Everything has to happen somewhere. One of the most important writing skills you can develop, whether your story takes the form of a show, novel or play, is to view the story world one of the main characters. If you don’t pay attention to the world of your story, you miss a vital layer of meaning, metaphor and richness. It’s like having jam and cream without the scone.
So what do I mean by ‘world’? It can be a place and time, such as Liverpool, 1972. A room, such as a kitchen, bar, dentist. Or an enchanted wood, another planet, the back of a bus. It can even be your mind or dreamscape, but that still needs to have interesting characteristics and a certain look. Think, Sherlock Holmes’s ‘mind-palace’ in the Benedict Cumberbatch version.
Also, the world of the story reflects your character’s state of mind. Think of the troubled film noir detective, alone on a dark and rainy street, filmed in grey-blue hues. That already gives us the sense they are struggling and isolated, even before they open their mouth.
Be specific with the details of your world. One of the best pieces of advice I received was at a scratch of my first show, Evie and the Perfect Cupcake. I had set the piece in an alternative universe, called the Calorie Galaxy, that still looked a lot like our world. George Lewkowicz wrote to me:
“I think the Calorie world is a heightened version of ours with some brilliant twisted logic. It needs one clear thing that makes it not our world (presumably to do with calories). Something like your calories are money, or your total intake is on your wrist. Or, when you die all the calories are totalled up and you’re made to eat everything again in one go.”
Genius advice. The ‘one clear thing’ I created was that everyone had an implant in their wrist, monitoring their calorie intake. The implant constantly gave them feedback on their weight, and penalised them when they ate too much. From that one detail I could create a world logic that seemed to set the characters free, but was imprisoning them. And Evie’s (the main character) rebellion against that world created the engine for the whole story.
Creating a strong world means you can also dictate its rules, what is allowable and what’s not. If your world is a fantasy one, you can really go to town. In Doctor Who, the Doctor’s first mission is to find out where they are and as they venture along, figure out the rules of this world. Who is friendly? Is there oxygen? What does that banging sound mean? Even when the Doctor and assistants are still on Earth, some visiting entity will have subverted reality. The Doctor’s success will rely on how quickly they work out those parameters of this new reality.
As with all aspects of story creating, the world will evolve as you continue through the writing process. When it comes to writing a show or play, some of that evolution occurs when the director blocks out the show. So don’t panic if you don’t have a fully realised vision of the ‘world’ yet.
If you are stuck at any point in the writing process, do a 10-15 minute free write on the question, ‘What is the world of my story?”
Don’t approach this as if you are answering an exam question. Instead let it be an expedition into your subconscious, with the intention of drawing out some ideas and details into your consciousness. Then you can start to play with that world, and see how it enhances your characters and story. Remember creating a show or story is all about transporting your audience to another world, so it’s a big help if you know where you’re headed.
Tina Sederholm is a poet, performer and editor. Discover more ways to improve your writing skills by signing up to her mailing list here. Her latest book, This is Not Therapy, is out now. Buy it here