This is the ninth installment in a series analyzing the humor, heart, and zany plots of various Pixar films. The focus is on applying these principles to children’s stories, however, writers of all genres can benefit from Pixar’s literary genius, so I highly encourage you to have a seat and prepare to write like the wind!
If I could, I’d hop aboard the Train of Thought to Imagination Land right now, open my closet door into Monstropolis, or fly to outer space and order a pizza drink!
Okay, maybe not that last part, because a pizza drink is just weird (sorry, Wall-E). Aside from Pixar’s memorable characters, their worlds are one of the most intriguing aspects of their films. They don’t simply build cities, they construct living societies as real as NYC (or almost).
If you’re ready to start building, grab your construction hat and hop on Pixar’s Train of Thought to their creative headquarters!
1. Think Outside the Box
What first comes to mind when you hear worldbuilding? If you’ve run around in speculative fiction circles for as long as me, you’ll probably think of elves, dwarves, magic systems, and the like. Or maybe you envision towering buildings, super-humans, and unstable governments. Or maybe you imagine spaceships, stars, and bleeping robots.
But I’ll let you in on a little secret: your world doesn’t have to fall into any of those categories.
You read that right. I’ll repeat it again now that you’ve regained your consciousness: Your worlds don’t need to be confined to the typical expectations.
Pixar’s dedication to exploring new realms is what sets their stories apart. Their world’s aren’t like anything else. How many stories have you read that delves into the world inside your head? How many stories have you read about a city powered by human screams? How many stories have you read that plunges you into the world of insect colonies?
Regardless of what genre you’re writing, try to make your world different from others. Don’t be afraid to invent an undiscovered world, or mix and match different times and places to create a riveting culture. Who says you can’t add a Victorian twist to a fantasy world? Who says you can’t blend the 1950’s with the Prehistoric age to create a world where dinosaurs wear poodle skirts and high heels? Who says a city can’t be hidden inside each flower?
2. Pick Your Location & Build Around That
Where is the hub of your story? Monsters Inc., never went beyond the borders of Monstropolis. Cars mainly focused on Radiator Springs. Wall-E ventured into space, but never beyond the ship.
Sometimes readers don’t need to know about the hundred other cities in your world. Goodness, if your readers want a lesson in geography, they can read a textbook. Instead, choose the most essential locations in your story and flesh those out. That way you can focus your time into it rather than diverting your energy into naming the sixty mountain ranges dotting the map.
This isn’t to say we shouldn’t spend any time on those mountains and cities—we are the author, and we should be familiar with the ins and out of the world, even if readers aren’t. But our time on those things should be minimal, so we won’t grow weary of trying to figure out everything. However, sometimes you’ll need to brainstorm several locations (as in the case of Inside Out), and a thought out map would be crucial to making your plot make sense. When that happens, you’ll have to grin and bear it, and fill yourself with caffeine to make it through.
3. Create Problems
Perfect characters (or nearly perfect) are a taboo in fiction, and we authors do everything in our power to prevent that common writer sin. But a nearly perfect world is just as bad, if not worse. Readers can’t connect with angelic characters, and a place as beautiful as heaven isn’t likely to seem believable either.
Earth is bursting with beauty—every morning you wake up you’ll see a bouquet of freshly picked loveliness. But you’ll also see decay, pain, and destruction. Other worlds should be no different. You’ll of course have the major problems cited above (death, pain, destruction), but you’ll also need smaller troubles or inconveniences like birds eating crops, a specific annoying noise animals make at night, or a certain method of travel that’s particularly uncomfortable. Ask yourself what are the drawbacks of living in this world or society? Are the taxes high? What’s the atmosphere like? What kind of rodents live here? What are the dangers of living there?
For example, in the Inside Out world, you might watch a dream with a terrible plot line, be sentenced to the subconscious, or worst of all, listen forever to those gum commercial lyrics! In Monster Inc., you might be banished to the Himalayas, have your hair shaved off because a human sock was stuck to your back, or be constantly watched by Roz. In Wall-E, you might grow fat and lose your ability to walk, wander through space forever, or constantly disinfect things until it’s uncontaminate.
4. Stop Focusing on the Big Picture
When visiting a big city for the first time, you can easily get caught up with all the skyscrapers and flashing lights. How often do we stop to observe how the native lives day by day? Similarly in fiction, we tend to become enthralled with all the shiny things in worldbuilding—government, architecture, religion—all of which are good and necessary. But we also must learn to take a step back and look at the normal everyday things.
Ask yourself what life is like for the average individual (not just your protagonist) in your world? In Wall-E, an average person’s day would be grabbing a quick breakfast drink, hovering around the ship and chatting to their friends via the projection screen. In Monsters Inc, while Mike and Sulley were walking to work, viewers glimpsed the daily life of an average monster—from the kids playing in the streets to the grocer. In Inside Out, they showed how the mind workers collected memories, directed dreams, and argued over which hat was theirs. Try making a list of the various occupations in your world and how they are differ from the norm. You could even write a short story about the daily life of one of the average citizens of your world!
Additionally, try zooming in on the small details of your world, the simple things that make life what it is. Maybe it’s a character’s favorite brand of cereal, the name of a street, or a certain type of clogs the character wears every time it rains. Monsters Inc. dropped many little tidbits that helped color their world—from stinky dog deodorant to the Business Shriek magazine. Likewise, Inside Out showed viewers bits of that world—Anger’s newspapers, the mind manuals, and the posters in dream productions. Cars opened the door to a world where trucks went tractor tipping, monuments were erected to vintage automobiles, and skies were clouded with tire tracks. Even though these were little, inconsequential details, they added realism and depth to the world.
5. Remember Your Theme
You have an awesome story world. You’ve figured out all the big and little details, and you can finally visit there without getting lost. You know all the national anthems by heart, and you are personally acquainted with all the local townsfolk. All that is great, but if all these intricacies don’t enrich the theme, you’ve built a distraction instead of a world.
Before you start laying the foundations, ask yourself how this world relates to the plot and the characters’ inner journey. Does it prod the character(s) in some way? How does it symbolize the lie (or truth) they believe? Does it offer any kind of contrast to the normal world? Does it provoke the character(s)? Also, why does this story have to be set here? Because it’s interesting? I’m sorry, but that’s not a good enough reason. Your world, like your characters, needs a purpose. Otherwise, your world will crumble and fade away in people’s memories.
Monstropolis served to foster the lie that humans were dangerous and screams were the only source of power. Radiator Springs served to challenge the fast-paced, selfish lifestyle of Lightning McQueen. Wall-E’s world served to show people the disastrous effects of carelessness and laziness. These worlds were fascinating in and of themselves, but their connection to the story’s theme made them enduring in viewers’ hearts.
Don’t Make Your World Survive, Make it Live!
You have a world inside of you just waiting to be let out. With it, you can take readers to majestic cities, treat them to lunch at a monstrous diner, or take them for a walk through longterm memory. Who knows, they may never want to leave and you’ll have to drag them back to reality.*
*Which isn’t necessarily good because most writers have weak backs.
I hoped you enjoyed this ninth post to our Pixar series! Each month Aberdeen and I will break down different concepts into further depth. Please join us next month as we show what Pixar teaches about writing sequels as good as the first story.
For the rest of the posts in this series: