What is world-building? And, more importantly, why does it matter? World-building is an integral element of storytelling that often goes overlooked and underappreciated. Good world-building might be felt rather than explicitly noticed, and a lack of it can leave a book, film, or video game feeling shallow. We’ll get started with a world-building definition, then explore when and why it is so important, and we’ll close things out by taking a look at some great examples.
What is World Building
Creating fictional worlds
World-building is one of many literary terms that an aspiring screenwriter should know. Be sure to round out your screenwriting vocabulary with our helpful glossary of terms.
What is world-building?
World-building is the act of imagining, designing, and implementing the world of a story. Building a story’s world can be fleshed out before the actual writing begins and then implemented throughout the storytelling process or figured out along the way. There is no single correct way to go about creating fictional worlds. Different writers approach the task in a multitude of ways. Designing maps, devising in-universe rules and laws, and dreaming up fantastical or sci-fi elements can all be a part of the process. Lifeforms, culture, the environment, and socio-politics can all contribute to the overall world of a story, even if the story is about tangentially related matters.
World Building Purpose:
- Creates immersion
- Applies to all forms of narrative storytelling
- Becomes more vital when the world is less familiar
World Building Tips
When world building matters
World-building applies to novels, films, television shows, video games, and all other forms of narrative storytelling. There is a common misconception that this process is only necessary when a story takes place in a world different from our own. For example, when the world is being built from scratch such as in a sci-fi or fantasy story, but this is not necessarily the case.
It is true that creating fictional worlds can be more important and more extensive in otherworldly stories. But good world-building can also elevate stories set in our real world in all manner of ways. It is also integral to designing and running role playing games like Dungeons and Dragons.
World-building plays a more important role in period-pieces than you might expect. When making a period piece, you want to transport the audience back to a particular place and time. And it is important to reflect how drastically the world changes as years go by.
The Godfather is set during WWII when there were severe shortages of many materials that were going toward the war effort. As a result, the bumpers seen on certain cars in the film are made of wood rather than metal. That’s a level of world-building not many people realize goes on. See how this process was implemented starting in The Godfather screenplay.
For an example in television, you can look to Mad Men, which is chock-full of subtle period-accurate detail. Everything down to the shape of ice cubes in drinks and the level of shine on a 1960s apple before pesticides were as widely used is accounted for and is period correct.
And all of these little details contribute to the excellent world-building of the series. For more about the series, check out our analysis of Mad Men’s most tragic character.
The Value of Creating Fictional Worlds
Why it is so important
If you are writing a real-world story with a contemporary setting, then you might think that you don’t need to bother with this… but you might be wrong. World-building can never hurt and it is always good to implement even if the demands for a particular story’s world are less demanding.
Good world-building can inform the character of a story and the decisions they make. Even the core storyline can and perhaps should be influenced by the world it inhabits in one way or another. It is an extra opportunity to add another layer of depth and reality to a piece of fiction.
For stories that operate outside our laws of reality, this becomes absolutely vital. Strong world-building can make the difference between an audience buying into the otherworldly elements at play or having their suspension of disbelief broken and their immersion ruined.
For a story that employs fantastical elements like magic, mythical creatures, or sci-fi technology, you should consider this process a top priority to sell these elements. For stories without these demands, it still makes for a nice extra layer to a setting and shouldn’t be discounted.
Building a Fantasy World
This process exists in all genres and in all forms of storytelling. So let’s take a look at a few examples from across the storytelling spectrum. To get started, the following video breaks down two distinct styles.
The Lord of the Rings, both the original novels and the subsequent films, are masterful examples of this process. The number of details and intricacies we learn about the world help Middle Earth feel like a real place. This example was so well conceived and executed that it has become somewhat of a standard for other fantasy writers to use as a springboard when designing their own worlds.
The science fiction genre is full of great examples. Look no further than the two Blade Runner films to find incredible, detailed world-building on a massive scale. See how this was implemented in the Blade Runner 2049 screenplay. And to find more great examples of world-building in this genre, check out our list of the best science-fiction movies.
Video games are home to some of the deepest and most immersive world-building. The demand for building a fantasy world is extra intense for a video game vs a film. This is because players are able to explore and interact with the world, rather than view the guided experience provided by a film.
Even with films set in the real world, the films of great directors like David Fincher and Martin Scorsese all employ elements of creative world-building. The constant rain and dreary darkness of much of the film contrasted against the bright desert of the climax are world-building components that greatly contribute to the overall look and feel of Se7en.
And, the sleazy porno theaters, filthy streets, and Palantine’s political campaign are all excellent bits of detail that serve to fully immerse viewers in Travis Bickel’s environment in Taxi Driver.
World-building is all around us in storytelling, whether it’s fantastical and in your face or subtle and complimentary. Similar to film editing, the best world-building sometimes goes unnoticed.
A guide to production design
In film, the process of building a fantasy world is handled at multiple stages by multiple artists. Starting with the writer and ending with VFX artists in post-production, it takes a village to build a village. In the next post, we'll look at a very important role in the process: production design. As part of Filmmaking Techniques Masterclass, we'll cover the essentials of building sets, props, costumes and more.