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Establishing Your Story’s World

SPOILERS: Monsters Inc

There’s a lot of science fiction and fantasy spec scripts out there doing the rounds these days, especially those destined for TV. I would imagine it’s something to do with the increase in high concept television we seen: gone from the slush pile are the 90s Ken Loach-esque kitchen sink stuff and Cracker-style gritty police dramas. Instead the reader can expect to be treated to time travel, monster conspiracies, space continuums, black holes, parallel dimensions, predominantly Catholic visions of Heaven and Hell, vampires and ghosts. And why not?

Yet one thing spec SF and fantasy scripts seem to nearly always forget is establishing the world of their story. I don’t just mean their arena either, but what is and isn’t possible in the narrative they’re creating. For example:

If this character can fly, why can’t others? If this character change their shape or size, is this normal – or unusual in this world? (Note I’m not asking for the ORIGINS of the creature and “why” they can do something). If we are to disappear within a computer’s mind, where does so-called “reality” stop and cyberspace begin? What significance does a character’s gender have, if any? If an event is supposed to be random, why are we watching this particular protagonist and not another?

The world of your story does not just cover suspension of disbelief, but every single little thing in your script. It covers your arena first and foremost because we all know that your “feel” of your script has to reflect what you’re trying to say. But it also covers your characterisation as they have to “fit” that feel: if they only serve to contradict it, then what does that say? That doesn’t mean you can’t do it, but if ALL your characters contradict what your script is supposed to say, then you’re bound to run into difficulties in getting your reader to understand what you’re saying. Similarly, if your dialogue is at odds with your arena, then again this can cause problems. In short, the world of your story is everything.

This is not always such a problem in other genres of specs because they will draw on elements we already understand in terms of the “real” world. However, when you try and REINVENT the world that appears in your story (as in a lot of SF and fantasy), that is when you begin to appreciate it’s a hell of a lot harder than it sounds. When I was writing my own fantasy-style horror Eclipse I had all kinds of issues establishing the world of my story. Because I was trying to put a new spin on the werewolf myth, I had to decide how much I wanted to use so that audiences recognised what I was doing – yet at the same time I wanted to create something we hadn’t seen before. Just how far do you go? Finding the right balance is a bit like trying to fill two bags with exactly the same amount of grains of sand: frustrating and long.

There is a film that helped me a lot during this time: by breaking it down and analysing it, it gave me a key if you like to understanding what a scribe needs to achieve that balance. It’s not a film you might expect from me, either – mostly due to its lack of general blood and guts, but also its high cute factor:

It was Monsters Inc.

Say what you like about this family fantasy film – and it’s certainly not my favourite of all Pixar’s back catalogue. Yet one thing it does PERFECTLY I reckon is that it establishes the world of its story from the offset. There is no “making it up” as it goes along; everything is completely nailed down. From the fact that a child’s scream AND laugh will power the moster world, to the conspiracy element, to the doors that will magically open into the human world, right through to the fact that monsters have to learn that children are not toxic (“We got a 23: 19!”), it’s all there. Everything that will happen is set up and everything that makes it what is, is established – it makes this screenwriting malarkey look easy.

What’s more, Monsters, Inc appreciates that we have an ENTIRELY NEW WORLD here – we need it all from the beginning, else the story will fall flat. Very often Bangwriters will complain that establishing all the facts of their world – what is possible and what is not in the story, in effect – “spoils suspense”. It doesn’t: it ADDS to it. If we’re asking questions as to what the hell is going on, we can’t ask questions of the plot – and it’s that that keeps us interested. It’s not a question of “revealing all” in one fell swoop, but a drip-drip-drip approach.

So next time you’re approaching a whole new world and/or a mystery in your script, don’t leave it all to the last minute. Establish it from the offset, weave these clues and elements into your script from the beginning. It’ll go a long way.

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