The difference between world building and story: Character

A world-building script is a script that is heavily reliant on its setting. These are commonly genre scripts, but not always. A script that’s got an esoteric historical setting or relies on a densely woven political backstory has the same strengths, weaknesses and opportunities.

There’s nothing wrong with world building scripts, indeed many great stories have richly imagined worlds. Unfortunately, when beginners write world building scripts they often over-focus on world building at the expense of telling a story.

Here’s an example of a world building detail from our own universe:

The Rohingya people are a minority in Myanmar. They face extreme oppression from the government.

This is factual, true, but uncompelling. It’s sad, but there’s a lot of sad stuff in the world, and people have limited bandwidth for macro level detail, even in their own lives. That’s the power of story, finding the unique, human connection that makes use of larger bodies of information.

Here’s a hypothetical: imagine you’re in an airport, waiting for your flight. You see a little girl, plainly alone and frightened, standing by herself. She sees you, and instinctively runs over to you for help and comfort. You stand there awkwardly for a moment as she hugs you tightly, tears streaming down her face.

You go to talk to the airline people and shortly a pair of foreign aid workers come over. They thank you, show the right credentials, and explain that she’s a Rohingya orphan on her way to a foster family in Nebraska. As the little girl is carried off, she tells you “thank you” in badly accented English.

I’d wager you’d remember that little girl for the rest of your life.

Stalin said that when a person dies, it’s a tragedy, when a million die it’s a statistic. Like most of Stalin’s quotes, it’s incredibly cynical, but contains a germ of narrative truth. It’s weird that it’s easier to connect to one hypothetical little girl (who’s fortunate in the grand scheme of things) than it is to connect to the plight of suffering thousands. It’s weird, but that’s the way it is.

Hence, when you’re writing a story, be it a mundane one or one with fantastical world building, it’s important to keep things focused on the characters. Worlds are thinky and often daunting. Characters connect us to narrative.

RELATED: Emotional grounding/ Orienting

Difference between world building and story.

Published by Matt Lazarus

WGA screenwriter offering in-depth writing instruction, notes, critique, and assistance.

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