Welcome to Geek School! This new SYFY WIRE series will provide practical lessons in writing, producing, and selling the nerdy projects of your dreams, with advice from some of the top creators and professionals in the business. In this lesson, we're talking about worldbuilding for movies and TV shows.
Strong characters and intricate plots are important, but more than anything else, the success of science fiction, fantasy, and horror stories depends on making the impossible seem possible (or at least plausible). When you're asking audiences to buy into alien invasions, squads of superheroes, ghost hauntings, and alternate histories, they're likely going to have some questions; it's the job of the entire creative team to immerse viewers in a world in which skepticism is suspended, where natural laws and modern logic need not apply and literally anything can happen on screen.
DEFINING THE SETTING
Creating an immersive world starts, as all things do, with the writing. And in some cases, before the actual writing ever really happens. Travis Beacham, the screenwriter of the first Pacific Rim movie, began working on a feature screenplay for what would become this month's Amazon series Carnival Row in his dorm room back at film school. Trying to build a story and the Victorian fantasy world in which it takes place at the same time was proving difficult, which led to an important innovation.
"I would get hung up every time I'd [write] a new scene and I'd have to name a street or name a building or something, it was taking me forever to write it," Beacham tells SYFY WIRE. "Finally at some point, I just started drawing this map on my dorm room wall so that as I was writing, I could look over and reference it as you would reference a good map of a real place. What I found is that creates a confidence in the writing and a confidence in the storytelling of your taking things for granted as fact."
In this particular case, Beacham was plotting out the physical infrastructure of his location, but now he also aims to hash out the history of a place before diving too deep into his characters or plot. Establishing the setting and the realities facing its inhabitants is now at the top of his to-do list when breaking a brand-new story.
"I've found that if you look at the world as a character in its own right, just as you would have to know the backstory to any individual character that's coming into the world, you'd also have to know the backstory of the world itself," he says. "That's one of the first things I try to work out: What happened the day before this story began, and the day before that, and the day before that?"
The point isn't to design every far corner and nook and cranny of a world, though it's always better to be as comprehensive as possible. The human eye — and brain — can only see so far out, so like a great matte painting, the depth of the design is meant to make it seem like the fictional setting stretches beyond the horizon. In Carnival Row, much of the early action takes place in the slummy streets of the titular city, a neo-Victorian fantasy world that is part Dickens, part Rowling. It teems with life, aided by restaurants and brothels and different species of mythical humanoid creatures, each with their own concrete function.
"It gives the reader and the viewer the impression that this world has depth and has corners that you can look around and it keeps going," Beacham explains.
USING THE FAMILIAR
The screenwriters of this spring's hit Pokémon Detective Pikachu faced somewhat different challenges in this regard. On the one hand, they could rely on the fact that many audiences were already intimately familiar with the general rules of the Pokémon world thanks to over two decades of video games, cartoons, and other media, which meant that not only did they not have to invent the world from whole cloth, they didn't even have to explain some of its underpinnings to viewers.
But at the same time, they were also tasked with creating an entirely new city in which Pokémon were fully integrated into everyday life, with jobs, homes, and crucial functions. This had never been done before, and because fans were very well aware of the pre-established Pokémon universe, they had to handle this new chapter with extreme care and logic.
"When we were sitting down to write Pikachu, it really was like, what does it mean that there's a Jigglypuff in this bar? What does that mean to the regulars? What are the traffic patterns of the city because of Snorlax?" explains Dan Hernandez, who wrote the movie with his writing partner Benji Samit. "We felt like by really focusing on some of the underpinnings, the things that maybe you don't even necessarily see on the screen, but we as screenwriters know, we could write the world with some authority."
They didn't have a giant traffic grid map laid out as Beacham had on Carnival Row, but Hernandez and Samit said they had key locations plotted and understood how they wanted the city to feel. When the protagonist of the film, played by Justice Smith, steps off the train and right into the hustle and bustle of Ryme City, he's instantly surrounded by the multi-species commotion the pair had envisioned.
"What is the reality of a world where every animal is this fantastical creature living among us? That was a lot of the worldbuilding that we were tasked with," Hernandez says. "It's Pokémon doing manual labor. They have jobs, they interact with us. You step out of Grand Central Station in New York and there are people just going about their jobs. There's taxi drivers, businessmen, baristas; there are firefighters and construction workers. We wanted to capture the sense of this is commonplace, but when you add on these Pokémon to it, it becomes fantastic, somewhere you really want to spend time."
Their script contained a host of Pokémon going through the motions of their jobs, from firefighters and crossing guards to fry cooks and lounge singers. They only included a handful of the nearly 1000 Pokémon in total, but as Beacham noted, it's not necessary to overload the reader or viewer — they need to believe the world extends out past the horizon, not necessarily see it. More important is to present very concrete, thought-out examples and get particular about how they work.
"When we were thinking about the kind of things that Ryme City would have, we really felt like we want to have it be familiar enough that you could look at it and be like, 'This is a place that I could move to, except with one big difference,'" Samit notes.
In most cases, immersive worlds will build on the experience of the viewer, and even their special rules and features will rely on pre-established cultural signifiers — even Star Wars' Mos Eisley cantina, a very alien hive of scum and villainy, was obviously a bar that had live music and served drinks, providing audiences an earthly touchstone. In some movies with more contained worlds, it's the small details that clue audiences in to the larger picture and suggest an alternate reality of sorts.
In the case of Ready or Not, a new horror-thriller that hits theaters on August 21, nearly all of the action takes place on the grounds of a giant old estate. The place reeks of old money and modern avarice, and much of its decor was designed to match exactly what you might expect from a stereotypical post-Civil War mansion, even if you've never actually visited one.
"The old wood and the darkness, the richness of those locations, there's something that feels just kind of unachievable about that level of wealth," says Tyler Gillett, the film's co-director. "These dark wood walls in all of your rooms is an insane thing — there are all these little signifiers that normal people don't live in a place like this."
Far from establishing for the viewer the entire layout of the mansion, much of it is kept mysterious; few rooms are obviously connected, and the hallways are a maze with no exit. The movie is ultimately a deadly game of hide-and-go-seek, so creating uncertainty is actually a significant part of the worldbuilding.
"Aesthetically, we love the idea that shooting in all of these dark rooms allowed us to create all these pockets of shadows that help not only create this general feeling of darkness and claustrophobia, but [a feeling that] that you're not ever sure," Gillett says.
FOLLOWING YOUR RULES
The opening of Beacham's screenplay for Pacific Rim acts as a glossary and mini-prologue, laying out important terms and history for the near-future Earth in which it is set. There are a lot of technical terms that will help the reader picture how the giant Jaeger robots will look and work, as well as military jargon, government facility locations, common slang, geographic points of interest, and particulars about the fictional scientific principles that are at the core of the multi-universe alien invasion story.
Embedded within many of the definitions are bits of history about the major incidents that preceded the point at which the screenplay begins. Most prominent are loose hints about a major Kaiju attack that took place in Osaka, Japan, and both the wreckage left in its wake and the militarization that followed (in the movie, the first attack is on San Francisco). Providing that many details early on gives the reader confidence that the journey upon which they are about to embark doesn't have giant gaping holes in logic or detail.
Creating a firm history and technical blueprint isn't just crucial because they guide the reader; when used correctly, they also provide inviolable guidelines for the writer. When a writer is staring at a blank screen, it feels like anything is possible, but without parameters for the world they're building, the stories that take place within it won't face any friction or require any problem-solving. The first person to get a character out of a sticky situation is the screenwriter, and according to Beacham, it's crucial that they follow the rules they've created, even if nobody else yet knows them.
"I try to set hard rules. It is sort of counterintuitive, and if you're diving into something like this you'd think, 'Oh, the bonus of it is you can sort of make your own rules as you go,'" Beacham explains. "But that's such a dangerous contagion, I've found. Because if you set yourself hard rules and you're like, 'This is the world that makes sense and these are the rules of this world,' then it forces you to be creative about how you move through that world."
It's a "pet peeve" of his, Beacham says, when the story and world unfold a bit too conveniently, as if they were shaped and reshaped by the evolving needs of the writer. "That's another thing that separates poorly written genre stuff from well-written stuff: In the real world, you can't change the rules."
Hernandez and Samit say they are a little bit more liberal on this — not so much with regard to the tectonic plates on which the story rests, which they like to have hammered out earlier, but the little flairs that help make things fun for both the audience and, crucially, them as screenwriters. To wit: Knowing how dance clubs project music in Ryme wasn't essential from the start, but once they were working on a scene that needed a bit of flair, deciding that the Pokémon Loudred would act as the speakers was a fun and easy call. Similarly, they went back and forth on whether Ryme City would use Pokeballs, deciding against it later in the drafting process.
TWO KINDS OF WORLDS
For all the geographic details, historical timelines, and detailed rules Beacham laid out in his initial Carnival Row map, the opening of the first episode in the Amazon series provides only a short bit of history, outlining the major world events that precede where the show's story begins. It's a bit like how a TV show set in Europe in the late '40s might give a very brief outline of the Nazis and World War II, or a series that takes place after the Revolutionary War providing a quick synopsis of the first 200 years of action on the North American continent.
Similarly, Pacific Rim opens with a flashback to the first Kaiju attack, the death and destruction it wrought narrated by Charlie Hunnam, who stars in the movie. It then cuts to a flash sequence showing the development of the Jaeger technology, setting up the back-and-forth struggle that is ongoing when the action begins.
Few of the definitions or details that Beacham put up at the top of his screenplay are presented to the viewer, a purposeful omission.
"There are two different kinds of fantasy stories: You've got the Alice in Wonderland type and then you have the Blade Runners," Beacham explains. "With the Alice in Wonderland type, the viewers have a surrogate that's dropped in and you're learning everything through their eyes. But if you look at something like Blade Runner, you have no surrogate. You're following lives in that world and you are dropped in and you're just sort of expected to work it out. I've always found those sorts of stories more engaging."
At this point, he says, people who have watched or read a lot of genre stuff know the basic rules, or at least what to look for early on. And because basically everything is genre these days, over-explaining can quickly become tedious, especially if it's through unceasing expository dialogue.
"They've seen magical swords before," he says. "They've seen time travel before, they've seen all this stuff before and they don't want to have their hands held."
In short: Write a lengthy travel guide, explain the first page, and let audiences explore the rest for themselves while providing gentle guidance when needed.