Worldbuilding tips from Snowpiercer

Worldbuilding tips: how to write an apocalyptic wasteland – Snowpiercer

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Creating a story world for scratch can be a nightmare. Not everyone has enough time or patience to create an entire universe complete with a creation myth and historical records like JRR Tolkien did. So what is a writer who simply wants to tell a story and not design the detailed landscape of a city supposed to do? Simply use some of John Truby’s worldbuilding tips to create an awesome but also believable world.

The apocalyptic wasteland

Let’s use one of Bong Joon-Ho’s movie (Snowpiercer) to talk about a very specific type of world: the apocalyptic wasteland.

Why do so many writers decide to set their stories in an unforgiving and inhabitable place where humans struggle to live, instead of placing them in a nice suburban neighborhood?

Is it the fact that the wasteland is more exciting? That the protagonist doesn’t have to spend the holidays with his annoying relatives? The absence of nosy neighbors?

No, it’s a little deeper than that. And this brings us to our first worldbuilding tip:

“In real life, we are born into a world that already exists, and we must adapt to it. But in good stories, the characters come first, and the writer designs the world to be an infinitely detailed manifestation of those characters.”

– John Truby

The story world is supposed to represent something or contribute to the story in some way. Choosing to put the characters’ lives in constant danger might mean that the screenwriter is trying to say something about survival, nature, or hope.

To create an apocalyptic wasteland that contributes to the message of the movie rather than simply providing a pretty background, it’s important to remember those elements:

  • nature
  • technology
  • setting and challenges
  • theme

Nature

THE ANATOMY OF STORY John Truby

It’s easy to overlook important aspects that affect our everyday life while writing fiction. Nature is one of those things that often get forgotten despite having a great impact on our everyday life.

Living next to a beach in Mexico is completely different from living in a remote mountain cabin in Switzerland. So just like nature affects real life it should affect the lives of the characters in a story.

In Snowpiercer, humanity is forced to live on a train after a terrible experiment caused the earth to enter the ice age. The characters have learned to fear the outside world and to compete for survival inside the machine.

So the harsh and unforgiving nature of this world has permanently changed how humanity sees the world. The older people who remember what Earth was like before are made bitter and nostalgic about their old way of living. Meanwhile, the younger people who were born on the train ask about the planet they’ve never seen with curiosity.

But probably the biggest twist of the movie comes from nature. All the characters rule out the possibility to escape the train, and, like them, we as audience members are convinced that Earth is uninhabitable. We root for Curtis and the others to succeed in their mission because we think that it’s the only chance they have of survival.

But Namgoong makes an important discovery. The world isn’t completely dead, and it’s possible to live on the outside.

This is an earth-shattering revelation because it makes the whole hierarchy Wilford has constructed futile. If they can go outside then there is no need to stay trapped in his train, to follow his rules, and to worship his “sacred engine”. Basically, Wilford has been lying to everyone in order to play God.

Here’s the worldbuilding tip that this movie can give us: don’t underestimate the importance of nature.

The planet might still be an apocalyptic wasteland but the fact that it went from “inhabitable” to “habitable” has completely changed the dynamic of the story world, and by consequence the entire plot.

At the same time, nature takes different forms depending on how you see it: a cold killer that almost destroyed the human race or a source of hope for a new life.

Technology

The technology of a fictional world is defined by one thing: usefulness. It’s not enough to give the characters fancy gadgets if they don’t serve a purpose in the story.

For example, what if every person in the tail section of the train had a computer? What would they use it for? Play Animal Crossing to distract themselves from starving?

However, Snowpiercer doesn’t waste it’s potential to use technology as a way to give more depth to its worldbuilding.

The first example of this is the gun. Wilford’s soldiers keep the people in the tail section terrified by walking around with heavy weaponry in their hands, but those weapons are useless without bullets. The rebels manage to take control by using this crucial fallacy to their advantage.

Another example is the translator that Namgoong carries around. This little device gives us a way to look inside the specific problems and nuances of the futuristic setting of Snowpiercer.

The population on the train is diverse, they speak different languages, come from different countries, and have different cultures. But the difference between us in real life and them is the fact that they are all trapped inside a metal box.

Those little devices show us that humanity was forced by circumstances to find a way to set aside their differences and work together. The language barrier doesn’t seem like much of a problem when it’s compared to starvation or freezing.

“Any tool the character uses become part of his identity.”

– John Truby

And the last technological example is the “sacred engine” itself. In this world, everyone’s life depends on the functionality of a machine. According to Wilford, if the engine stops working everyone dies, so it’s crucial that everyone makes sacrifices to keep it going (some have to sacrifice more than others, though).

The last few scenes of the movie show us just how far a man with power can go for the sake of maintaining the status quo that befits him.

Wilford can order to execute thousands of people in the blink of an eye if that is going to maintain the balance that keeps the train going. He is also willing to literally use people like machinery so that his precious creation can live on.

Looking at the way technology is used in the movie we can gain another worldbuilding tip: show both the good and the bad side of technology by using the characters’ approach to it.

The rifles are a deadly threat in the hands of the soldiers, and the axes are equally dangerous in the hands of Wilford’s goons. But when our heroes manage to steal them they become their greatest allies.

Similarly, the engine goes from being literally a source of life to being a trap that keeps humanity imprisoned and literally feeds itself through humans.

Setting and challenges

The story shouldn’t be “static”. Your fictional world is not a static background but a place where your characters will take action, change, and progress. So it’s important that, as the story progresses, the world can evolve to match the evolution of the characters.

 “You don’t create a character to fill the story world […] you create the story world to express and manifest your characters, especially your hero.”

– John Truby

At the beginning of Snowpiercer, the story world follows a fixed set of rules, and what we are allowed to see is a very limited fraction. When the rebellion starts and Curtis’ team starts marching towards the front of the train, we gain more knowledge of the lore and geography.

We are exploring the train for the first time along with our heroes, and learning more and more about it.

But this type of progression isn’t always good news for the protagonists. As the story world gets bigger, it also gets harder to navigate and provides new challenges.

The closer Curtis gets to the front of the train, the more he loses. First, his best friend and part of his army when the ax gang attacks. Then he leaves behind his man to progress without putting them in danger, only to find out that Wilford’s soldiers have managed to escape bondage and kill them all. As they continue onward, more members of his team lose their lives, until finally Curtis himself and Namgoong die to protect Yona and Timmy.

Each part of the train provides a new challenge to overcome, a new enemy and a new discovery. The worldbuilding tip, in this case, is to let the world evolve with the story and the characters instead of forcing it to stay exactly as it was at the beginning.

Theme

“All man-made spaces in stories are a form of condenser-expander. Each is a physical expression, in microcosm, of the hero and the society in which he lives”

– John Truby

In Snowpiercer, the world itself represents the theme.

Who are the people in the tail section? People with no money barely survive on scraps, are constantly berated and abused by the ones in power, have to fight using dirty tricks in order to have half a chance to survive.

Who are the people in the luxury carriages? People who inherited wealth and status from their families, they don’t know and don’t care about what’s happening to the ones who are less lucky, they happily use and abuse all the resources, and they think that this is their right because the law says so.

Sounds familiar?

The train is a microcosm of our society [insert we live in a society meme here] and it’s meant to depict both its qualities and its flaws.

Curtis’ walk from the back to the front of the train showcases the different privileges and disadvantages that come with a different social status, but also how basic needs can be turned into vices when they are abused.

Each carriage is repurposed to satisfy the demanding passengers of the train: food (one for meat, one for fish, one for vegetables), education (the school carriage), clothing and stuff, entertainment (one carriage for a club and one just for sex), and finally the government (Wilford’s carriage).

In his book The anatomy of story, John Truby calls this creating “miniatures”. It’s the practice of “shrinking down” a theme that is larger than life and is common to all humanity in order to make it fit into the story of a small group of people.

Snowpiercer literally shrinks down humanity to make it fit in a train and uses the lack of space and resources to talk about the injustices that society imposes on us.

In conclusion, Snowpiercer manages to work both as an allegory and as an entertaining story thanks to the attention to details of the writers that created this story world. And thanks to John Truby’s worldbuilding tips we can see exactly what makes this fictional world work so well.


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