World and Idea

Now you know your medium (script or prose) and your genre (namely the primary feeling you’re promising the audience) you are ready to define the world and the idea.

Your World

A story needs to be set somewhere.

This setting could be a particular location– a hospital, an alien planet, a haunted house – but it’s often more useful to use the broader concept of a “world“. This could be “the world of high stakes gambling”, “the world of parenting”, “the world of corrupt coppers”.

Audiences crave insight into worlds that are unfamiliar to them. We dive into books or movies or TV shows for a bit of escapism. That’s not to say you can’t have a world that’s about ordinary people doing ordinary things but even “everyday” people all have their own quirks and foibles and mannerisms and live somewhere specific that take the audience somewhere new and interesting.

Know your world

Audiences are also really good at spotting phoneys. We’re super-attuned to bullshit. So if, as an author or screenwriter, you’re going to give us an insight into a world we don’t know, you better know it really well yourself. Again this is one of those phrases that gets trolled around as “write about what you know”.

The actual advice ought to be “know about what you write”.

Your job as a writer is to deliver authenticity and escapism.

Jed Mercurio’s advice (check out his BBC Maestro course) is to “invent as little as possible”. In other words

  • If it possibly exists in the real world, research it
  • If it doesn’t exist, research around it. Then make up something plausible. Invent it.

Now research can be an excuse to get absolutely lost and spend a lot of time fannying around. If you want some of my tips on research check out this post here. But if you just want a basic idea the aim is to find what I call the surprising nugget of truth about the world. These are the little details that you might say to people “did you know that in seventeenth century villages … blah happened?”. Anything interesting and surprising (to you) can be woven into your story for authenticity. Get out there and know interesting things that other people don’t know. The truth is usually far more interesting than made up stuff.

Invented Worlds

Even if your world doesn’t exist, such as the near-future in which Red Dwarf begins, make the invented bits based on things we can relate to (“it’s like everyone remembers where they were when Cliff Richard was shot”). Even if you’re inventing a method of travelling between stars, make sure that the people doing the travelling are like us, with their same foibles and petty jealousies. We need to relate and we need to believe. And keep track of the things you did invent because the audience sure as hell will.1

If you don’t research it from real life, or better still, have lived it, it won’t ring true and audiences will smell it a mile away. You’ll be dead in the water before you start. Know your world inside out. This is an opportunity to have fun!

The Lens

Now you have a world, you need to know whose lens your using to look at that world. Are we in the world of confidence tricksters through the eyes of the fraudsters or the victims? Are we following owners training their dogs for crufts or are we dogs being trained by the owners? Usually we want to follow the most active participants. Sometimes we follow the criminals, who spend a lot of time trying not to draw attention to themselves, but mostly we follow the detectives. Usually we follow the doctors because patients tend to be more passive. But anyone immersed in that world, who is changing that world with their actions, will do.

The Twist

Finally there is the “idea”. This is the bit where you create an interesting circumstance. In other words, you have spent all your time creating that world, now you need to throw a spanner in the works. This is where the story or all your stories come from.

What shift from the norm, what interesting twist will set the events of your story in motion? Is there a new gang member in town? A new doctor on the scene? A recently promoted detective who takes a different approach from the rest of the team? What circumstance will set your story in motion and promise an interesting twist? Just watching airline pilots fly isn’t that interesting. Just watching doctors performing routine hip operations isn’t that interesting. This is where the work comes in – what might set things off-kilter. Only when you know your world can you introduce that tiny bit of unease that promises something worth sticking around for…

In Summary

  • Find a “world” you either know or are keen to learn about
  • Find some surprising nuggets of truth
  • Invent as little as possible
  • Choose whose eyes to see the world through
  • Leave a spanner lying dangerously close to the machinery…

Once you’ve done that there’s one more element you need to consider before you’re ready to start sharing your story summary, and that’s the main protagonist and antagonist

  1. This actually applies to everything you write. How often have you heard the phrase “I just didn’t believe she would react like that”. So keep this principle of invent as little as possible close to your heart. ↩︎

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