The Art of Worldbuilding

In a conversation with Henry Jenkins, a Hollywood screenwriter explained how the nature of “the pitch” has changed:

When I first started, you would a pitch a story because without a good story you didn’t really have a film. Later, once sequels started to take off, you pitched a character because a good character could support multiple stories. And now, you pitch a world because a world can support multiple characters and multiple stories across multiple media.[1]

Part of the shift towards world building, as discussed in Chapter 1, comes from economic incentives. In a well-developed world, every interesting detail can potentially launch a new toy, novel, or game. The Star Wars franchise has accumulated an estimated 9 billion dollars of revenue from its toys and merchandise.[2] Like Star Wars, the worlds of cult television support an array of merchandizing, inviting fans to collect and find tokens of their beloved world. Lost, for example, offers jump suits, t-shirts, and mugs from the Dharma Initiative, a fictional institution of the show. In doing so, fans can demonstrate their fandom while feeling more a part of the Lost universe.

However, Geoffrey Long observes that the shift in emphasis from plot to character to world is not just an opportunity for more branding and merchandise; it is an important strategy for fostering transmedia narratives.[3] Indeed, many cult television shows like Star Trek, Babylon 5, Farscape, The X-Files, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer present fantastic worlds not just as a backdrop for a narrative timeline, but also as a diverse and vivid geographical domain, ripe for new adventures and discoveries. In these worlds, ordinary people suddenly develop superhuman powers (Heroes), female slayers protect humans from vampires, demons, and werewolves (Buffy), and a space crew goes where no one has gone before (Star Trek). For many fans of these shows, the question is not ‘what will happen to Hiro, Buffy, or Captain Kirk?’ but ‘what will happen in a world full of superheroes, vampires, and aliens?’

As Long points out, transmedia narratives are often the story of a world. Star Wars, for example, cannot be easily summarized in terms of a specific character (is it about Luke or Anakin?) or in terms of a specific plot line (is it about learning to become a Jedi or defeating the evil empire?). The Star Wars narrative branches off into so many different video games, comics, novels, and movies that it has become the story of a world, or more precisely, of “a galaxy far, far away.” [4] Long concludes:

When developing a narrative that’s meant to extend across multiple media forms, the world must be considered a primary character of its own, because many transmedia narratives aren’t the story of one character at all, but the story of a world.  Special attention must be paid to developing a stage upon which multiple storylines (often in different media types) can unfurl, and every story must maintain the consistency of that world.[5] (original emphasis)

Emphasizing the “stage” or “backdrop” to a television show does not reduce the importance of characters. Engaging characters are essential for identification and emotional connection. In fact, some transmedia narratives do just fine around a primary character like James Bond. But while characters can grow old, plot lines overused and tired, worlds always have the potential to remain fresh. This leads me to my first suggestion: a transmedia/television producer should construct a story that involves not just a timeline to be followed, but also a world to be discovered. In order to offer some techniques in the world building process, I look towards the medium that excels in this area – video games.[6]

Historically, game designers have always been more interested in level design and realistic graphics than character and plot development. This does not mean, however, that narrative disappears in video games. Rather, in “Game Design as Narrative Architecture,” Jenkins introduces the term “environmental storytelling” to describe how game designers incorporate narrative into spatial structures.[7] According to Jenkins, environmental storytelling is accomplished by creating a space that evokes a pre-existing narrative, providing a stage to enact a narrative, presenting narrative information within the mise-en-scene, or encouraging new narratives to be built by the player. I would argue that transmedia storytelling involves the opposite process – incorporating spatial structures into narratives to develop a storytelling environment. In other words, by evoking the presence of a larger spatial structure in the narrative, a transmedia story can support a near infinite amount of plots and characters.

Matt Hills calls this concept the hyperdiegesis,  “the creation of a vast and detailed narrative space, only a fraction of which is ever directly seen or encountered within the text, but which nonetheless appears to operate according to principles of internal logic and extension.”[8] To use a cliché, a hyperdiegesis is like revealing only the tip of the iceberg. By presenting a well-defined, intricate, and coherent space, audiences are left to imagine a larger world and deeper mythology. For example, Derek Johnson observes that the fictional institutions of Star Trek (The Federation), Buffy the Vampire Slayer (Watcher’s Council), 24 (CTU), and Lost (Dharma Initiative) suggest an extensive expanse that can be filled in either through fan fiction or transmedia storytelling.  [9]

Part of the importance of a hyperdiegesis is purely practical. Because television shows are usually soft transmedia narratives, there needs to be enough ‘untouched’ space to expand the world without contradictions. In addition, creating the impression of a vast fictional space and history ignites audience’s imaginations, resulting in a more immersive experience. As Sara Gwenllian-Jones notes in her essay, “Virtual Reality and Cult Television:”

The cosmologies of fantasy genre cult television series…present exotic and ethereal fictional worlds to which the alchemy of textual data and imagination transports the reader, facilitating a pleasurable psychic sense of “being there” as the action unfolds. Successful fictional worlds are a matter not only of textual surface but also environmental texture; they create an impression of spatial presence and of solid geography, of gravity, height, distance, terrain, climate, and so on.[10]

All of these textual details, Gwenllian-Jones argues, invite a viewer to “actively create belief” [11] and form a sophisticated virtual world that appears to be inhabitable. Fans invest tremendous effort in developing a fictional encyclopedia for such a world, logging every narrative detail in order to flesh out the world and make it more real. A fully furnished environment helps build a hyperdiegesis, a vast expanse that is only partially seen. For example, Star Trek’s frequent references to the Klingon culture allow a viewer to imagine a larger cosmology, well beyond the scope of the Enterprise’s travels.

Gwenllian-Jones offers four broad narrative formats for cult television that facilitate the worldbuilding process: the travelogue, nodal, combination, and portal. The travelogue follows the nomadic lifestyle of a protagonist(s) across multiple locations, such as Xena, who travels across realms inhabited by supernatural and fantastical creatures. The nodal format consists of a single stable location such as Deep Space Nine where most of the action is on the space station. In combination formats, the characters inhabit a localized space in addition to traveling across exotic worlds (i.e. Star Trek).  Finally, portal formats, like Buffy, take a presumably naturalistic world and add fantasy and science fiction elements to it. All of these categories afford entry into the fictional world because they present hyperdiegetic depth, even in a contained setting. Deep Space Nine and Buffy, for example, feature a diverse range of character species, costumes, and customs, hinting at a much larger universe. Thus, Gwenllian-Jones’ categories, though not exclusive, provide a useful framework for creating a fictional world that has “inexhaustible possibility.”[12]

In contrast, Twin Peaks struggled to expand its world beyond the location of the town; the series revolved around a single mystery, ‘Who Killed Laura Palmer?’ This type of narrative hook, once resolved, left no room for further expansion and development. By the time the show tried to open the world up by leaning heavily on sci-fi elements, the plot became so obscure and drawn out that it caused many people to abandon it.[13] Whereas Twin Peaks was centered on one ‘closed’ narrative question, a show with an effective hyperdiegesis can support many questions and narratives across multiple media.

Perhaps a useful litmus test for a proposed transmedia world might be the question, ‘Would a gamer want to navigate this universe?’ Jon Stovey and Helen Kennedy describe the structure of the computer games Myst and Doom:

Both are spatial journeys…Doom and Myst present the user with a space to be traversed, to be mapped out by moving through it. Both begin by dropping the player somewhere in this space. Before reaching the end of the game narrative, the player must visit most of it, uncovering its geometry and topology, learning it logic and its secrets…In contrast to modern literature, theater, and cinema which are built around the psychological tensions between the characters and the movement in psychological space, these computer games return us to the ancient forms of narrative where the plot is driven by the spatial movement of the main hero, traveling through distant lands to save the princess, to find the treasure, to defeat the Dragon, and so on. [14]

Transmedia storytelling, like Doom and Myst, present a world to be traversed and explored. The consumer might watch the television show to follow the journey of saving the princess, play the alternate reality game to find the treasure, then defeat the Dragon through the videogame. As a whole, these experiences position the hard-core fan as “the main hero” who drives the plot forward through their own spatial movements. Just as a character in a videogame discovers a new part of a world by entering a new level or area, a hard-core fan discovers a new part of a transmedia world by purchasing a new novel, movie, or comic book. As hard-core fans navigate the nuances of a world, casual fans can imagine a vast expanse (hyperdiegesis) without having to explore it further. It is the same logic as many role-playing games: hard-core fans can get the full experience by following every side mission, while casual fans can focus on the main quest and see how the primary story unfolds. In any case, a transmedia creator should evoke the spatial dimensions of a world in order to encourage hard-core fans to “play” within it.

[1] Convergence Culture, 114.
[2] Ahrens, Frank. “Final ‘Star Wars’ Caps Moneymaking Empire.” The Washington Post. 14 May 2005.
[3] Transmedia Storytelling: Business, Aesthetics, and Production at the Jim Henson Company.
[4] The Star Wars universe serves as a useful model for world building because it has influenced many writers and producers of cult television today. As Jesse Alexander, a writer on Heroes, proclaimed, “everything I know about transmedia, I learned from Star Wars.” In Taylor, Alice. “Hollywood & Games: An Interview with Jesse Alexander.” Wonderland Blog.
[5] Ibid., 48.
[6] The video game industry (which includes computer games) also constantly struggles to appeal to both hard-core gamers and casual gamers (however you define them). In Morris, Chris. “Requiem For The Hardcore.” 9 September 2008.
[7] Jenkins, Henry. “Game Design as Narrative Architecture.” First Person: New Media as Story, Performance, and Game. Eds. Noah Wardrip-Fruin and Pat Harrigan. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2004. 118-120.
[8] Hills, Matt. Fan Cultures, 137.
[9] “The Fictional Institutions of Lost.” Reading Lost.
[10] Cult TV, 84.
[11] Janet Murray uses the phrase “create belief” instead of the more passive “suspend disblief.” In Cult TV.
[12] Ibid., 91.
[13] Abbot, Stacey. “How Lost found its audience: The Making of a Cult Blockbuster.” Reading Lost
[14] Game Cultures: Computer Games as New Media. New York: Open University Press, 2006.

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