It’s an absolute crime how pre-writing is so overlooked in the writing world. Have you read Stephen King’s On Writing? That was one of my favorite writing books as a kid and I took his advice as gospel. One of the tenets of his book was that too much outlining and prewriting killed the story, which made me instantly afraid of killing my story before I could discover it through the actual process of writing.
Now, I admire Stephen King and his Everything’s Eventual short story collection is beyond my absolute favorite short story collection of all time. However, the complete lack of pre-writing is evident in his long-winded books and out-of-place endings.
In movies — and especially television — you don’t have the luxury of writing hundreds of pages without a shred of an idea of what’s happening next.
So consider this my own series “On Writing.” Or, “On Pre-writing” I suppose.
3 Steps to World-Building
1. Research like a stalker.
When you’re creating a world that exists somewhere within our world as it stands today, you start to pick up some handy tools that are probably more applicable to that of a professional stalker:
- Google Streetview is perfect when you need to describe a suburban D.C. street down to the style of houses or the disheveled appearance of that unfortunate person in a bathrobe who happened walking their dog when the Google streetview car came down the street.
- Security camera feeds. Can you watch live security camera feeds around the world with just a click of a few buttons on Google? Shockingly, yes! It’s amazing what you can find on Google when you’re procrastinating on a final exam and want an intimate look into stranger’s lives in drug stores and street corners around the world! So much inspiration! (And questionable ethical access into the lives of others!)
- Travel blogs. Let’s be real: nobody cares about your travel blog. If I wanted to see what life was like in Italy, I’d watch House Hunters International, not hear about every single cute coffeeshop you went to and see all your touristy instagrams about the meals you ate. Unless I’m writing about the city you traveled in, then I want to hear about all of the names of those restaurants you went to so I can steal them and put them into my screenplay so that when you read it you can say, “wow! It’s just as if you actually went to Naples!” It is indeed. Thank you for your service, you wordy traveler bloggers.
2. Get specific so you can be universal.
If I say something like “growing up in the ’90s was a uniquely optimistic experience leading up to the current fiscal crisis” you’re going to fall asleep before I can get to the part about witnessing national tragedies.
However, if I tell you that “growing up in the ’90s was marked by whimsical times when Britney Spears actually had hair, the greatest accomplishment as a women was owning Lisa Frank accessories, and the scariest thing in our lives was when our Furbies would wake up and say ‘me love you’ across the room when we were trying to sleep” then you instantly can relate to me.
These details evoke such an all-encompassing picture of our lives because they give you the feel of the ’90s without me having to painstakingly describe every little mundane fact about the world I grew up in.
Here are some things you can do use specificity to be universal:
- Make a list of key details in this world. Not just your world, but about the characters that inhabit them. Get as specific as possible, and when you get stuck, start stealing from your own life.
- I have a friend who is a history encyclopedia with razor-sharp humor and in social settings he loves making jokes about fascist leaders and one day thinks he’ll join the French Foreign Legion and die honorably as an expatriate with an unfinished novel. He also has a well-researched working knowledge about expensive alcohol and the other day was telling me that tequila worms are a thing (seriously WORMS that live in tequila that apparently is a sign that it’s good tequila????) especially $100 bottles of tequila (he also somehow manages to acquire expensive booze). From these details, you get more of a sense of my friend rather than if I just said “he talks and drinks a lot and is a history buff and wants to travel.”
- Get more details than you need, then pare it down. Once you have these details, it’s also easier to condense them. I can boil my friend down to a “fast-talking history buff who can rattle off names of Russian Tsars and details about the crusades while drinking $100 bottles of liquor he always manages to acquire without spending a penny.” That’s a character description without all the discussion about the tequila worms. It works the same for building worlds and settings — get an inordinate of things on paper before narrowing your vision.
- Build off of a template. Pick a real-world counterpart to your fake world. I built an office in my script off of an office I was part of in real life.
3. Freewrite on different aspects of your world.
Freewriting is the heavy-lifting of prewriting. It helps you tap into the flow of creativity, and I talk about the benefits of freewriting in my talk on creativity I did last year as well as numerous places here on my blog.
Set a timer for 15-minutes and start writing. Give us a tour of your world, and do it in prose as if you were talking to your best friend. Be conversational and as specific as possible.
Do as many of these freewriting exercises as you need to get to know your world: write about the places, the people, the rules, the laws, the way it operates, the ways it’s different from the world we know.
You’ll be shocked by what you discover. It’s so easy to just dive in and start writing, but this big-picture exercise can transform your world and make it come to life in ways that will alter your script for the better.
Take the time and put in the effort to get to know your world before you start work.