Use relatable signals to accelerate the audience's understanding of a story's context.
When you’re introduced to a new world, you immediately want to know how it works. It’s the feeling you get when you travel to a new country and experience a new culture. It’s the feeling you get when you witness a fantasy world of witches and wizards. There’s wonder and uncertainty, all at once. Excitement and anxiety.
In storytelling, setting the scene is critical; the audience needs to understand the character’s environment in order to believe in the decisions that they make.
Whether you’re writing a fantasy novel or pitching an idea at work, you need to set the scene. You need to create that world in which the audience is about to live. Only at that point will they be able to follow and believe in the story you’re about to tell.
But how do you create that world without spending hours talking about the smallest details?
You use your audience’s experience.
How did you discover drivers in Manhattan are crazy? You likely tried to cross the street a second early and had a yellow taxi speed by to catch the light, almost grazing your toes. Something like that at least.
That moment isn’t just about a taxi driver speeding through a yellow, it represents the reality of the place you’re in. It represents how rushed the driver is, how hyper-focused they are to get to point B, how everyone seems to operate in their own little world, and just how frantic the big city feels. It’s an understanding you’ve developed, a signal, a rule you understand based on your own experience. Broad, yes, but only as you continue to expand your own experience does your understanding of the rules change. In the beginning and without added detail, the rules are broad.
Before the Harry Potter series, the idea of a school for witches and wizards wasn’t part of the common narrative in magic. J.K. Rowling didn’t invent the notion of witches and wizards nor the idea of school, but by introducing Hagrid who comes to collect Harry for his first day of wizarding school, Rowling created a world we could understand, quickly.
School is something we’ve all experienced along with the butterflies one feels starting at a new school. The revelation that one is magical comes as a shock, both to the audience and the protagonist; it’s something we can share as the story begins.
Rather than attempting to introduce us to an abstract fantasy world of magic, Rowling found a deeply relatable experience almost all of her readers will have: the first day of school. With that simple signal, we know to expect certain things, and Rowling fulfills those expectations down to fantastic detail from back-to-school shopping, to annoying classmates, to the teacher who you just can’t seem to impress.
You can find these subtle, relatable signals in all sorts of fantasy worlds. Gandalf arriving at the Shire, joined by Frodo as they ride into what seems like any other country town, filled with kids, grumpy neighbours, animals, and greenery. Nothing uncommon from a real world experience.
Early in the Star Trek movie series reboot, we’re introduced to a freewheeling child, James T. Kirk, who steals an old muscle car and is pursued by a cop on a hoverbike. In a brief sequence, despite this world being dreamed up by the writer, we know both wheeled and hover vehicles exist telling us technology is very advanced and we should consider this to be the future, that speeding is still against the law, police enforce the law, and kids can and will push back against authority.
In all these examples, no matter how far or close to the real world they are, they use relatable signals to help us imagine the world where the story is taking place. The storyteller intentionally offers this explicit information so that you can imagine the rest for yourself. What would practicing magic look like when you mess up? Do 2ft hobbits ride full size horses? Are muscle cars on wheels antiques? Are they even allowed anymore?
These explicit details put the audience on the right line of thinking but allow them to construct the rest of the world without harming the future storyline. And without requiring the storyteller to explicitly share every detail. In essence, the storyteller is creating moments for the audience to observe and recognize the rules. Subtle signals, but enough to help create a new world in the mind of the audience.
World-building is an important practice not just in fictional storytelling but in non-fiction as well.
In his book Shoe Dog, Phil Knight refers back to his numerous miscalculations and misunderstandings with his Japanese suppliers. This helps transport readers back in time to a post-war Japan, putting the reader in Knight’s shoes as both reader and protagonist discover what it was like to do business in a new, foreign country.
In his speeches as a presidential candidate, Barack Obama painted a picture of what the United States could look like. Especially as the Great Recession tore through the world’s economy, his story was about resilience, improvement, and ensuring a recession like that couldn’t happen again. Rather than promising an entirely new system that no one could relate to, Obama used relatable, easy-to-understand ideas and visuals to slightly alter the current reality and make the future a bit more appealing.
World-building isn’t about fantasy worlds, it's a critical step in storytelling to ensure you and your audience understand the same set of rules. Whether that’s the real-world rules you both share, a historical set of rules, a foreign set of rules, or an alien set of rules.
As the audience comes to understand how that world works, they’ll be more accepting of the protagonist’s decisions making the story more believable.