by John Bucher (@johnkbucher)
There are a number of ways that a writer can begin crafting a story. Many begin with a character – the protagonist. Others begin with a concept. While there is not one “right” way to begin constructing a story, there are many ways to help jump-start the process. One method is to begin by creating the world that your story will take place in.
When putting the world of your story together, it can be quite tempting to begin inserting characters, especially a main character that will traverse this world. While this isn’t always a bad thing, it can be a healthy discipline to remain focused solely on the world and not allow yourself to specify a character just yet. Here are four steps to creating a world for your story without immediately bringing a character into the narrative.
1. CREATE A CULTURE
At first, the thought of creating an entire culture for a world may seem overwhelming. It’s not necessary to take an academic approach to the task, detailing every aspect imaginable. Look for two to three major characteristics that will define the culture. Even one single description can paint a vivid image of the culture of the world. For example, we might describe a culture by saying this is a world where spells and magic still exists. Or we might say it’s a place where slavery is commonplace and freedom is rare. Whatever our description, we are trying to get down to what makes the place unique or different from the world we know – even if the story will take place in our world.
We might describe the culture in Game of Thrones by saying it is a world where noble families fight for control of mythical lands. In our modern world, a cultural setting could be described as the high-stakes dating world within LA’s black community – as is the case with Insecure.
2. CREATE VALUES
The values of the people within a given world tell us a great deal about its inhabitants. If life is cheap, we more thoroughly understand the landscape a protagonist must navigate in order to accomplish her or his goal. If acquiring and keeping wealth is the highest value of the world, we expect the story we create will likely deal with themes of greed, betrayal, and perhaps even extortion.
In Toy Story, being played with is a value within the culture of the toys. Turning to a completely different world, power is the ultimate value in The Deuce. Establishing what the people within the subculture of your story hold dear not only gives the audience insight into the characters you will later introduce, it also opens up plot possibilities for the story. When a value is threatened or violated within a culture, we will naturally expect conflict – the driving force behind any story.
3. CREATE A CONCEPT
Sometimes, the concept for a good story is the first thing we think of. In these cases, building a simple conceptual framework for the story world is a helpful part of the process. To be clear, the concept of the world may be quite different from the concept of the specific story you create. While they may be similar or even exactly the same, the concept of the world often has to do with the issues within the world that lead to conflict — which we will look at in more detail in a moment.
One way to approach the concept within the world is to begin with the question, “What would happen if…?” What would happen if cars transformed into human-like beings with personalities? What would happen if there was a spiritual battle between knights with martial arts skills in outer space? What would happen if a UFO accidentally left one of its crew members on earth? The concept should be simple and easy to understand. Details can come later.
With Breaking Bad, the concept behind the story asks, what happens when people find out they have cancer and will die leaving their families with nothing? The story world of drugs and power emerge from that concept, but that concept could have gone a multitude of different directions.
4. CREATE CONFLICT
Knowing the central conflicts in the world of a story helps us understand the stakes and the pressures that the characters in that world deal with. When we know the culture, values, and concept of a world, the conflict can become obvious. For example, if our story world is one where wealth and tradition trump emotions, where the highest value is marrying within your class, we can guess that the conflict might involve star-crossed lovers from opposing tribes. As stated earlier, the conflict should rise as a result of a transgression of values.
In the world of A Simple Favor, being a good parent is the highest value. When that value is transgressed, conflict spins out of control. The level of conflict that arises tells us a great deal about how important the lapsed value was within the world of the story, which in turn makes the world feel more authentic to the human experience – a value all writers should care about.
John Bucher is a writer, speaker, and story consultant based out of Los Angeles. He is the author of several books including The Inside Out Story and Master of the Cinematic Universe: The Secret Code to Writing in the New World of Media. He has written for entities ranging from HBO to U.S. Ambassadors. He teaches at The LA Film Studies Center and has conducted story seminars on five continents. He can be reached on Twitter @johnkbucher and through his site, tellingabetterstory.com.