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.

World Building 101

ME: Specs with a lot of world building have a built in problem…

SOMEONE ELSE: Screw the rules! I’m not a hack like you! I’m creative! Enjoy riding your formula train to mediocrityville!

Okay, look, there’s no script god, and even if there was, he’s not going to strike you down for setting a story in the land of Elsenduff, where the Centaurs, the Ogres, and the Flitterkin have a tense, three-way alliance. World building is an effective tool in the screenwriter’s toolkit. That said, all scripts are a collection of choices. Each choice brings with it strengths and weaknesses. It’s important to understand what you’re signing on for.

1. Defining World Building

In a sense, all scripts take place in some sort of “unusual world,” even if that unusual world is a metaphor for the uneasy psychological territory the character finds themselves in after the plot incites an incident in the ordinary world.

Once upon a time there was a _________. Every day they did ___________. Until one day _______. And so… *Source – the oft quoted Pixar’s Rules of Writing post.

Breaking Bad rarely strays from New Mexico, but Walter White finds himself in a strange new underworld once he gets involved in crime.

Lorenzo’s Oil starts with ordinary parents. When their son gets sick, they must move heaven and earth to save him.

You get the idea. If these were fables, the characters would go to some Jungian underworld to seize some totemic sword. In modern times, they just suffer a lot, which usually forces some kind of change. The metaphorical world is not what people are talking about when they talk about world building.

All scripts have settings. The degree to which a setting takes a script into world-building territory is the degree to which it challenges our understanding of how things work.

Many fantasy/horror scripts use our mundane world, then lay a genre element over them. Ghost has ghosts. Wolf has werewolves. The X-Files, True Blood and Buffy have a plethora of weird things, but they exist in a recognizable real world. These are light on the actual world buidling part, but still have unusual stuff that needs to be explained.

A world-building script is a script where a new world is introduced, one that has different rules and customs, things that need to be explained.

Many fantasy scripts take a normal character to a new world. The Wizard of Oz. Alice in Wonderland. South Park’s Imaginationland. These have to explain the world, but they have an easy time of it, because there’s a relatable POV character to ask the right questions and react to things as a normal person might. If a character from our world finds himself in the Gravity Forests where rain falls upwards, they ground the reality by pointing out the unusual and reacting to it.

Then there are world building scripts where the unusual reality is the “ordinary” part of the story. These include – fantasy/scifi worlds like Middle Earth, the Star Wars Universe. Scripts that take place in the far future. Scripts that take place in the distant past (I accept that Weimar Republic existed, but if I see two gay guys kissing in the street, I’m going to need a little more context to understand how brave they’re being). If a trailer begins with “In a world,” odds are it’s one of these. The more out-there the world is, the more grounded it needs to be.

2. Explanation and Grounding

If an evil wizard has a ton of powers, there ought to be some explanation for why he can’t just wish our heroes dead. If a DeLorean goes back in time, you’ll probably want some plot-specific limitation on its crazy powers. You don’t always need to explain this (ghosts in movies like THE GRUDGE probably could just kill our heroes, but they don’t because… ghost reasons), but sometimes its necessary, even if the answer is silly. Movie explanations are less about explaining time travel,and more about some one in the scene having the presence of mind to at least ask about it.

This becomes harder in a world that’s removed from ours. Bilbo Baggins isn’t going to look out on Middle Earth and say, “Gosh, isn’t it unusual that I live on a planet with dozens of other intelligent species?” The story has to set up the rules, usually by showing, not telling. BAD: A title card says: In this world, cursing is the worst thing ever. BETTER: Cops chasing a serial killer give up on him to take down a guy who says “Damn.”

You can also ground a world via a character’s emotional reactions to things.

If Bob and Alice are humans in a magical world full of beings called Xdys, I’m lost.. But we can infer a lot about the world by how the characters react:

BOB: I saw a red Xdys.

ALICE: Sigh. Is it Monday already?

BOB: I saw a blue Xdys.

ALICE: Are you getting high again?

BOB: I saw a black Xdys.

ALICE: It… it can’t be. We’re all going to die. I… I’ve always loved you, Bob.

For more on this complex topic, read this:[1]

3. Space Constraints

The problem with this exposition and setup is that it takes up a lot of space. In any story, your first act has to establish character relationships and what each of their deals is, and you’ve got to set up high concept props, stakes, and other stuff. In a worldbuilding story you have to do all that, plus the setup for the world. This will usually require more space.

Here’s where someone’s going to say, You hack! There are no rules! Why should I restrict myself to 120 pages or less? Did you know Reservoir Dogs was 131 pages?

To which I say, sure, do what you want. We’ve already discussed the absence of a script god. But still…

The page restriction is a cultural bias. The bias might be silly, but it exists and should be accounted for. A good, but unknown writer who writes a 131 pages might need every goddamn line to tell his amazing story, but he ends up ghettoizing himself into the same category as the dozens of terrible writers who don’t know how to edit themselves and don’t understand how perception influences opinions.

Putting it another way, the page limit is like a salary cap in the NBA or NFL. There, teams can only spend so much on player salary, or else they incur penalties. The salary cap is a written rule intended to prevent rich teams from buying all the stars. The page count is an unwritten rule that prevents readers from having to read 151 page drafts (gotta draw the line somewhere).

People can and do go over 120 pages, but there’s a penalty. You risk a reader’s goodwill and faith that you know what you’re doing.

Putting it a different way, the longer your script is, the more you’re raising the bar for yourself. If you’re going to inflict a 131 page draft on someone, there’d better be a damn good reason for every line, and it had better be as good or better than Reservoir Dogs. Good luck with that.

Given all this, setting up a world takes away valuable pages that might be better served elsewhere. Like in telling a great story, writing a moving scene, or just slowing down the rhythm of a plot and creating some blessed white space.

4. World building is secondary to telling a good story, entertaining people, whatever you want to call it.

You might have a great fantasy world, a well-researched period piece, or an exceedingly complicated set of alliances. God forbid, you might even have all three in the same script.

Unfortunately, not everyone is going to find the Elvish Language/1920’s Paris/the Trade Federation as interesting as you do. Bad worldbuilding scripts inflict themselves on the reader, like a 1980’s comedy character who wants to show you vacation slides.

The trick is to write a story that’s so good that it will appeal to someone who might not even like the genre or setting (Game of Thrones and Star Wars are great at this. Star Trek has always struggled with it).

Simply put – if you’re going to spend 25-30 pages making me learn the rules, minutia and trivia of your make-believe fantasy land, there had better be some damn good payoff for it. I don’t want to learn new things so I can be lectured on genetics, go on a travelogue to imaginary places, or learn about the political structures of non-existent governing bodies. I want something awesome.

The world and exposition of Star Wars enables this awesome stuff:

  • Using the force
  • Awesome space battles that look suspiciously like WWII
  • Lightsabers
  • Darth Freaking Vader.

The world and exposition of Game of Thrones enables:

  • Trial by combat
  • The Battle of the Blackwater
  • Ice zombies attacking the realms of men.
  • Intrigue and investmen (one of the many reasons why the franchise works better in TV than it would as a movie)
  • Tyrion Freaking Lannister

The world and exposition of Harry Potter enables:

  • Quidditch!
  • The Chamber of Secrets
  • Tom Riddle’s evil diary
  • House elves, time turners and the Deathly Hallows (okay, bad example).
  • Severus Freaking Snape

A bad world building script enables

  • More world building!
  • Travelogue!
  • Scenes of people talking that might actually be better if they were talking about anything other than the world.
  • Fight scenes that become boring because it’s not clear what weapons can hurt what armor.
  • Lots and lots of names and genealogy that have nothing to do with the plot.
  • Dense and crammed pages because the author prioritized putting a ten line speech explaining stuff on every other page instead of investing that space into action, character, or anything moving, investing, or fun.

5. In Closing

World building is not storytelling. World building is only useful to the degree that it allows the story to do awesome things that wouldn’t be possible without it.

You can do anything you want in writing, you’re just making a series of choices. If you’re going to make a big choice on the world, it’s important to know the pros and cons of that choice. Or ignore everything I just said. It’s your damn script.

Emotional grounding in world building via “the orienting effect”

The following is the work of Alex Berg, excerpted from this blog. He talks about using emotions to ground, frame and orient a reader in insane fictional worlds. I think every writer should read this one.

“The example I’ve been using for years to demonstrate the benefits of emotional heightening is a fictional scene titled “The Land of the Weird Dragons.” In this scene, let us suppose that we had a dragon who breathes penises instead of fire. One can easily imagine making a move to heighten the game of this scene by introducing a dragon that breathes vaginas instead of fire. However, this is a lateral move, in that a dragon that breathes penises instead of fire is neither more or less absurd than a dragon that breathes vaginas instead of fire. The absurdity has reached a saturation point…”

…Let us now imagine that there’s a dragonslayer, set out to fight these weird dragons. We can now judge whether or not one of these dragons is a weirder, more heightened dragon based on the strength of his emotional response. If he responds to the penis dragon with “Oh dear… a penis dragon,” and the vagina dragon with “WHAT?!? A vagina dragon?” then we can say that the vagina dragon is indeed weirder. However, if he responds to the vagina dragon with “Oh no… vagina dragon!” and the penis dragon with “EGADS!!! What madness is this penis dragon?!?” then we know that the penis dragon is weirder. But note that we haven’t changed anything about either dragon, the stimuli in this example have remained stable. We’ve simply introduced a trustworthy emotional proxy for the audience, and we’re evaluating the intensity of his emotional response.

That the intensity of an emotional response is positively correlated to how unusual a stimulus is well documented in psychology, and is called the Orienting Response. Here’s a quick quote from our modern day Lighthouse of Alexandria, Wikipedia:

The orienting response is a reaction to novel or significant stimuli. In the 1950s the orienting response was studied systematically by the Russian scientist Evgeny Sokolov, who documented the phenomenon called “habituation”, referring to a gradual “familiarity effect” and reduction of the orienting response with repeated stimulus presentations.

Really, just read the blog in its entirety.

The difference between world-building and story:

  1. The world of Star Wars has planets and aliens and mythology. You could tell any number of stories in the Star Wars Universe, as evidenced by all the sequel and spin off novels that exist.
  2. The story of Star Wars is what’s portable, that has nothing to do with the setting. Here are some terrible examples.

Luke Smith is an orphan in the Old West. One day, he meets a messenger, looking for Old Ben Kennuck, a grizzled veteran. He teams up with Old Ben to save Cherokee Princess Leia from Dark Vic, a deadly gunslinger.

Ryuko Sukaiwaa is an orphan in Samurai times. He meets a messenger looking for Kenobi-sensi, who turns out to be a missing imperial guard. He and Kenobi team up to save the Emperor’s daughter Reiya from Daimyo Abayitsu, an evil samurai lord.

You get the idea.

If you’re stuck on a story, consider writing a one page plot precis and then change the setting. Your story isn’t about worldbuilding or specific details, it’s about archetypal relationships, the primitive, primal stuff. The stuff you could pitch to a caveman. By solving the story in the one page version using, say, old western specifics, you can then translate the old west specifics into something that fixes your actual plot.

We’re not writing RPG sourcebooks here, the most detailed fictional world is meaningless if you don’t tie it to an involving and universal story. Obviously some world building is good, but you don’t want so much that it chokes out the story part of your screenplay.

Common problem: The Geopolitics of Fictional Places (or the perils of world building)

“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?


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: