Course Spotlight: Developing New Worlds

This month we’re spotlighting the Creative Writing for Entertainment program, focusing on the courses that make up the backbone of the curriculum that students learn across its 20 (campus) or 32 (online) months.

Creating a believable and immersive universe is one of the most essential skills a writer can have. Whether in a book, a screenplay, a comic, or even an online video, the environment in which the action takes place is as vital to the story’s authenticity as the characters that inhabit that world.

In Full Sail’s Creative Writing for Entertainment Bachelor of Fine Arts degree program, students are taught how to create those environments in the Developing New Worlds: Environment and Historical Research course, and, according to Course Director Tom Lucas, the most important element of the entire world-building process is solid research.

“If you write fantasy, you have to know about medieval Europe because that’s pretty much the basis for most fantasy,” says Lucas. “Likewise, if you’re going to write science fiction, well, the first word in science fiction is ‘science,’ so most science fiction fans expect things to be plausible. I heard this great quote, which was: ‘Fantasy is about things that have never been, and science fiction is about things that will one day be.’”

Lucas doesn’t let writers of contemporary fiction off the hook either: “Contemporary stuff is challenging because it’s easy to make a lot of assumptions,” he says. “If you pick New York [as a setting], and you’ve never been to New York, you need to spend some time actually learning about New York. Don’t take what you’ve learned from TV shows.”

In fact, Lucas illustrates this to his students by comparing the more authentic New York of Seinfeld with the New York of Friends. “Seinfeld uses New York a lot, referentially – neighborhoods, streets, the kind of people, the Yankees. It’s very New York,” he says. “Whereas Friends – it’s a sound stage. It’s not New York. It could be L.A.; it could be anywhere.”

To help students develop their own fictional world, Lucas gives his students a series of research assignments that relate to the genre and topic of their choosing. At first, students research their setting’s physical environment and how it might inform their characters. Then students research the era – things like technology, social structure, architecture, housing, food, clothing, weaponry, religion, and culture.

Finally, he has the students put everything together in a story bible, “basically an encyclopedic guide to the world,” explains Lucas. Story bibles are mainly used in film and TV, but game studios use a similar form called game bibles or design documents. These bibles are used as guiding documents for all the writers, art directors, and set designers, as they lay down the “rules” for the characters and the world, says Lucas.

“There are things that you just don’t do,” says Lucas. For instance, he says, Spider-Man could never be a drug addict or a bully, based on his character and his world. “Those kinds of things come out of these documents.”

Ultimately, says Lucas, story bibles and great stories all come from careful research and a dedication to making the story as authentic as possible. “I try to show [students] how something that’s completely imaginary comes from a really solid base.”