Wednesday, 7 September 2011

Worlds Apart

A friend of mine linked me to a writing competition recently. This happens on occasion, when you're a struggling writer. Someone sees a competition, thinks of you and hits you up with the link. It's a good thing. I've entered and, I suppose, lost my fair share of them. I mean, I don't have anything to confirm I lost, but I didn't win, so I must have, right? But I digress.

This particular writing competition though, something about it seemed a little off to me. Not in a dodgy way, by any means. It was linked through the BBC website for one thing, so I don't thing there'd be any shenanigans there (and my friends at the Beeb won't contradict me, 'cos no one enjoys the job center). More, it was what the competition was asking for that troubles me.

The competition was asking you to pitch a world. Not a story, not a script, not a TV series or a film, but a world where stories could take place. The competition lists some examples of worlds along the lines of what they're after. These included things like Star Wars, Doctor Who and the Marvel Universe. All very good examples of worlds where multiple stories take place, with hundreds of characters running around and amazing opportunities to entertain an audience. And they can all be pretty neatly summed up in a pitch type sentence, if the need should arise.

But, those universes weren't created as universes. They were universes which came into being as a result of a story. When it comes to the creative process, I don't necessarily agree that there are any hard and fast rules. As long as you're telling a good story, that's all that matters. But one thing I do think is a bad idea is attempting to create a world without having a story to tell in it. You can start with a character or an event, two key aspects of any story, but to jump straight into a whole world, head first? That's just asking for trouble, and in my opinion, could quite easily lead to some lazy story telling.

Don't get me wrong, a good story needs a world to be set in, but the world should form naturally around that story. And, chances are, once you've told one story in that world, you'll have an idea for another. The world you've created will grow and change naturally as the story evolves, sometimes to the point where the world changes the story you were originally looking to tell. But it's all in service to the story. Do Drew, Joe and I have a fully developed world built up for Stiffs? Yes, we do. We know all sorts of things about what has happened, what is happening and what will happen in that world. Will you ever see all of that? No. We hope you'll see a lot of it, but there's always things that just don't matter to the story. We know they happened, but they don't necessarily impact upon the events we're portraying in the comic. Did we create the world first? Of course not. All we started with was Drew's idea about a man and his monkey hunting zombies in the woods. Everything else grew naturally from there.

Likewise, when Doctor Who was first broadcast in nineteen sixty-three, no one had the first inkling that he was a Time Lord, that he could regenerate, that he would last on and off for fifty years, that there would be multiple spin-offs and storylines galore. It all came later as different writers told different stories using the characters, and it all came about naturally as a result of the storytelling process. Nobody pitched Doctor Who as a fully realised world. They pitched it as a TV series about an old man and his time machine. The world came later.

World building is a part of writing. It should happen, and it's a great feeling when it does. And yes, I have a number of worlds in my head to tell stories in, but it was always the story which came first. Asking people to pitch a world just doesn't work for me. I love some of the worlds I write in, but I wouldn't know where to start pitching them as worlds. Let me pitch a story to you first. The world will follow.


  1. I saw that competition and agree 100%. I thought it was really weird too. My favourite sci-fi writer, Iain M. Banks was asked once if he knew the ins and outs of his Culture Universe. I believe his answer was simply, 'No, I just make it up each book'.

    Plus, how does creating a world/universe work? Will you get a portion of the profit from all stories set there even if you don't write them? Do you at least always get a mention that you created the Universe?

  2. I never even thought about the rights, credits and money stuff there Mark, so good point! I was only looking at it from a storytelling perspective, and now the competition seems even more flawed!