Story World

Managing your audience's expectations about the film's narrative universe.

Misha Tenenbaum avatar
Written by Misha Tenenbaum
Updated over a week ago

The Story World is a key element to every film, but it is important for a filmmaker to understand what it takes to introduce and teach an audience about the world within their story. There are two types of worlds:

Familiar World

A Familiar Story World does not take much time to teach the audience, as it is recognizable to their current life. Usually a Familiar Story World takes place in the present day and the audience can quickly understand what is going on. Very rarely do rules need to be established about a familiar Story World. A few important cues and shots can give the audience enough information to understand what the world is like for our characters.

In the example below to the 2006 film The Devil Wears Prada, we are brought into a Familiar Story World that takes place in present day. The audience directly jumps into character development and setting the narrative stage. The film's protagonist, Andy Sachs, is on the hunt for a job and finds herself like a fish out of water in the office of a high fashion magazine. We see the office scramble in terror at the arrival of the editor-in-chief, Miranda Priestly, and quickly learn she a force to be reckoned with before her character even opens her mouth.

Different World

A Different Story World needs more time to teach the audience the rules of this world, as it is very different to most audience’s current lives. A different world needs to be established more for the audience to understand the story and become entrenched in the journey. For example, NYC might be a familiar world, but if aliens land in the middle of the city it becomes a different world, since we need to establish the rules of the new unknown entity in the story. When time is not given to set up a Different World, it could leave the audience confused, bored, or disengaged.

Some film genres like Sci-Fi, Fantasy, and Period Pieces, rely heavily on world building. In the example below to the 2001 film Harry Potter and The Sorcerer's Stone the audience has to be introduced to the complex magical universe of the film. While a fantasy world filled with magic seems full of boundless possibilities compared to our own experiences, there are still rules and limitations to the Wizarding World; as the audience learns these mechanics, so does our protagonist, Harry Potter, who recently discovers he's a wizard.

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