May 30, 2016

World Building: Part 1 The Rules and When to Break Them

You Have To Know The Rules Before You Can Break Them



This article is the first part in a short series giving advice and my experience on world building. When writing fiction, it is sincerely advisable that you take time to consider the fundamental elements and rules of the world your story takes place in. Some writers like to do this at different points in their project, however I like to begin with it, before any characters or plot can be decided. Hopefully I will be able to justify why.

Part 2: Resources and Materials is here and Part 3: Conflict is here



I like to begin by deciding the mechanics of the world I am creating. By this I mean deciding very early on what is physically (and magically) possible in the world. Allow me to apply this to some well known examples (regardless of whether or not the original author did this in my order):

The Hunger Games: Takes place in a version of our world in the near future, what is possible in our world is also possible in the fictional world, with the addition of some technological advances such as holograms and genetic engineering (the canines from the first book and the sewer monsters from the final book).

The Lord of The Rings: Takes place in a medieval Europe influenced world, with the appropriate technological advances (no electricity, but they have a gunpowder like substance). Significant differences include the possibility of existing after death (the Ring Wraiths and Gandalf) and magical abilities mostly tied to specific individuals and objects. Also some creatures exist as a result of magic instead of evolution.

Harry Potter: Takes place in a modern day version of our world, in which it seems like anything is possible due to magic. But almost all magical powers and actually tied to objects (wands, horcruxes, enchanted items). There is also the possibility of existing after death, seeing into the future, and also the possibility of time travel, but these are generally tied to objects too. Also some creatures exist as a result of magic instead of evolution.

Marvel Universe: Molecular Change, Magic, Time Travel, Interdimensional Travel, Altering the Fabric of Reality, Emptying Your Wallet.


This exercise enables my writing in a number of ways. First of all it allows me to intelligently choose what is at stake for my story. The reader will have a difficult time feeling invested in the story and feeling genuine dramatic tension if you have not made it clear what is possible at most given moments. I do not need to explain all of the rules to the reader at once, but I can certainly drip-feed them in a way that builds their understanding of the world the story takes place in. 

Once I have established for myself the rules and what is possible, it makes the next writing tasks much simpler for me. If I want to write a story about a character who has special powers, knowing what world they exist in helps define exactly what is special. The same is also true if I want to write a story about a character who has no special powers (for example Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit). If I want to write a story about a city that is in danger of being destroyed, what could possibly destroy it and what could possibly save it based on the rules I have made? (For example the 1995 movie Jumanji).  If I want to write a story about a magical race of vampires, establishing what is and is not magically possible for them helps me decide how they can possibly live alongside humans and helps me avoid writing myself into a corner (for example the Blade movies).


Finally, establishing what is and is not possible in your world allows you to then break the rules for important blockbuster moments. This is also called a deus ex machina, which translates from Latin as "god from the machine." In ancient Greek and Roman dramatic performances, when a character was in a hopeless situation with seemingly no way out, a god would appear to save them, represented by an actor suspended by a crane (hence "god from the machine"). Some popular examples:

In the 2009 Star Trek movie, it is made clear that it is not possible to teleport an individual using a ship's transporter while traveling at warp speed. Then near the end of the movie in a seemingly hopeless situation, after creating enough tension, Scotty and Kirk successfully escape their situation by using the transporter at warp speed.

In the Matrix Trilogy, the movies go through some lengths to explain how the Matrix works in order to establish some rules for the world. Then in Matrix Revolutions, Agent Smith who is a computer program manages to assimilate and control an individual in real life (Bane, a crew member of the Zion hovercraft Caduceus) for a particularly impactful twist.

And of course, in the 1984 Ghostbusters movie, Egon makes it very clear that the characters should never cross the proton streams, saying it would result in "all life as you know it stopping instantaneously and every molecule in your body exploding at the speed of light." However at the end of the movie when the characters are out of options, they cross the streams and save the city.


Once you establish the rules, you are then at liberty to break them, as long as you do not rely on this too much and then damage trust with the reader. One of the reasons audiences lost a feeling of dramatic tension over the course of the Harry Potter movies is that is seemed the characters would keep breaking the established rules to get out of danger so much that the rules became meaningless and so tension became much harder to create.


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