Building a world one frame at a time
There you are, reading Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings series for the umpteenth time, inspired, ready to create your own world with intricate rules, vast lands and exotic creatures.
Now it’s time to begin your own epic story.
But where do you start?
What I detail here will be going over how to map out an intricate world and craft a story around it without getting bogged down. So let’s start at the beginning…
My number one rule for starting a story is:
Ending a story!
That sounds odd, but it’s true. To know how to map out a story, I need to know where it’s going. I’ll go so far as to have a final frame in mind.
Yes, things can change and tweak along the way, but generally, that’s how I work and it’s not a bad way to go.
With an idea of where you’re going, you can now take into account your format. For this post, we’ll focus on long form storytelling, like movie franchises, book franchises, comics and TV shows. I’ve mentioned before, that format can change the nuance of your storytelling, but what doesn’t change, is keeping the important information in a story and leaving out everything else.
Which leads me to my number two rule and something I’ve said and reiterated through several of my posts, straight from Alex Toth:
Eliminate the superfluous! (in other words, keep it simple)
That sounds like a backwards thing to say here since we are talking about long format. You’d imagine you would have room to include every small detail you’ve created. I know it’s probably fun to create all the little details, or have that amazing, 10 minute chase scene, but you first have to ask if it helps your story or not.
A friend recently posted about how much he loved Guillermo Del Toro’s Pacific Rim. You’d expect him to gush about the giant robots and monsters, but what really drew him in, were the little details hidden in the movie, like the scavengers that collect and make products like boots and medicines out of monster parts, or people being monster lovers with tattoos, cities with emergency bunkers in case of attacks.
These subtle details are just that…subtle.
They don’t need to be made a huge point of and add little to the important part of the story: saving humanity from monsters by using giant robots.
It can be really fun to do all that detailed work, but you have to hold your feet firm to story first! If it’s going to help push your story forward, then please, include it.
The third thing you should do is:
Start to break your story into manageable chunks.
Finding a steady pattern or flow to your stories is hugely important. Some storytellers will set up their work in a pattern, like Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Harry Potter.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer (the TV show) uses the popular “monster of the week” format, while building up a longer storyline throughout a season. A regular episode will start with the main cast having some sort of problem, while a new threat is introduced into the town they live in, the team ends up confronting the threat and by the end of the episode, have also solved their problem.
All the while, some smaller thread will pop up from time to time, like the introduction of the character Angel, who will pop back up from time to time until the end of the season, where he’ll get a dedicated story. Several TV shows have adopted this format and it works well for a serialized adventure series. It satiates the episode you’ve watched, while hopefully having you come back for future episodes to see the grand, arching story, through.
In Harry Potter, the early books follow Harry’s schooling to frame the entire series. In every book, Harry starts his adventures living with his aunt and uncle, preps for school buying supplies for the year, starts classes, finds a mystery, plays quidditch, fights Voldemort or some menace and celebrates the end of the school year. The books are so structured, we go through a whole school year with the characters, even celebrating various holidays as chapters. The books are even noted on the spine as being year one (of school), two and so on.
Another format, popular in comics, is the cliffhanger.
One recent TV show that was great at this was Breaking Bad. Each episode would end so outrageously, you had no choice but to come back each week.
But what about shows that release all at once, like bingeable shows on Netflix? How can we structure these stories to keep viewers coming back or pressing play, right after the previous episode has ended?
Several streaming shows OVER rely on the cliffhanger or shock value to keep you coming back for more. One that particularly fell flat for me was the Netflix original, Ozark, that relied too heavily on shock value. By the third episode, they had nowhere to go. Another pitfall of the streaming format, is losing steam partway through a season, like so many of the Netflix Marvel shows were criticized for.
Another route to take, is the traditional sitcom, where everything (mostly) resets by the end of the episode, like The Brady Bunch. While this may seem simple to pull off, it can be extremely difficult to pull off well.
So how do we avoid mistakes in long format stories?
Well, with my first three tips in mind, really focus on what’s important to the story and the characters. Building out from there, the story should fall into place a lot easier. If you know where you’re going, don’t over complicate things and stick to a game plan, you’ll have all the tools to keep your long format story going strong.
One of the biggest recent disappointments for me, is the comic series East of West from Image Comics, by Jonathan Hickman and Nick Dragotta.
Hickman is known for his immersive worlds and deep world building, but after 6 or so issues, I still felt lost and stopped reading it. I’ve been told the series works better when read in one sitting, rather than month to month as it’s published, but I feel like that’s a fail since that’s the format that it’s presented in. It’s also still being published as far as I can tell, so maybe I’m wrong here.
But using my rules in mind, I’ll lay out why East of West didn’t work for me:
I have no idea where the story was headed as a viewer, while I don’t need to know the ending (what’s the fun in that?!) I should be able to get my bearings straight eventually.
Mystery is a great storytelling driver, but you should be able to tell what that initial mystery is, fairly quickly.
Second, while I’m not going to worry about every detail thrown at me, too many things were introduced before earlier subjects were resolved or explained further. I can’t worry about this new ninja character if I haven’t learned more about the cyborg! The series felt all over the map for me.
Finally, there was no rhyme or reason to what was going on. I could not keep up with who was where or even when! There was a lack of structure to the story that also left me wondering.
All of these failures lead to the same feeling: confusion.
Confusion is the quickest way to lose any viewer or reader. And while East of West is still going strong, I’m not sticking around to find out how great it is, sorry.
Don’t let that happen in your stories! Tighten up before cutting loose with the details!
This goes for most storytelling. If you look to the Star Wars series, Marvel Franchise, sitcoms, comics, etc. they all, to some extent, follow these rules and work (to some extent!)!
We hear all about these writer retreats, where the story for 6 movies is hashed out at the same time. That should be the same for us, start broad and then work inward.
I want you to try an exercise: take a book series that’s been made into movies, like LOTR or Harry Potter, and make a note of what’s been changed, omitted or added that wasn’t in the original source material.
This exercise should give you a good idea of what we, as storytellers, count as important to the overall story. Think about why certain things are omitted or added.
For example, in Harry Potter, the setting is a school with a large staff of teachers. In the movie, certain characters are combined into one, like Professor Binns replaced by Professor McGonagall in the film version of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.
Why would the filmmakers make this change?
Besides cost effective savings of one less actor (not to mention the FX that Binns would require), I’d also guess that giving Professor McGonagall more screen time, gives her more of a connection to the audience. She’s also replacing a character that is solely there to drive the exposition of the film, no one will miss him!
So go back to your favorite stories and take a look. In fact, become an editor yourself.
Take a book or comic storyline that hasn’t been made into a movie and try to see what you would change, add or delete as you adapt it for the screen. See what works and doesn’t and most importantly, WHY.
Doing this exercise should give you great insight to your own stories, being weary of when you’ve gone too far off course and how far you can push a detailed world.
And while this isn’t really an exercise, some movies have official comic book adaptations that are a fountain of knowledge! I believe all the Marvel movies have adaptations as well as older movies, like Tim Burton’s Batman films and I think I remember Jurassic Park the comic, released by Topps. These comics are almost like reverse engineered movies, well worth the trouble of any storyboarder to take a look!
(This looks better than the actual movie!!!!!)
ONE LAST WARNING!!!
There’s a difference between being productive and doing massive amounts of work that will never be seen. Don’t fool yourself into thinking you are being productive by creating a whole backstory for characters or places that don’t warrant it. Your energy is better used to progress your story and characters that matter!
Until next time,
PS: I’d love to hear what you think works and doesn’t work in popular media adaptations. What’s your favorite and what misses the mark? Love the book, Fight Club but hate the movie? Let us know!