The key to creating an epic novel or screenplay is to create a world that the reader can fully immerse themselves in. No matter what the setting (real or fictional) it needs to be fully fleshed out with a clear sense of time, place and rules.
It was a bright cold day in April and the clocks were striking 13.
1984, George Orwell.
With one line the reader knows the story takes place in April in a world similar to ours but it is clearly established that something is amiss and out of the ordinary. We, as the readers, know that there is no clock that strikes 13 in the real world but Orwell invites us to suspend belief and quickly identifies that the rules of this world are different. It intrigues the reader and invites them on a journey to uncover the mysterious and murky world that is the setting of 1984 where something is terribly wrong. The aim of this post is to help you, as the writer, to similarly create a story world that rings true to life and makes sense to the reader.
When working on your manuscript you need to establish the world your characters live in, the rules they live by and what conflict they face as a result. This sounds overwhelming but it can be broken down in to chunks of information that is necessary to the plot at a particular point in time.
This can be taken literally or figuratively; it is essentially determining when your story takes place and why. If it is a historical romance there probably aren’t going to be any cars or televisions around, and likewise if it set in the future you will need to think about how you can demonstrate this (technology, clothing, housing).
It can also be used to reflect the political and societal climate and challenges that your protagonist will face. Are the people happy and if not, why? An excellent example of this is found in the Minority Report (2002) film where the advanced technology of the future enables law officials to predict crimes before they occur which sounds great in theory but in reality there are evident flaws with the system as the protagonist, John Anderton, begins to recognise that the Precrime system does not allow for free will or determine how events can be changed with knowledge before they happen. This example demonstrates when the story takes place, but more importantly shows the possible effects of future technology as a warning to its viewers.
It is also important to make note of the length of time that the events that take place over in our manuscript and consider how you can show this, particularly in a story world where the events spans weeks, months or even years. The pace and tone of the story you are working on should reflect the passage of time; an action thriller should move quickly and consistently to ratchet up the immediate tension whereas a drama may move at a slower pace with events unfolding slowly and over a longer period of time with far reaching consequences. This helps to establish the world your story takes place in by setting a pace that your reader can expect to follow.
The Harry Potter series is one of the best examples I can think of where a fully fleshed out fictional world, complete with hidden towns, political institutions, schools and even a sports arena, exists within the ‘real world’ we exist in. J K Rowling paints a mesmerising image of a whole world that is only visible to magical beings by describing Harry Potter’s impressions as a novice to this strange new world as he enters Diagon Alley with Hagrid. The initial foray in to Diagon Alley paints a vivid introduction in to a place where witchcraft is openly practiced, mysterious magical objects are used as tools and a sense of community exists. It gives the reader much needed information about this new world before thrusting them in to the mayhem that is Hogwarts, complete with a Forbidden Forest, ghosts, moving staircases and teachers that occasionally turn in to cats.
Now you don’t have to have a protagonist who is completely new to the setting of your imagination to describe how it looks, feels and fits in to the story but you do need to give the readers some context and understanding of where the story takes place. For those of you who have read earlier posts describing the story of trucker girl you will know that it is set in the North of England where trucker girl drives a lorry across the country delivering supplies but for readers just setting of on her journey this needs to be made clear. I could do this by describing visual landmarks, reference to points of interest (e.g. road signs), interactions with secondary characters and depicting how communities live. You can use similar tools to describe your own story world.
What rules apply in the world of your story? No matter when or where your story takes place there are rules to be followed; this can the law of the land, a moral code of conduct or even limits to magic or technology. Likewise if the rules are broken it must be for good reason and have consequences for the characters that inhabit the world.
The rules of your world must make sense to the reader and remain consistent throughout; believe it or not but they might just notice if you have previously claimed that no woman has given birth for 50 years then write a scene where your protagonist is seen cuddling an infant (unless you’re rewriting Children of Men then proceed as you will). For those writing about an imaginary world or a story that takes place in the far future it may be useful to keep a story world bible complete with its own set of rules so you can use it for guidance.
Likewise if you are writing fantasy or science fiction it is best to lay down some sort of limits to magical powers, technology or creatures. Even Lord Voldemort wasn’t invincible in the end. Give your characters flaws or limits to work with and set realistic plans for overcoming them. There’s nothing worse than being fully invested in a story for a sudden curve ball to come out of nowhere and solve everything just in the nick of time without having had some point of reference or foreshadowing beforehand. It will confuse your readers and they won’t appreciate it.
Good luck with creating a realistic world for your world and don’t forget to comment below if there is anything I haven’t included! Go forth and write my friends.