We’re all familiar with world-building in sci-fi and fantasy. The religions, politics, powers, and ancient mythology (and, yes, even the trade laws) that exist in Star Wars, Star Trek, the MCU, and the Potter-verse. But world-building isn’t just for magical characters wielding all-powerful technology.
No matter the genre, the world in which your story takes place is more than just a backdrop to invoke a location (like a white sheet behind a stage to show an empty sky). Your setting is literally and figuratively your characters’ world. It has/will shape them, and possibly crush or inspire them.
The first step to building your world (and ensuring it’s presented in just the right way when you’re editing) is to decide how much influence you want the setting to have. Will it enrich each scene in subtle, nuanced ways (like the music subculture in Begin Again), or will your world be so vivid that it’s almost a character unto itself (like The Matrix)? Either way, just like your characters, you need to know the ins and outs of where your story unfolds. What’s its history? Its defining features? How does the air smell (if it even has air)? How does the water taste (if there’s even any water)? What does it sound like at night? Is it any different at dawn from how it is at dusk?
This also extends to culture and society: you need to know the mechanics of how your invented society functions, and how your characters work those mechanics. Mad Max: Fury Road has a fully complete society and eco-system: it’s grounded in details. Utterly insane details, to be sure, but it’s 100% consistent and feels real.
If you’re so inclined, draw your world, as much as you can. If not, look for pictures, photos, paintings, etc. that both look like your world, and conjure the feelings you want your world to provoke in your characters, and in your readers. Having a visual reference can be a huge help in creating your atmosphere. If there’s a part of the world that has similar geography, go visit it and soak it in. Basically, do what you need to in order to live there in your head. Then attack your draft and make sure that feeling you have when you’re living in your world is conveyed between the action and dialogue lines, and in and between each line of your prose. Make sure every action follows the law of your world: readers and viewers have an unerring instinct for inconsistency, even if it’s felt more than thought, it will turn them away from your work. For example: if there is no air, there is no rust.
Grab your nearest copy of Harry Potter (everyone has a set of Harry Potter books in each room, right? That just us?), open it up, and see how long it takes you to figure out where Harry, Hermione and Ron are. We’re betting that in a few lines you can tell what room in Hogwarts they’re in, or which shop in Diagon Alley. (Just for the record, J.K. Rowling is a master world-builder, on every possible level — if you want to see how it’s done, read the Harry Potter books, and for a more gritty, contemporary kind of world, her Cormoran Strike crime novels, written under the pen name of Robert Galbraith).
It’s all in the details, the feelings that bring you… well… home.
When you’re editing your story, be it script or prose, it’s important to shape your world to feel like a home. It’s your home as the creator, your characters’ home because they exist in it, and your readers’ as they escape to it.