the general conclusion that an authentic place that is well written can provide subtle context for and additional insight into characters and their relationships. Do you think this is different for film, where spaces, places and landscapes are a visual device that can be scrutinized or ignored to various degrees by audiences? Is developing and exploring a character’s sense of place important in film? Grateful for your thoughts…

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