The world of your story has four traits to consider:
- Time Period
This is where your story takes place.
This could be as simple as a geographic location…
Does your story take place in the – Mountains? Jungle? Big city? Small town?
Or it could be more abstract…
Like “the world of underground cage fighting” or “the world of high fashion.”
Notice that these are “locations” that aren’t tied to a specific physical space. Instead, these are largely social “locations.” Both physical and social locations are important aspects of your story world. The similarities or differences between them can be used to great dramatic effect.
Once you establish a location…
You need to pair it with a metaphor.
Because different locations have different reputations. Different popular assumptions people make. For the sake of your story, you need to decide what you’re saying with your location. What’s your perspective. What context are you setting?
The world of high fashion could be portrayed as glamorous and whimsical, or as a grotesque and soulless wasteland.
You need the metaphor. You need to keep it in mind, in order to steer the rest of your depiction of the location and make sure it meshes with the rest of your cubbies.
Most stories exist within “normal” reality. Something akin to the world we know as we go about our day-to-day lives.
Some stories make use of realities very different from ours. Perhaps magic is real, or it’s a civilization living in space, or a realm of talking chipmunks.
These realities can be much more challenging for a storyteller because they must be built from the ground up. Every difference between “normal” reality and the fantasy reality must be consistently and coherently established and demonstrated to your audience. That’s a challenge not to be taken up lightly.
These fantasy realities can be positive (think: Toy Story) or negative (think: The Terminator.)
This is where the story appears to take place in the normal “real” world, but in an exaggerated form. There are no wizards, but our main hero somehow consistently survives car crashes and explosions that should have killed him by now. Any James Bond or Die Hard film is a good illustration of this idea.
“Mad Libs” Realities
It’s a simple fill in the blank structure.
“The world is a: [fill in the blank].”
The world of Scott Pilgrim is a: video game.
In this particular case, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, the reality of the story literally takes on the structure and conventions of most video games.
But let’s say you’re not doing anything generally crazy.
No magic, no talking animals, no sci-fi, no video games rules. Your story takes place in a normal reality and it’s pretty straight forward.
Well, in cases like this…
You still want to do work to give the world of your story its own identity.
“But I’ve already decided I don’t want anything crazy!”
That’s fine. There are more nuanced ways of creating a unique reality for your story.
You can give your characters social quirks or customs. Specific speech patterns or expressions.
Think: people saying “Whendya get here?” instead of “Hello,” or always giving hugs instead of handshakes.
These give your story’s world a specific identity. These quirks are not supernatural or magical, but they ARE specific choices. Choices the audience will see enacted with consistency. Choices that give your story’s reality a particular, memorable, identity.
You could also use the attitudes or beliefs of your characters to create a shared social reality. A social context that the story lives and breathes in.
Think: the ever present religiosity of a small town.
A story that takes place there, will be significantly different from one that takes place in an agnostic town devoted to materialism.
Culture, technology, and politics all change greatly from one generation to the next. Telling a story set in the 1850’s is vastly different from one set in the 1950’s. This has to be appropriately handled, or your story will lose all credibility and consistency.
Pay close attention to the details, do your research, and keep it authentic.
Your story could span two hours, two days, or two hundred years. As the writer, you have to consider and incorporate the effect time has on a character.
You can’t try to pack too much change into a single day. And if your story is spanning a few decades, you have to account for the normal change that occurs with someone over that span of time.
When designing your story, you’ve gotta keep the time span in mind and adjust accordingly.
All of these elements need your attention when designing your story world.
Once you’ve decided the pieces of your world, then you can keep them consistent across the entire span of your story.
Or you can use the four acts to your advantage and assign different worlds to each act.
Utilizing a different primary location, or time period, or reality, for each act can really help differentiate the four acts of your story.
With the right overall design, it could take your story from average, to excellent.