Thomas Scholz discusses his dissertation on the concept of world-building, co-chaired by Prof. Burnett

Thomas Scholz discusses his dissertation on the concept of world-building, co-chaired by Prof. Burnett

Interview with Dr. Scholz

Dr. Scholz's dissertation, entitled "The World Is Not Enough: Transmedia World-Building as a Diachronic and Dialogical Process," was submitted to the Track for International Writers in WashU's Program in Comparative Literature, with FMS Professor Colin Burnett serving as co-chair of the dissertation committee.

Q1: First, congratulations on completing your PhD dissertation! Briefly, what is the nub of your research?

Thank you! My research shows that “world-building,” one of the current buzz words in all entertainment industries, is much more than inventing a fictional setting for a story. It is a playful interaction between the story and the spectator, and this goes for all media – film, text, games, comics, everything. Each narrative offers the blueprint for its world step-by-step, and audiences reconstruct it accordingly. They need to add elements, infer, complete, re-evaluate; it’s like a rollercoaster sometimes. Each reader, each viewer contributes their part when creating their mental image of the narrated world; this effort cannot be underestimated. Yet for all the attempts of scholars and enthusiastic consumers of worlds like Middle-earth, we never get a god’s eye view on a narrated world. There is no “objective” version of it, only the “subjective” version of the story at hand. The plot coins the world. Much more than audiences usually assume.

Q2: In your eyes, what contribution does your research make to film and media studies?

My focus on the dynamic aspects of narrated worlds, on the part of their creators and of their consumers, brings us additional methods of analysis and new approaches to interpretation. So far, world-building theory has often been about how to invent elements for a world, which elements are necessary, which are optional, and how such a world is related to the actual world we live in. These questions are all relevant, yet an important point is missing: How does the story deliver the world? There are various ways to cue the human brain into constructing an image of a world. When we understand these mechanisms and strategies, we can analysis how specific narratives go about it. We can easily compare adaptations, for example. How is Tolkien’s world-telling in The Lord of the Rings different from Peter Jackson’s? We can compare the poetic differences in world-telling in different eras or between different artists, maybe between Alfred Hitchcock, Steven Spielberg, and Christopher Nolan. And we can comprehend how narrated worlds create meaning.

Q3: What's an example of a film or TV show that is particularly striking for it how "tells" its world to the viewer? How do you analyze it?

In many television series, each episode expands the world a little bit further. Yet there is more to it than “adding new elements.” A significant part of world-telling is about meeting audience expectations or surprising them. Take, for example, the series Carnival Row. The biggest part of season one takes place in the city “The Burgue,” a neo-noir fantastic version of Victorian London mixed with steampunk elements. The eponymous city quarter, “Carnival Row,” is introduced with a shot of the monorail running above its main street in episode one.

When we see a train, the concept of “train” is activated in our semantic memory. Along with it, several other concepts that are connected to “train” are also primed. “Steam engine,” “tracks,” “metal,” and, of course, “craftsmen.” After all, someone has to build the train and install the tracks. While we haven’t seen any character on screen building any train, our semantic memory has these concepts already half-way active. It’s impossible to think “train” without activating the others. Yet Carnival Row creates a magical world. Theoretically, a sorceress could have conjured the train and the tracks. But already the next episode confirms one of the primed concepts.

A welder repairs the tracks; although he is a faun, he is clearly a craftsman. No magic involved. While most viewers never thought about the train, one of the semantic nodes connected to the concept has been implicitly confirmed. No surprise, not train-conjuring fairy. The train is exactly like we understood it in the first place. If any viewers were hoping for more magic, they might be disappointed now. Yet for everyone else, their assumption about the world is confirmed. People build things. The story moves on without any delay. That’s a choice on the part of the creators.

Q4: The Tolkienian concept of "subcreation" has had wide appeal among practitioners. It's even been taught in creative writing courses. Is it your hope that your theory of world-building will have an impact on practitioners? How?

Subcreationists tend to believe that creators should invent the world first and write the story later. The more world there is, the more “realistic” it all becomes – that’s their creed. While Tolkien’s unique invention of Arda and Middle-earth was essential for The Lord of the Rings, other authors have written amazing books without that much effort. As a graduate of the PhD track for international writers, I have a little experience in writing alternate worlds. There is no need for two millennia of invented history before I start writing the first sentence. On the contrary, this might actually limit my creative freedom. My dissertation shows that the amount of world you invent is not as important as the craft of telling it. Tolkien knew how to do both. I hope that my work might convince people that inventing a world might be fun, but that it is more important to tell it properly. After all, audiences do a lot of world-building themselves. No need to limit them and yourself unnecessarily.

Q5: Where is your research headed now that you've completed your dissertation?

The next step is turning the dissertation into an academic monograph. To do this, I need to write another two or three chapters, on interactive worlds and on transmedia worlds. Both work on the same principles as worlds in single non-interactive stories, yet they are more complex to read and re-construct for audiences. The second project I have in mind is a joint venture with a creative professional from one of the leading entertainment industries. I would love to co-write a nonfiction guide, “World-Telling for Storytellers.” To date, the many world-building guides available merely offer checklists of elements necessary for worlds and their internal logic, yet little advice is given on how to tell worlds. When it comes to this step, creators are left to their own devices. A guide with alternating chapters on the theory and on best practices of world-telling might meet a need out there. I myself would have loved to read such a book years ago!