Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Elysium: The Dangers of Relying on World-Building Alone (Beware of Spoilers)

I'll have to admit, I was excited when I saw the trailer for Elysium. Very cool premise. A select group of rich people live on a utopian, heaven-like space station called Elysium, while the rest are stuck on Earth, with high pollution, sickness, overpopulation, and poverty.

But when I saw the movie, I realized that's all it was. A premise. NPR movie reviewer, Linda Holmes, says it best: "One of the great threats to any film is that the people who are making it live too much inside it. Just as you learn to navigate a city without looking at signs, they learn to navigate the world they've built so well that they forget to make it comprehensible and important for people who have just arrived."

Because building a world is not the same as building a story. Elysium establishes a set of rules, and then forgets about them in order to flesh out the plot. About three storylines are running at any given time--and they get so tangled that they often negate one another. Such as (beware of spoilers):
  • The citizens of Elysium seem to have no compassion for those on Earth. Wouldn't some assist the people that come through looking for help? Certainly not every one of them are rich, self-centered bastards.
  • Why give Matt Damon's character radiation poisoning when his would-be girlfriend also has a sick daughter? Only one of these is needed to establish the objective of trying to get to Elysium and get healed.
  • And then there's a guy with a samurai sword set to kill everyone and everything. He's probably the most two-dimensional guy in the whole movie, and he's the one they decide to keep around (even after they explode his face off and bring him back to life so he can kill the more plausible, more layered villain).

This is something I have to be very careful of in my writing. It's not enough to create a fantastical world with really unique things in it. It's more important to give the story cohesion, realistic motivations for the characters, and real obstacles for them to face. There has to be a reason for everything to fit together the way it does.

So, when you're looking at the stories you've written, be sure that:
  • Your protagonist's motivation is related to the setting you've created--and the protagonist is affected by it in a realistic and plausible way.
  • You've deleted story layers that don't belong (even if you love them really a lot).
  • Your world "rules" maintain consistent throughout the story.
  • Your secondary characters have a bigger role than just standing in the world they've been created in. What are their motivations? How do they affect your protagonist?
As Linda Holmes says, "However important the point you want to make, you rise or fall on what happens on the stage you've built, not on how immersive an experience that stage creates."


Anonymous said...

The fact JK Rowling created so complete a world--government, banking system, retail markets, media, education, history, folklore--is what made Harry Potter such a satisfying story. Filmmakers, writers, anyone telling a story needs to watch the shorthand.

The Writer Librarian said...

I absolutely agree--world-building details are extremely important. Rowling's worlds are excellent--and her characters are also realistic and compelling within the stage she's set.