The fine art of world-building

Tell us what we need to know about this place
Now that you’ve created it, what do we need to know about it?

One of the primary functions of the first act is to establish the current situation of your protagonist. You, the writer, have to convey to us, the reader/audience, what’s going on around our hero and how they fit into this scenario.

Tell us what we need to know about them, but don’t overwhelm us. Give us the details relevant to the story; anything else is totally unnecessary.

Show us why this character is worth our time and attention. What is it about them we can relate to?  Make us care about them. Pique our interest and curiosity.

This is also your chance to establish the rules of this world you’ve created and how it works. If it’s something other than the world as we know it (i.e. science fiction or fantasy), then you definitely need to explain how things work here. Don’t expect us to know what you’re talking about; just because you know doesn’t mean we’re going to. Keep things simple.

Now that you’ve presented us with our protagonist and the world they live in, SOMETHING HAPPENS around page 10 that drastically changes their everyday routine and gets the story going. It also raises the central question of the story – “Will the protagonist achieve their goal?”

Some may say the protagonist should be the one that makes something happen, which is possible, but it seems more likely this disrupting-of-the-everyday-routine event happens to them, rather than because of them.

What’s great about this next stretch of pages is it offers you the opportunity to show a little more of this world, especially how your protagonist reacts to what’s happened to them as well as how their world responds to it. Explore the consequences and ramifications of how their life is changing as they leave their old situation behind and become more involved with the new one.

By the time we get to the end of the first act, the protagonist is totally immersed in this new world and has to figure their way out/through it. Everything we need to know has been taken care of, so now we can focus on following the story.

An air of authenticity -OR- That’s why God invented Wikipedia*

Wikipedia was actually founded by this guy - Jimmy Wales - but it's not as funny
*Yes, I know Wikipedia was actually founded by this guy – Jimmy Wales – but it’s not as funny

“Write what you know” can only get you so far.

What if you want to write something you don’t know that much about?

One word: research.

Thought you were done with that when you got out of school? No such luck, my friend.

When you write, you want to make the reader/audience feel like you know what you’re talking about, or least give the impression you do. Just making stuff up or copying something used in an older movie is the lazy approach.

This isn’t saying you need a character spouting a master’s thesis on the subject, but tossing a few facts or proper terms here and there can really go a long way towards establishing credibility.

If you’re still in the outline phase, this is prime researching time. As you’re developing your story, try to find out something you can use that would make it that much more believable.  While this practice definitely applies to anything history-based, it also works with stories set in the present.

Say you’re working on a medical drama. Those characters should be able to immediately identify a certain condition, the cause (if necessary) and what the treatment is. Spending a few minutes finding this information out will make that possible.  You think the writers of HOUSE just made stuff up? Nope. The medical problem in each episode was based on facts.

Researching could also prove to be a key part of moving your story forward. Maybe a character finds something out or reveals something that suddenly changes the direction things are going.

Writing about a profession you know nothing about? Talk to someone who actually does that for a living. How would they handle this type of situation? When someone finds out you’re writing a story and want their input, they’re usually pretty enthusiastic about helping you.

Spending some time finding stuff out can even pay off when you least expect it, or aren’t expecting it all. Even if you don’t use it this time, there’s a good chance it could come in handy somewhere down the line.

This way you can solve that particular problem faster, thereby making yourself look that much more like a writing genius, impressing all who sample your craft.

And isn’t that what it’s really all about?