I’ve always been really drawn to ideas that require a ton of world-building and research.
Since this is something I keep falling into and really love, I’ve developed a system for building out a complete story concept based only on the kernel of an idea—and I wanted to share it here with you in case it’s helpful.
To explain the process, I’m going to use this example from a script I wrote a couple of years ago. All you need is a fresh notebook, your favorite pen, and the Internet.
1. Come with a kernel and reserve all judgment.
To begin, you need to come to the table with something that fascinates you. This can be conceptual (inter-dimensional travel, the internet, mental health), character-driven (a fire lookout, a psychic, a duck), or whatever.
For reference, my kernel of an idea was “a big, magical-vibey script about a yeti for a family audience.”
You might think you know who your protagonist is. You might think you know what the story is here.
But put it away.
Open up your blank notebook and write your idea down to get it out of your system. Emotionally let it go. At this point, you’re just collecting.
Throughout this entire journey, never erase any of your work. Fill up the notebook with ideas, doodles, etc. Don’t obsess over keeping it organized or neat—use it as scrap paper and as a space for ideation.
We’re using a pen specifically so that you can’t self-edit. In fact, if you tend to be a perfectionist, scribble all over it now so you stop worrying about it staying pretty.
You want to be open to new ideas as they come to you. That’s the most exciting part of this process!
Start by taking a step back from your kernel of an idea and opening up the concept. For me, taking a step back meant expanding “yeti” into “mythical creatures” more broadly.
2. Fall down the rabbit hole of Wikipedia.
In these early stages of world-building, you’re not setting anything in stone. You’re just absorbing. Read, watch, and learn—all while withholding judgment.
Get started on Wikipedia. Give yourself permission to click through to other pages and explore.
I suggest trying to find “Lists” on Wikipedia that relate to your broader topic. This will allow you to explore a lot really quickly.
For my project, I started on a page for legendary creatures, and then found this absolute gem: a list legendary creatures, organized by “type.”
You’re looking for something that makes you excited—something that hooks your attention and makes you want to learn more. Something that is completely and utterly fascinating to you.
Keep clicking through, learning more, and exploring more angles. Remember: absorb, absorb, absorb.
Creativity is when your brain connects two unlike things, so the more stuff you have in your brain to connect, the more likely you are to be creative! So none of this research is in vain. Think of it as adding to your Creative-Possibility Files.
On my journey, I went from the list of legendary creatures to Folklore, and then I started thinking about folklore I grew up with. What was the deal with Paul Bunyan, anyways? Let’s find out.
There, I found my spark—right in the “see also” section: “In North American folklore, fearsome critters were fabulous beasts jokingly said to inhabit the wilderness in or around logging camps, especially in the Great Lakes region.”
That got my attention.
I started reading the names of these those Fearsome Critters—agropelter, glawackus, hodag, jackalope, sidehill gouger—and wondering, how has this not been a movie yet?!
At that moment, I knew I want my movie to involve Fearsome Critters. I just didn’t know how, why, or even what they were, really.
Keep going with this stage until something jumps out and grabs you—and remember, write down all the ideas you have in your notebook. Don’t be afraid to explore one path, then back up and try another.
Once you find your “spark,” read all you can about it on Wikipedia. Once you feel you have a basic understanding, it’s time to venture outward…
3. Explore the sources.
Once you stumble on something particularly interesting and have done some reading on it, take a look at the sources cited at the bottom of the Wikipedia page.
In my journey, I knew I was ready to leave Wikipedia when I’d found this:
This primary source is literally described as a “1910 fantasy field guide.”
This is dope for several reasons: first, it just sounds incredibly cool. And second, it’s Public Domain.
If you’re unfamiliar, Public Domain is what you call material for which the copyright has expired. This typically happens 70 years after the author’s death. You can adapt Public Domain materials without any permission.
Producers love IP, or Intellectual Property.
Intellectual Property is anything already published in the world, like books, articles, true stories, etc. It presents less of a risk to them as completely original content. So, finding a story you love that is Public Domain and hasn’t been done before is a gold mine.
I looked to the sources cited at the bottom of the Wikipedia page and found the link to a digital copy of the book.
And wow wow wow.
The illustrations in there were absolutely incredible. There was definitely something worth exploring here.
Again, don’t be afraid to change direction (not every exploration needs to be directly connected). After skimming that fabulous book, I hopped on Google and looked for other similar material.
That led me to this absolute goldmine of a (albeit slightly creepy) website: The Lumberwoods Unnatural History Museum.
This book, The Hodag, was particularly interesting because it was told from the point of view of a logger—which, again, hooked me. Primary sources are great for developing character and building out your world.
The personality in it was incredible. I always pictured loggers as these big, burly, tough guys, but here this writer was describing how scared he felt and how he cried and whatnot.
When you start finding stuff like this that really gets your imagination going, start asking yourself, “If [whatever you’re looking at] was the focus of the movie, what would it be like? Who would be the protagonist? What would be their objective? What event or action would send their story into motion?”
After doing some more investigating—and writing down an absolute ton in my notebook—my story started pulling me towards loggers and lumberjacks.
Again, just let the search take you wherever. For me, the next question that came to mind was, what did the lumber camps look like?
4. Find some visual references.
Look for photos (or another primary reference) to help you visualize your subject.
For example, if you are doing something science-fiction-y and it led you to explore Mars, you might look up the mock-ups Elon Musk made for his Maritan colony. Or, maybe graphs or charts. It really depends on your subject.
For mine, I ran an image search and found some incredible stuff.
(The only time I’ll break my “notebook-only” rule is for photos. I create a folder on my desktop and drag-and-drop any references that amaze me.)
At this point, I began to wonder if the star of my story wasn’t a mythical creature, but instead was somebody living in logging camp surrounded by mythical creatures?
As you continue to explore, start brainstorming the rules of your world.
Are you going to stick completely to reality? If yes, what are the boundaries of that world? What social, economic, cultural, and physical barriers limited people’s lives?
If not, what will the limitations be—like, if you can travel through time, is it only forwards and backwards? Can you choose the exact time you end up, or is it random? Write down this entire exploration.
Since I knew I wanted my movie to be for kids, I wanted a kid protagonist. A young girl would be interesting, to juxtapose the gruffness of all these loggers. Plus, it would raise the stakes for her to be in such a dangerous situation (and as Professor Warren always says—you need to raise the stakes).
Slowly, you’ll find the things that feel right to your story. I like to believe that when you find it, you’ll know.
Okay, so where could a young girl fit into logging life? I’d need to know more about life inside a logging camp…
I found this website called Recollection Wisconsin that collected stories from loggers. These guys are cutting each other’s hair, standing next to trees the size of houses, cooking massive community meals… It’s incredible.
In particular, I absolutely loved the visuals of the cooks. And it turns out, they’re one of the most respected people at a logging camp. Pretty freaking cool.
I read as much as I could find until I eventually found myself just reading sources that were citing the sources I already read. Then, it was time to leave the Internet.
5. Hit the books.
While you don’t always have to move into physical books, sometimes it’s your best resource. If you’re building an extremely niche world, you might not have much material available for free online.
For me, I knew I wanted to know more about lumberjack life than I could find online. And so I ran a google search using keywords. Mine were “Northwoods,” “Lumberjacks,” “Fearsome Critters,” “Nonfiction,” etc.
Especially when it’s a new subject, I recommend only buying books you can read part of first. That way, you know you won’t be bored to death.
I found this book, which looked completely fascinating. Plus, it had a mythology angle, which was perfect.
Check out the author and make sure they’re legit. In this case, the author—Michael Edmonds—is a Director at the Wisconsin Historical Society, as well as a teacher and historian, so I went for it.
When it comes to books, Ramit Sethi (an internet guru dude) always emphasizes that even if you only gain one meaningful insight from a book, it was worth the money. I try to believe this every time I drop $20 on a book.
Once the book comes in, read it with a highlighter, pen, and your notebook close.
Mark that book up! Engage with the text—write questions in the margins and circle things that surprise you.
I personally dog-ear the bottom of the page if I find something that feels particularly cinematic so I can easily find it later.
6. Review your notebook and make the beatsheet.
By this point in your journey, you probably have a pretty awesome notebook, filled with random fun facts and stuff that makes you incredibly excited. You probably have characters you want to explore and some possible conflicts, and likely some story arcs forming in your mind.
When your story instincts are too loud and you can no longer stop “reserving your judgment,” it’s time to go to beatsheet.
Fill in your major beats and elements: protagonist, flaw, normal world, inciting incident, objective, call to action, etc.
When you get stuck, flip back through your notebook, or your folder of pictures, or the dog-eared pages in your books.
But this is really important: when you’re at this stage, trust your research and don’t go back for more! You don’t want to get stuck in a permanent state of research (which is a common challenge with world-building).
In Sum . . .
This is just one way to go from a kernel of an idea to a beatsheet. I hope that it was helpful.
At the very least, I hope it inspired you to say “That’s a dumb idea—I should do it this way instead.” That’s great, too!
If you have other world-building strategies that work for you, I’d love to hear about them! Please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I don’t know if you can tell, but I really enjoy this stuff!
P.S. If you’re curious, this is the script I wrote based on all this research. Turns out, there’s already a “Paul Bunyan movie” in development 🙂