TV World-Building 101 (PT44) – Transcript

PT44 shownotes and audio episode available here.

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Alex Freedman: Welcome to Paper Team, a podcast about television writing and becoming a TV writer. I’m Alex Freedman, @TVCalling.

Nick Wastson: I’m Nick Watson, @_njwatson.

Alex: And today, we’re gonna be talking about world-building 101. What, exactly, is the point of world-building in TV and TV pilots? What are some good and not so good examples? How can you implement world-building effectively in your own writing? And what are some common pitfalls to avoid falling into?

Nick: And what are some rhetorical questions you can ask yourself?

[chuckle]

1 – Defining world-building

Alex: Let’s jump right into it Nick. What is the point of world-building?

Nick: Essentially, what we’re doing is creating the world or setting an original material for TV, whether that’s a pilot script or a TV bible or, other kind of materials. And in that, you kind of have a spectrum of choices between our world, which is exactly as it is now, or perhaps, true-to-life history, to a familiar but heightened or changed reality, all the way to 100% unique unfamiliar world, something like Star Trek or Game of Thrones. But the point of building out your unique world for the show is a number of things. You can be giving depth to your material and your content, and your characters, and your story. It also helps it stand out from other shows. It kind of tells the audience why this story is being told, why it’s important that it’s taking place here and now. And it gives you kind of a place where your story fits in, in a larger sense, and helps you make that narrative really much more three-dimensional.

Alex: Just to jump on that real quick. Game of Thrones is a great example of that, where you have this insane mythology about Westeros in this world, but the reason why we’re there now is because we’re following the Starks. That’s the first season, really, is to see, “Why here right now?” That’s a big question for any story, any show, any movie, what have you. So I think the world-building, and hence that, is the primary reason for why it exists. Now, I will say this; you cannot overstate how important world-building is, however subtle or minute it can be. If you think about it, every single TV show, movie or book has to do some kind of world-building at some point. As an audience member, you go into a show cold. Maybe you’ve read a logline or you’ve seen some trailers, but by and large, you’re watching something new because you do not know how it’s gonna turn out. That’s why you’re watching entertainment.

Alex: So the job of a TV pilot, for example, is, by definition, world-building. It’s about introducing you, the audience or the reader, to brand new characters and brand new stories all set in some kind of brand new world. Now, you may be thinking, “Okay, what about the procedurals?” Well, the world of a procedural may be familiar. If it’s a cop procedural set in New York City, obviously, you already know or have some kind of working understanding of the game. But the pilot, and by extension, the TV show, still has to build their own world within it. How are the rules different in this version of the game? So if you take, for example, The Shield on FX, it is a subversion of the cop genre where the protagonists are the bad guys, like Vic; while the good guys are the antagonists, like Claudette Wyms played by the awesome character-actress CCH Pounder, as we’ve seen in season three of BoJack Horseman. And that is why The Shield was so transformative as a TV show at the time, and that is one of the many reasons why it brought forth the male anti-hero genre to basic cable.

Nick: I think it might be helpful for us to talk about our own experiences of world-building for a minute and how we come up with the mythology for our stories. So for me, my writing partner and I, we have an adult animated comedy project called Horsewomen and it’s about the Four Horsemen in the Apocalypse who try to end the world, only to find the world refuses to be ended by women. So for that, the world and the mythology originated the projects. For me, it started out as I had this idea, I wanted to do like Sex in the City, but Carrie was literally the devil who had come to earth to steal men’s souls. But then, we wanted to make it more of an ensemble so we continued to tap into that Christian mythology, and came up with The Horsemen of the Apocalypse, which I’m not gonna pretend is an original idea, by any means. So that meant that the question, for us was, “How do we go about adapting that mythology and making it unique?” So for us, it was like, “Well, what if they were women, and what would that mean?” For example, it meant that like women in the real world, they wouldn’t get the same respect as men in the workplace. So even if their job was to bring about the apocalypse, people aren’t gonna take them seriously because they’re women, because they expect the Biblical Horsemen of the Apocalypse to be men, in the same way that people expect men to be like doctors or cops or something in our world as the default.

Alex: Speaking of adapting something to your own liking almost; I have a couple of examples of mine on the drama side in terms of world-building. One isn’t, strictly speaking, about mythology. It’s a World War II period and drama pilot that I wrote. And the conceit of the show is it takes place in a kind of unexplored part of history, and through the perspective of an unexpected female lead. So from the ground up already, I had to reinvent the rules of that kind of war drama, especially since the audience would not be familiar with this angle of history at all. And there, the heavy-lifting is really about giving enough of a sense of that world to give the story and characters meaning, while still informing the audience.

Alex: The difference here, in many ways is that I’m adapting something that already exists, be it historical characters, historical events or even, history itself. So it’s really incumbent upon me, the writer, to not overload the audience with unnecessary information, which we’ll talk in-depth about later in this episode. But the dynamic between, say, the military characters and the civilian characters are gonna showcase the rules of that world. Now, practically speaking, I’ve done my research before writing and I’m confident that I know my world or the world that I wanna write about inside out. So when it comes to actually writing the outline and the draft, at that point, I had to trust that what I know and have learned through my research can be channeled organically in the dynamic of my characters and the stories being told.

Nick: Speaking of that world and setting for Horsewomen, we wanted to do a juxtaposition that played against audiences’ expectations. So we made earth into, essentially, like a Trumpian nightmare. And this is… We wrote this well before Trump was even in the running.

Alex: I was gonna ask, is this set in the present day? ‘Cause…

[chuckle]

Nick: No, we weirdly predicted it, where all these political beliefs and behaviors are pushed to an extreme. And in contrast, Hell, where the Horsewomen are from is actually a pretty nice place compared to earth. So in that way, we only sympathize more with the Horsewomen’s efforts to end the world and bring about hell on earth, like they’re almost trying to help. But overall, as unique of a world as it is, and as different it is from our own, there are still all of these familiar elements that are just being heightened or reversed or, subverted. They’re not just being pulled completely out of nothing. And I think that that is a key, particularly to comedy, as crazy as it is, people need to be able to relate and understand what it is about their life or their world that’s being made fun of or, parodied or, satirized. And what the creator is kinda saying in doing so, what hypocrisy is being pointed out or the point that’s being made by that.

Alex: I would say that’s not necessarily only for comedy. A lot of dramas that… Especially, if you look at something by Bryan Fuller, a lot of his shows are very much about magical realism, and this otherworldly story, but you still gotta relate, as people, to it. Speaking of subverting existing concepts, one show that I love and has inspired me time after time is The Good Wife. Now, one of my pilots is actually in the vein of The Good Wife. This show specifically took place in an area of the law rarely explored in TV. And, in fact, a part of the law that works differently from elsewhere. Even the judges are not named judges. They’re called surrogates. In the pilot, I had to do all that leg work of introducing how that specific world works, but more importantly, do it through a character in the story. Through my episode case, my legal case of the week, I was able to shine a light on the specificities of that part of the law. And I’m very familiar with the shorthands used in TV shows about law, like The Practice or The Good Wife. So, as Nick brought up in his own version of subverting audience expectation, it was my own opportunity to kind of twist those legal expectations, so to speak. Even though the audience is not aware of the logistics or mechanics, and actually, frankly, doesn’t need to be, they still are gonna be surprised and entertained.

Nick: Yeah. And when it comes to kind of characters, you wanna do some of that twisting too. So for Horsewomen, having this mythology and world-build meant that we had touchstones for each of the characters already. They were going to be War and Famine and Pestilence and Death. And so, those archetypes, give an automatic suggestion of what that character should be like. And for some of them, we did play into that. So War is confident and aggressive and argumentative. But for others, we deliberately played them against expectations. So Death is actually quite meek and innocent, and she hates violence and killing and death, so it inevitably puts her at odds with her job description, and also, her sisters who are more in line with their namesake. And so, it creates an inherent conflict and comedy to that. And even with the supporting cast, we decided to, again, reach into that mythology, and not taking things exactly as they were.

Nick: We tweaked things and decided that Satan was gonna be their father. And he’s kind of the Jeffrey Tambor-esque dad who represents these old-fashioned rules, and the patriarchy, holding his daughters back. But it’s not out of hatred, it’s more of a misguided love or ignorance. And then, the anti-Christ, who’s another Christian figure… None of these are usually linked like this, they’re not family in the Bible, but now, he’s that kind of mediocre brother who is all set to inherit the throne just because he’s a man. And we made it almost like a family sitcom using that world-building mythologies inspiration and jumping off points.

Alex: I absolutely agree with that. World-building should be used to emphasize character. And just to go back again on my own example of the World War II period piece drama, I think, on my end, it was more about deconstructing the myth. Because a lot of the historical characters that are in play, they have their own mythology and aura, in the larger sense. It’s a period of history that hasn’t been really explored on the narrative level in movies or TV. However, historically, it’s already seen as almost like a positive element of history. So, by and large, in my pilot and my show, my job in building that world is to either explain, or deconstruct the mystique surrounding these people. Why are they so revered or feared or adored? Once again, it’s about building the world to offer the opportunity for the characters to respond to it, and in the process, we, the audience can learn who they are.

2 – Tools of world-building

Nick: Let’s get practical for a minute and talk about the tools that we have at our disposal for world-building and how we can effectively implement that in our script.

Alex: I think the first big thing about implementing world-building in your writing is that you need to ground it in your story. That’s the intrinsic purpose of world-building. It’s to explain things to the audience, be it through story or character. So there are multiple ways of grounding the work in a believable reality. And let’s talk about a few of them.

Nick: Firstly, as we mentioned before, there are these audience expectations in place. As a rule the audience is gonna assume by default that the world depicted on screen is the same as ours in every way unless you provide evidence otherwise, which is the entire point of world-building. Then you can either let them believe that, that this is the same world as we’re used to, until one key thing changes as a surprise or a reveal and they’re like, “Woah, there’s aliens walking among us,” or something. Or you can immediately dissuade them of that belief from your first scene by establishing advanced technology or the presence of magic or, an alternate history in place.

Alex: I think a really useful tool when you’re staring out world-building your world is to use historical or mythological shorthands. I think, as Nick brought up, you gotta bank on audience expectations as almost a shorthand. You can spring off of an existing concealed world to either subvert or add to it. But just don’t lay it as it is. A good example of that is Battlestar Galactica which kind of used Greek and Roman mythologies to bring a level of depth to its story, and meaning to its plot and characters. You can also use, again, historical shorthands, Man of the High Castle is a great example of that. But even on a broader level, something like the Civil War, if you look at Firefly, even though you may think it’s kinda crazy sci-fi show or space opera or, what have you or, western in space, it still has a lot of those American history components built into its story. We understand the conflict of rebels versus the empire because we’ve all seen Star Wars and we are familiar with the overall dichotomy that is the American Civil War.

Nick: The amount of shows that are essentially just a retelling of Shakespeare or an ancient myth or, something like that with a new skin on it for a modern age is astounding, but they do it so well by sub-writing those elements that you might not even realize until someone points it out. On that note, I think you need to be really careful about falling into cliches. For example like, “It’s the second coming of Jesus as a sitcom, and he’s like a down-and-out stoner in New York.” I’ve heard that pitched a million times.

[laughter]

Nick: So you always gotta try and do something different and unique with it and maybe not the first thing that springs to head, because everyone else is gonna have thought of that. So look at American Gods, recently it just came out on Starz, for a great example of how to take these pre-existing notions of what people believe about these ancient religious figures or whatever and then, put your own spin and nuance on them and modernize them in a clever way.

Alex: Yeah, I think that’s exactly where world-building can truly shine and show you as a great writer versus just a hack. It’s when you can showcase the differences in your rules organically, within the story and the characters, as I mentioned with this idea of “rules of the game,” even in procedurals. I mean Star Trek is, in no small part, if you look at the political spectrum, it is a united federalist world. It’s kind of a cross between what the US and the European union aspired to be as abstract entities. Obviously, it’s about us as people and so forth, like any good sci-fi is, but it also offers an actual backdrop to explain those ideologies and bring forth a conversation that, at that point, hadn’t been taking place in TV science fiction.

Nick: One example of how you can do world-building badly or in a problematic way is cultural appropriation. And I want to preface this by saying that I am a white man and I don’t assume to speak on behalf of people from other races or cultures or, abilities or, genders, but I do think this is important to bring up. So the example I’m gonna use is JK Rowling, when she recently invented this Ilvermorny, the idea of an American wizard school and all of the mythology and stuff around that. There wasn’t even a book to go with it. It was just here’s a bunch of world-building and mythology for everyone to satisfy you. But it caught a huge backlash because what it did was, it took Native American mythology from different tribes and stuff and essentially played into cliches and stereotypes about those people. And it made them seem almost primitive or uncivilized until all these European wizards came along and set up this school and codified magic and made it all formal and whatever, rather than appreciating and celebrating native culture as different, but not lesser.

Nick: So it all kind of ties into this colonialist narrative of history where native peoples all over the world have always been seen as savages and inferior to white people and uncivilized because their culture is different to our own. And there’s doing that through a lens of applying our own cultural standards or technology or, culture against theirs. It’s this cultural relativism. So they’re making judgement calls about something for which there is no objective standard. It’s only our own subjective and learned experiences where we say that, “This is correct because this is what we’re used to,” and we’re naturally biased towards what’s familiar and normal for us.

Nick: So the take away from that for me, is that I recommend if you’re writing about or drawing heavily from a culture that’s not your own, especially if it’s one that’s been historically oppressed or marginalized, and if they’re still modern and living cultures, for example, the ancient Greek mythology might not be as much of an issue, but with the more modern ones as well I think you should need to educate yourself and do your research. And probably speak to people from that culture or have them read your work. And make sure that you are handling it appropriately and respectfully. And there’s actually a website where you can look up and hire what they call ‘sensitivity readers’ who can do that for you for a fee. So if you’re writing about say Chinese culture or about the LBGTQ experience, or if you have a character who is disabled or, someone who is a Sunni Muslim, they can tell you if you’re doing it in a way that’s likely to offend or hurt those people and how you can correct that and better understand the nuance of those issues and representations of those groups.

Alex: So much of it is based on education, doing your work basically, which is research and talking to people who actually probably know more about this than you do.

Nick: Exactly. There’s a huge burden, I think on television as an industry that is responsible for representing things in the world and that informs a lot of people’s understandings of cultures and of people and whatever to do it in the right way, and I think it’s important that we all recognize that.

Alex: Of course. Now, going back to factors that are in play when you are doing world-building, much like Carl Sagan in Cosmos, your audience lives on the “Spaceship of the Imagination”. And by that I mean great world-building is about inferring, not outright stating. Less is more. Remember, if you give a hint of what might have transpired, you don’t really need to show it or explain it. Now, this is not a TV show example, but recently, there’s this little movie called Logan that came out…

Nick: Great movie.

Alex: And it did this whole inferring really well, where you had kind of Professor X and Logan’s dynamic, an almost antagonistic dynamic, all based on some kind of incident that Professor X created that happened to them before the movie, off screen. And you sort of understand the weight of what happened and what transpired in the characters’ relationship with each other. And just because you crafted, pre-outlined or pre-drafted this amazing mythology about space aliens or what have you, doesn’t mean you need to cram it down our throats in the story. If it doesn’t enhance the story, then it doesn’t need to be there in the first place.

Nick: Yeah. We didn’t ever see a flashback of that and we didn’t need to.

Alex: “Previously on Logan.”

[laughter]

Alex: And I think this is kind of an odd example, but on the flip side, maybe sometimes you do need to add more world-building to that bone. There’s this show called Defiance that was a sci-fi TV show that ran a few seasons, and I’d like to bring that up as an interesting example because I sometimes felt that the Wikipedia page for the show was more interesting than some of the episodes of the show itself. And that’s not a dis on the writing itself. It has more to do with the fact that this actual explanation, about the different alien races and their relationships, and their nuances to one another in that Wikipedia page, I felt was very absent from the show. And the show played it too coy for my own interest. It was kinda straddling the line between pure science fiction show and then also kind of this cop procedural.

Nick: I think that is an issue for a lot of newer writers that they have with their pilots is they have all these stuff in their head about how the world of their show is different, but none of it actually comes out on the page. So suddenly, we get to three-quarters of the way through the script and someone takes off and starts flying. I’m like, “What? How did that happen?” And you ask the writer and they’re like, “Oh no. There are genetic mutations in this world and some people can do that.” I was like, “Okay, well, that’s great but you need to establish that somewhere before you can use it as a device in your story.”

Alex: It needs to be intrinsic to the story. An interesting example on the TV end is this pilot called 17th Precinct, which I brought up in a previous episode. Basically, it’s a cop procedural set in a universe where, instead of science, people use magic. And so the button of that episode, of that pilot, was that the detectives on the case found this thing called a ‘bullet’. “Wait, what is this thing?” ‘Cause obviously science created weapons, as in guns. So the introduction of science to this world is in and of itself an interesting reveal,

Nick: It’s using that audiences’ pre-existing understanding of things that you haven’t put into the script to your advantage. I think conversely as well, writers can sometimes fall into the trap of offloading a bunch of mythology and back story but never actually paying it off within the pilot. I think that it’s important to only really tell the reader and the audience what they need to know.

Alex: An important factor in the screen writing is real-estate. You gotta manage that page space as well as screen time. Good world-building is there for exposition. It’s either for you, so you can understand the characters better as a writer, as you create that story, or for the audience so they understand it better. Now, since real-estate is such an important factor in screenwriting, for me, powerful world-building is about efficient world-building. You don’t have the luxury to waste page space or screen time with pointless explanations of the world.

Alex: A good or bad example is, sometimes you have a lot of chyrons on the screen that are basically there for info dump. They’re there to explain the mythology of… “In the year 2300, this thing happened and blah, blah, blah.” Maybe there’s ways in your story, organically in your characters, to showcase that without having some kind of narrator or some kind of on-screen prompt that explains to the audience what’s going on here. And what I mean by efficient world-building is that you don’t wanna intrude on the story itself. You want to espouse it and add to it. Optimally, the world-building is there to service your characters and your story, not the other way around.

3 – Common pitfalls of world-building

Nick: Let’s just cover some miscellaneous, frequently asked questions or, do’s and don’ts of world-building. What are maybe some traps you can fall into?

Alex: The big one is, you may use world-building as a reason not to write, or as some kind of excuse to divert from your story. Much like research, you do get bogged down occasionally in details. I don’t know if it’s a reason for procrastination. But don’t just create and invent worlds for no reason. Make whatever you create mean something in your story. Maybe it’s a one-off event that has a huge impact in the character’s past. Again to bring up Firefly, you’ve got the unification war and the battle of Serenity Valley. Maybe it’s a physical item that has been passed from generation to generation, like the Stark sword in Game of Thrones. If you look at Harry Potter or Game of Thrones, we love those worlds precisely for their in-depth mythologies. But that’s not why they’re so successful in the first place. They’re successful because we follow, within them, characters we care about. The Westeros houses or the Hogwarts houses are there to heighten and contrast our characters to one another, and not just there for window dressing.

Nick: I think that almost everything you do in the way of building a world or a setting even in creating your supporting characters and crafting the events of the plot, it should all tie into and directly affect or interact with your characters and their journey or their conflict, and also the theme of your show. You don’t just have a high tech sci-fi world because it looks cool. You’re doing it because you’re trying to explore themes of humanity and what it means to be human when you can replace every part of your body with a robotic limb or a computer chip like the Fox show, Almost Human. Or you have a dystopian world where women are oppressed and subjugated because it speaks of something that’s happening in our own world and something that we need to realize. And where or what we’re currently doing could lead. For example in The Handmaid’s Tale in Hulu. You’re just choosing the best colors on your palette and the best brushes to paint the most effective picture you can. You don’t just pick things at random and hope it turns out cool.

Alex: For sure. I think another questionable decision is using world-building as a crutch for good storytelling. Now this is a larger point that goes beyond just TV pilots. But I think a lot of big shows at the moment have, at least for me, the issue of spending an entire season to set up the basic premise of the show. I mean I can bring up Westworld, The Expanse, even Game of Thrones… I love the first season of Game of Thrones, but ultimately, the first season was just there to kill Ned Stark and set in motion the real Game Of Thrones. So what they’re doing is just spending the whole season to get you inside that world and exposit the characters, and the rules of the game. I mean, Westworld, spoiler alert, it takes an entire season for the robots to rebel.

Alex: I keep bringing up the example of Jurassic Park for Westworld, because both stories were written by the same writer originally. Imagine a Jurassic Park TV show, where a whole season took place before the fence came down and the T-Rex came out. That’s basically what Westworld, the first season, was about. It took a whole season. I’m not saying it’s a good or bad thing all of the time, but sometimes as a viewer I think as a writer, we take for granted that people are gonna be watching our content assuming it gets picked up and I think that’s a big danger now with Peak TV.

Nick: There are a lot of creators and institutions and companies and whatever that have the ability to do that ’cause they’ve already proven themselves and they’re like, “Hey, I wanna do this show.” And they’ll let them have free reign with it and do it if they want, and people are gonna watch it ’cause it looks great and we’re confident that they’re taking it somewhere, that they’re going to tell us a good story eventually. But as a newer writer, you don’t have that benefit of the doubt. People are gonna wanna see something happening in your pilot script and not just all be set up in exposition. So maybe once you get the level of JJ Abrams, you can do that however you like, but right now, it’s important to hone in on things and play by the rules a little bit more right now.

[chuckle]

Alex: The examples that I just mentioned are all adaptations of something. The Expanse and Game of Thrones are obviously books. Westworld is a movie, even though they created their own mythology behind it. When you’re writing a pilot, usually you’re not gonna be adapting something, so I think it’s incumbent upon you to bring up the world-building and the backdrop of your story, rather than just waste time treading water until it gets to the plot.

Nick: Those people were able to go into a studio or network with pre-existing IP and go, “Here’s a book that millions of people have bought and that everyone loves, and I’m an established TV writer and creator and you know that I can do this. Please give me the money and I’ll go make the show.” Again, as a newer writer, you don’t have that, so you need to be thinking about it in a different way. So another example I think of, something that writers can do wrong with world-building is trying to put all of your world-building onto the page. Everyone doesn’t need to know every single piece of your back story and world history if it’s not relevant to the show, in that moment.

Nick: And I think it’s okay if just you, as the writer, know that and then informs how you write the characters in the plot. Don’t think, “I’ve done all this work and no one is gonna appreciate it.” It is still gonna help you better understand your characters in your world and your situations. Especially that kind of historical world-building exposition can be some of the clunkiest stuff to drop in, especially in dialogue, too, because everyone in that world already inherently knows that and there’s usually no good reason for it to come up. No one on Earth is ever standing around and feels the need to bring up how many days we have in a year or that we only have one Sun or something.

[laughter]

Alex: “Wait, Nick, what day is today?” “Oh, it is this day of the year.”

[laughter]

Nick: Yeah. “Ever since the revolution happened… ”

[laughter]

Alex: Are we living in some kind of civil war drama, is that what’s happening? Yeah, I mean, I completely agree that it’s kind of wasted space. Again, it goes back to being efficient and world-building needing to be there for the characters and for the story, not for the audience. The audience maybe needs to know X or Y elements, but if it doesn’t impact the story or the characters, they actually don’t need to know that information. And a lot of shows that go on for several seasons, they do fall into the trap of having this special episode that’s set in the past, it’s almost like a flashback episode. And they may be entertaining as standalone episodes, but they are always there to fill some kind of expository gap just for the audience.

Alex: When you have episodes set in the past, by definition, they’re just there for exposition; as in they don’t have any impact or relevance to present storyline. An interesting example is the Battlestar Galactica third season episode that is entirely there to explain what happened during the occupation of the Cylons on New Caprica. And honestly, as an audience member, I never needed to see that happen. Maybe I could have read about it or maybe I’d hear characters talk about what happened, but having a whole episode dedicated to that story? I mean, it’s interesting for that one episode, but in the bigger picture it doesn’t bring me anything new.

Nick: Then they did a spin-off show of it later that didn’t go through…

Alex: That’s Caprica, it’s a different story. I’m specifically talking about the third season occupation of the Cylons in New Caprica, where they spent an entire episode just talking about what the characters have been up to for those two years, and that didn’t really reveal anything new in terms of the story.

Nick: Honestly, as well if the best case scenario happens and you sell a show, and it gets picked up and it goes to air, and you’re working in the writer’s room, a lot of that back story or history might change with how the plot unfolds and how things happen, episode by episode. And, at that point, you have someone, whether it’s the writer’s assistant, script coordinator, who is building that bible up for you from what’s happened. And you also have fan wikis and people keeping track of all those things as well.

Alex: Lostpedia.

Nick: Exactly. So they’re often better at that than the writers are. [laughter]

Alex: Yeah. It’s not uncommon for actual writers’ rooms to go on the Wikipedia page of their own show to see what’s going on.

[laughter]

Alex: “Wait, what happened on my own show? What?”

[laughter]

Nick: I think Jill mentioned that in our WonderCon panel.

Alex: Now, just to finish on a couple of other traps you may fall into. Watered-down world-building, in my mind, is rarely better than no world-building. We brought up these random elements, or examples of random Sci-Fi elements that didn’t add much to the plot, so question why they are there in the first place. Give your story a strong sense of place and belonging. It ties back to the whole, “Why here, why now?” and three dimensionalization of the story. But, once again, it doesn’t mean you need to front-load the back story of the world. Don’t invent a whole alien language for your pilot if there are only going to be three sentences that will be spoken in it, when all you could do is just specify in the prose, in parentheses, “said in Dothrakian.” And you don’t need to invent ‘Dothraki’ for the Games of Thrones pilot.

Nick: Also, like we said before, don’t think that just because you’re writing a more traditional, down-the-line show, like a medical procedural or a sitcom with four friends in an apartment in New York, that this means you don’t have to do any world-building. World-building isn’t just aliens and magic, and alternate history; it can just be character back stories. Why does Dr. House walk with a limp? How does his past come back to affect him over the course of the show? And they did actually do an episode about that. Even Seinfeld has a lot of eccentricities within its world that make it different, to say, Friends, which is a very similar premise. Think about the make-up of Jerry’s apartment building; he’s got Kramer across the thing from him, and he’s got Newman in the apartment building as well, who’s like a rival or an enemy. I don’t know if we ever find out why they hate each other, but he is a part of Jerry’s world, and it’s one that impacts him as an obstacle and antagonist in various plots of the episodes of the show.

Alex: On Friends, there’s a whole thing about Monica’s past and how overweight she was, and there’s the VHS tape of their prom night that they found. There’s a whole episode about that.

Nick: Exactly, it just gives more depth to the characters and gives you more tools to play with your stories.

Alex: All TV pilots and stories, however mundane or normal you think they are, will have to do some level of world-building at some point. Ultimately, it needs to be there to enhance characters and story.

Takeaways and Resources

Alex: Alright Nick, what are some takeaways?

Nick: Number one, good world-building helps you give depth to and more ammunition for your material, your characters, your theme and your story. And it helps to stand out from other shows.

Alex: Number two, world-building should be efficient. Organically understanding the world of your story will help you write it more effectively even if it doesn’t all go down on the page. So only put as much of it on the page as needs to be there in the first place.

Nick: And number three, be aware of the audience’s expectations about the world and pre-existing methodologies. Use that familiarity to your advantage, but don’t play into lazy stereotypes and cliches. Find a unique and nuanced way to reinvent, subvert, or adapt those elements in your show. Alright, do we have any resources for our listeners?

Alex: Well, my resource is the subreddit r/worldbuilding. As they describe the subreddit themselves: “For geeks, and nerds, artists, writers, philosophers, politicians, and scientists alike. The creation of new world and new universes has been a key element of science fiction and fantasy. It can also exist outside the realm of Sci-Fi literature and RPG gaming, as a means of exploring possibilities. This subreddit is about sharing your worlds and discussing the many aspects of creating new universes.”

Nick: Sounds fun. And my resource is gonna be a link to what I was talking about before, the sensitivity readers. There’s a website called writeinthemargins.org, and they have a big Excel spreadsheet of readers that cover different topics and groups, and that sort of thing, who you may want to have your pilot read by to make sure that it’s sensitive to those needs. We’ll give you that in the show notes.

Alex: On that note, we’d like to thank you listeners for investing time listening to us discuss world-building. You can get all the show notes for this episode at paperteam.co/44.

Nick: And if you’d like to leave us some reviews, please, please do. You can do that at paperteam.co/itunes. And when you do leave us reviews, that helps us get more listeners and build our Paper Team community.

Alex: In fact, do that right now. We’re gonna take a short break right now.

[laughter]

Alex: Just kidding.

Nick: Once again, we’d like to thank our sponsor, The Tracking Board’s Launch Pad writing competitions. Our listeners can save $15 off the next purchase. Just use the code PAPERTEAM, all capitals, all one word, at the check out to receive your discount. And you can learn more about all of the LaunchPad’s current and upcoming writing competitions by visiting tblaunchpad.com.

Alex: As always, I’m on Twitter @TVCalling.

Nick: I’m @_njwatson.

Alex: If you have any thoughts, feedback, thoughts, opinion, ideas for future episodes or questions, you can send them all to [email protected] And next week, well, we are actually gonna take a break for Memorial Day. So we will see you on Monday, June 5th, with an episode about writing TV stunt specs with a guest, Billy Domineau, who wrote the infamous Seinfeld 9/11 stunt spec.

Nick: It’s gonna be a fun one. We’ll see you then.

PT44 shownotes and audio episode available here.

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Hi there!

Alex Freedman

I'm Alex Freedman, the writer behind TV Calling.


I started this site in 2008 to chronicle my own journey in television writing.

693 posts and 9 years later, TV Calling has also become a comprehensive resource dedicated to the full TV writing industry — from spec to success.


Everything here is written by yours truly (unless otherwise credited), so feel free to blame me for any missed deadlines.


I hope you'll answer your television calling, and join me in this creative journey.


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