The Rules of Worldbuilding


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by Naomi Write + Co. in screenwriting

Whether you’re writing in a genre like sci-fi or fantasy, or you’re writing a grounded, realistic drama, your story has a world.

Obvious, right? I mean – your story’s gotta take place somewhere.

And even if we usually think of world-building as pertaining to genre movies that take place in very unusual or fantastical worlds, it’s an element of screenwriting craft that’s just as important – and just as important to get right – in stories where the world is familiar and a lot like our own.

What is worldbuilding?

Most simply, worldbuilding is everything you do to create the specific world in which your story takes place. And even though world-building can feel daunting sometimes, much of what you’re trying to convey really falls into two categories:

  1. Where and when are we
  2. How is this world different from our own

These two categories provide a great place to start as you think about what you need to work into the screenplay.

You’ve probably already devoted at least some thought to the setting of your story, which is what the first category deals with. There are only a couple of issues we tend to run into when it comes to setting. Usually it’s that the writer hasn’t established the time and place of the story well or at all.

In the second category we might have things like a certain technology in a sci-fi story, or how the magical powers are distributed and used in a fantasy story. This second category can be slightly slipperier to deal with and is where a few more issues crop up.

And that leads us to the main thing I wanted to talk about today: establishing the rules of the world.

What are the rules of the world?

Building any story world also includes establishing the parameters for how the setting works. Every world, however “normal” or unique, is defined by a set of rules. You’ll often hear screenwriters (and readers and development people) refer to “the rules of the world”.

When the rules of the world are clearly and firmly established, the audience will go along for some pretty wild rides. Because clear rules create an internal logic that helps keep your story from feeling confusing or nonsensical.

We have to find ways to convey the rules to the audience, of course, but the danger here – especially when there’s a lot to communicate – is a clunky exposition dump that slows down the pace of the story or bores the audience altogether.

The trick you’re trying to pull off is weaving the rules into the story itself. That way the information is conveyed, but it happens in a way that feels organic to the story. It’s a lot like good dialogue in that way.

And, if you think about it, weaving the rules of the world into the story should be achievable. Because the rules should be integral to the story – otherwise why set those rules at all?

Why here and now?

Before we can think about establishing the world or the rules, we need to think about what we’re establishing. And – as an extension of that – why; why do the rules exist?

A good question to ask about the story world you’re creating is, “why here and now?”

Just like everything else in the screenplay, there should be a good reason for each piece or element or rule to be included. Everything should have a purpose.

When certain rules of the world are truly vital to the story, they can actually create or become a strong story hook. An example I’ve been referring to a lot lately is Minority Report. This movie takes place in world in which special police stop murders before they’re committed.

The existence of that technology – which you can think of as a rule of this world, or a set of rules for how this world works – is integral to the story, which follows one police officer who is himself accused of a future murder.

That rule – stopping murders before they happen – is itself a strong entertainment hook and is what makes this movie different from other “cops track a killer” movies. It’s why this story happens here and now.

If your story takes place in, for example, an alternate history, or a world with futuristic technology, or a particular kind of magic, that rule must inform the story. Otherwise there’s a disconnect in the concept and the rules you’ve established feel extraneous. And then they just weigh down the screenplay unnecessarily.

Next let’s think about some guidelines for effectively conveying the rules of your story world without intruding on the audience’s experience. But first, it might be useful for our discussion to take a look at the first 5 pages of Bill Marsilii & Terry Rossio’s Timezone script. The rules of this very special world are well established very quickly, and in ways that provide great examples of what we’re about to cover.

Rules are defined by consequences

One way to establish the rules of a particular world is through the consequences of the actions we see. What happens as a result of an action shows us how things work.

It’s cause and effect. Like if your character drops a sandwich and it floats instead of hitting the floor, we begin to get a sense of the rules of gravity in this world. We see the effect and we glean an explanation for the cause of it.

Or, to draw from our Timezone example, when we watch as Griffin:

“Rides up a buttress, jumps the low wall and hits the water –
— and DRIVES OVER THE WATER, his bike moving on the surface too quickly to sink, its rear wheel digging in and sending up a tail of hanging spray.”

The consequence of his leaping his bike into the water is unexpected and helps define how the rules work in this world, in which certain special law enforcement officers have the ability to operate at super speed.

Show the rules in action in the story

This will come as no surprise to you, but if you’re looking for ways to show the rules rather than tell us about them? Demonstrate the rules in action. Not only does it keep the story moving, but it’s more entertaining and cinematic. (Which is good since you’re writing a movie.)

There’s overlap, of course, with the above point about consequences. But to brainstorm how to get this information into you screenplay, think about when we would naturally see or discover a particular rule. What situation would expose the fact of this rule, or the difference in the way this world works?

If we’re looking at the first 5 pages of the Timezone screenplay, we see how this world works in the whole sequence in which time slows down the first time. It tells us pretty much everything we need to know, with perhaps a few details to be filled in later.

Rules are only rules when they’re enforced (or reinforced)

Consistency is key when it comes to rules. Much like our discussion from a few weeks ago about establishing character traits, you could think of this almost like establishing the characteristics of your story world. The rules are the defining characteristics of the world in which your story takes place.

It’s important to begin to establish those parameters early. That way when your character can suddenly read minds or stop bullets in mid-flight, it doesn’t feel tacked on for convenience. If you wait too long into the story to introduce special rules like that, it feels like a cheat rather than part of the fabric of the story.

And the rules should be adhered to and reinforced throughout the script. Again, this adds to the strength of the concept and hook, as well as the internal logic of the story.

Building a world for your story

If you remember one thing from today’s discussion, maybe the most important thought is that the world you create for your story should serve your story. Sometimes writers fall in love with the world they’re creating and forget about the story itself. Make the story your top priority, and let all other choices serve the best version of your screenplay.


Start with my 3-part email series: "The 3 Essential, Fundamental, Don't-Mess-These-Up Screenwriting Rules." After that, you'll get a weekly dose of pro screenwriting tips and industry insights that'll help you get an edge over the competition.