You know that deep movie trailer voice that says, “In a World….”? Well, that world doesn’t come out of nowhere, does it?
As writers, our goal should be to create a story setting where there is logic, detail and authenticity. This is called worldbuilding. Whether we research an existing “world” or completely design one from our imagination, this is a critical part of creating a great story.
I recently watched the film IN A WORLD, a terrific indie movie written and directed by Lake Bell. The story focuses on the hardscrabble, competitive world of voice over actors and takes place in Los Angeles. Ms. Bell clearly did her homework, because the setting of the movie feels rich, detailed and absolutely real. How did she do it?
Here are some tips on how to create an exciting world for your book or movie.
Define a specific locale. If you are writing about a real place, do research, go there, look at pictures. Make your scenes happen on real streets. If you’re creating a fictional world, design the locale carefully. Draw an actual map, design real geography, invent streets and freeways and forests. You must know exactly where everything is in this fictional world to ground the action. Bell doesn’t set her film in generic Los Angeles, but in specific not-so-nice parts of L.A.– Koreatown, a rundown section of the Valley, the actual claustrophobic studios where voices are recorded, and the crappy apartments where most of these actors live. This world is dead real. Trust me, I’ve been there.
Figure out the “culture” of your world. How do the characters in this world dress and interact? What do they eat? What are their rituals? IN A WORLD’s actors dress casual/sloppy and take themselves very seriously, even though what they are doing is slightly ridiculous. In their little world, getting to do the movie trailer line, “In a World…” is the holy grail. They do funny vocal exercises, are jealous of each others gigs, and this is the kind of place where a man creating a “sandwich bar” for his wife means he loves her.
Design the language of your world. How do people speak? If you’re creating a setting from scratch, are there made-up words that have specific meanings? If you’re writing about an existing place where there are regional or foreign accents, listen to the voices of real people who live there. What’s their lingo? In Bell’s film, all the characters speak the language of lower echelon Hollywood and use lots of voice over actor-y trade dialogue, which is funny.
What is the history of this world? How can it influence your characters? In Bell’s movie, Don Lafontaine (a real guy) was the voice over king of the movies for many years. His legacy hangs over all of the characters after his death. He is basically God, and the central question of the movie is who will replace him.
What is the dominant belief system in this world? Can it create conflict for your main character? IN A WORLD presents a belief system that says only men should do the really big movie trailer voice overs, and that women can never rise to the same heights. This provides one of the many obstacles for our heroine, who wants to be the first female Don Lafontaine.
Design the “rules” of the world. If you’re creating a world from scratch, how does this place work? What are the rules? If you’re working with an existing world, what are the laws in this arena? Bell’s character is stuck in the female ghetto of voice coaching. One can only rise through the ranks by having access to the kinds of auditions that are mostly given to men. In order to “book” the job, an actor must record him or herself reading the copy and submit it. These rules are woven throughout the film, and they are used to build to an exciting climax.
Why THIS world? Think about why your story must happen in this particular world. How can it help reveal your main character’s growth, or support your theme? IN A WORLD is about a young woman trying to be the best at her chosen craft. The male dominated world of voice over not only creates gender obstacles that are real, but allows THIS specific character to go up against the most difficult male presence in her life—her father.
Take action! Does your book or screenplay have a rich and specific setting? Does this world have a particular culture, history and belief system? Are your characters directly influenced and pushed or pulled by this world? Are the “rules” of your world clear? Did you choose this world specifically because of its relevance to the theme of your story?
Whether your worldbuilding is a function of research or your imagination, make it as real, detailed and obstacle-creating as possible.
This will guarantee a terrific sandbox for your characters to play in and a place for your readers/viewers to get caught up in your story.
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