Sunday, July 26, 2020

From the Writer's Studio: The Importance of World Building Architecture

Welcome back to the Gauntlet of Balthazar for another foray into screenwriting and media critique (as well as hopefully useful advice). This time I'd like to focus on world building and story / character architecture. By this I mean the designing of building blocks which supply the infrastructure of a literary work with what it requires to move the audience through the story-line in both a logical and cathartic fashion, until its conclusion. Personally, as a Myers-Briggs INTJ (introverted-intuitive-thinking-judging) personality type, (otherwise known as "the architect"), you can see why someone like myself finds this element so crucial to successful screenplay and story writing, and why this approach works so well with my artistic inclinations, and in general, the structural endeavor of world building.

In essence all artists, and writers specifically, are world creators / builders. While some scribes excel at coming up with clever scenarios, penning effective and realistic dialogue, relaying complex emotions, setting a specific mood, or are adept at general character development, beyond this lays insightful and methodical structural plotting, progressive inter-related character arcs, and the comprehensive world building of a reality. In my opinion this is the most essential element for immersing the reader or viewer in the suspension of dis-belief. Thus, the term story-architecture is perhaps the most appropriate way of referring to the core elements of world building.


I think I should start by pointing out that world building goes far beyond just adhering to one or the other philosophies of act structure or organizing scenes within those acts. However, without a solid act structure, generally, all is chaos, and so, a brief mention of general script architecture should be noted before moving on.

The rule of thumb for act structure (going back to the ancient Greeks) is that the first act is "set up", the second is "conflict", and the third is "resolution" or "climax". Overlaying this, in the most traditional terms, is the "hero's journey" - which can aid in the development of the protagonist in an archetypal manner - paralleling his or her movement through the act structure. In tandem to act structure and the hero's journey are the emotional "beats" or "notes" that occur within the acts. These emotional setups and resolutions are usually referred to as being part of "Freytag's Pyramid".

Most plays, films, novels and series episodes rely on a three act structure, though a short play or film might be encompassed in a single act and larger works might opt for a five act layout. It is much rarer to find a "two act", "four act", or "six act" work of fiction. In ancient and Shakespearean tragedies the five-act structure was king and generally presented the final act as the ultimate "catastrophe" (as in Hamlet). However, in the twentieth century J.R.R. Tolkien of Lord of the Ring's fame added an element called a "eucatastrophe", which allowed for an inexplicable unraveling of tragedy into an unlikely happy resolution. I mean, hey, who doesn't like a happy ending, especially when it seems all but impossible.

In the modern milieu, the five-act structure of teleplay scripts exists simply due to the historical placement of advertisements on commercial television. Structurally these scripts really are still three-act plays, with a teaser (setup) at the beginning and a coda at the end. Obviously, the teaser occurs prior to (and sometimes following) the main title sequence of the show, and the coda returns just before the end titles / production credits - often to establish a new element, set up the next episode, or merely to insert a cliff-hanger. Within reason, the coda of an episodic script is synonymous with Freytag's "denouement", or the "tying up loose ends". For me, I personally tend to prefer a five act structure, simply because I gain great artistic satisfaction from writing scripts which are part of an ongoing arc within an episodic series.

Regardless, adhering to your chosen philosophy of act structure is, in my opinion, an invariable necessity - as crucial as choosing the tense in which you are writing your novel in and sticking with it all the way through. But in terms of overall creativity, a good screenplay writer must move beyond just depicting an interesting scenario or holding to an act format and become a world building architect. Arguably, it is the most important aspect of "larger" works. So let's jump right in, shall we.


As an example of effective world building architecture, one must intuitively, and intimately, understand the reality one is creating. If the architecture works, then all the characters you create will occupy their niche within the structure, and their place in that reality supplies them within the parameters by which their interactions with other characters function within that architecture.

The bottom line is that you must start to think like an architect, or at least a literary one, in order to build an effective and believable universe through which your characters navigate. Obviously, the more fantastic the reality, the more you must think it out, because if the audience picks up on contradictions (consciously or not), or starts to feel that the internal logic of the reality is not sacrosanct, they will inexplicably "fall out of love" with the otherwise amazing world you have created. 

In order to explain what I'm talking about, I'd actually like to start with a few real world examples of successful and flawed architecture in non-literary systems, for, what better way to sort out fiction than to dwell on real life architecture - especially if you want to get your own "created" architecture down. Now, don't get me wrong, it's not that you can't present a character, or group of characters in your film or episodic scripts that possess imperfect rationales for their actions, or that take incorrect or surreal actions which don't match their rationales, but for the most part even the most doltish viewer or reader will be thrown out of the suspension of dis-belief by a nonsensical disconnect from the linear "jenga" of logic and structure.

Therefore, witness Marxism / Socialism / Communism as a belief system. Clearly, for all the truly optimistic, utopian elements of Marx's theory, the installation of global Communism as true to Marx's vision as it is presented on the printed page has yet to have been implemented in the real world. In fact, it has panned out as quite the contrary, and has instead proved at every instance to engender authoritarianism and oligarchic hierarchies rather than the "equality" the philosophy promises. In fact, even Socialism (or as I like to term it: "Communism lite") generally requires a healthy dose of watering down in order to make it work within a democratic framework, which should stand as no surprise, since when Marxism is implemented as full Communism, invariably a large death toll is somewhere creeping over the horizon or lurking in the past.

Of course a die-hard Socialist or Communist will insist that the failures of Socialism or Communism was due to human error - and that the reason it failed to institute Marxism as written, was that it was not implemented properly. As they see it - the next time they'll get it right. One would think after seeing a system fail so many times it would be sort of like building a house and watching it fall down over and over, and never realizing that the blueprints are flawed. But since this is a religious, yes, religious belief system - powered by the rocket fuel of human emotions and idealism, true believers have a hard time admitting that the actual cause of the failure of Marxism is that the architecture developed by Marx is innately flawed.

The origin of these flaws are simple, and were ingrained from the start, and have persisted, simply because good old Karl believed that human nature could be changed by economic policies, and thus, the implementation of his architecture from book to real life proposed a "mortar" that in no way is able to hold the bricks of his philosophy together. You might wish to argue the point, but from the first American and French communes in the 18th and 19th centuries, to Marx, to Russia, China, Cuba, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Venezuela, to the CHOP in Seattle, none of those endeavors have arrived at the end vision of their ultimate creator. No need to mention the Faux-Socialist Nordic Capitalist varieties, as well as apparently frequent mutations from Globalist Socialism into Ethno-National Socialism; which gave us nifty authoritarians like Hitler, Mussolini, Milosevic, and Ba'athists like Saddam and Assad.

Unlike the flawed architecture of the Socialist umbrella philosophies, the religion of Islam possesses a near perfect architecture - at least for what it is designed to achieve. Every element, such as a negative prohibition on apostasy, the simplicity of the creed, a tax levied on non-believers implemented whenever Muslims exceed 50% of a population, and the faith being seamlessly integrated with political and ethno-cultural elements, enabled Islam to spread to twenty-two nations in under a century, and to become dominant in every one of those lands within the next three hundred or so years after that.

Certainly the entrenchment of the language, religion, and culture of Islam took some time to inculcate the populations of the lands Muslim armies conquered, but in grand scheme, even a population dense nation (multiple millions) such as Egypt (which was majority Christian, with sizeable Pagan and Jewish minorities in the seventh century C.E.) was Islamized by an initial force of some 4,000 Bedouin Arab warriors to almost 90% Islamic compliance by the Mamluk period. Christianity, on the other hand took almost 1000 years to reach its final extent in Europe, ending with the formal conversion of Lithuania's King in the mid 13th century. Nigeria, which was majority traditional polytheist prior to World War One, now only boasts about 10% of their population still clinging to their traditional beliefs. The rest of the formerly pagan nation's denizens are rapidly approaching Muslim-Christian parity, and realistically, one can expect a slight Muslim majority within a generation.

In my opinion the historical socio-cultural effectiveness of the Muslim model is beyond reproach, and this is because of the well thought out architecture that Mohammad and the Malikite compilers of the Hadith codified in the mid-seventh century. Therefore, no matter how you feel about Marxism or Islam, the contrast in the effectiveness of the architecture of their machines is clear - at least if you're honest with yourself, and dispassionately study the statistics of their respective successes and failures.

Objective observations of systems is an ability that most people possess, especially on the interpersonal side of life. For instance, in regard to your own sensibilities, how many times have you been able to point out when a friend is walking face-forward into a relationship or decision blunder? And how often have you been unable to see or change your own course, even though your friends have advised you otherwise? This phenomena occurs because it is easier to discern the flaws in an architecture that is external to your own - free of personal biases and emotional baggage. But look on the upside, since you are a world builder, it should be a comparatively easy task to stand back and look at your creation with some quotient of empiricism.


So, now that you've created the world behind your story and are poised to look at it empirically, you need to apply rules to the reality. These rules are internal to that reality, and may, or may not, comport with actual reality. Some realities possess an established set of rules governing certain character types, such as Vampires not being able to enter people's homes unless invited.

As world creator, you are of course free to invent a world in which Bram Stoker's rules do not apply, but you must them explain why this rule does not apply. It could be as simple as having a character quip: "What? That's just a bunch of folklore. Of course I can just sneak in for a bite."

Regardless, it has to be addressed.

The governing mechanism here is - if you break a rule, you are in effect creating a new rule.

To establish a set of consistent and coherent rules, I suggest mapping them out, like a script outline, and then deconstructing the reality. For example, let's say you've created a world in which, I don't know, all toys are sentient individuals, as in Toy Story (Yeah, I know, I've written about Toy Story before, but hey, just go with it!). Anyway, it isn't enough to just insist that the toys are characters, you must explain why their owners never notice their toys chatting with one another. Toy Story does this by explaining that Toys possess the uncanny ability to feign inanimate status whenever a human is near. While it is highly likely that a toy would eventually be caught being sentient, that is left to the suspension of dis-belief. The other rule of Toy Story is the causal factor that children outgrow, or lose toys - supplying the toy characters with a sense of inevitability.

The mental exercise of deconstruction serves as the creative "What If?". What if a human caught a toy speaking, what if some toys weren't capable of sentience?, what if a child never outgrew a toy?, and what if an adult had a relationship with a sentient toy (which occurred in the film "Ted"). I personally like to invent characters that don't actually appear in my film and series scripts and imagine what their life is like. For me, this really aids in my understanding of the world I've built. Needless to say, this is also very helpful when designing tertiary or incidental characters who inhabit the reality.

In the end, for a world creator it's all about forging the most realistic and believable reality possible, no matter how outrageous or unbelievable the overall premise or governing rules are. If this is done in a consistent, holistic, and comprehensive manner, with the pointers I mentioned earlier, I believe your scripts, stories, and novels, will all benefit and stand as superior pieces of writing.

Till next time.

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