Interview: Kevin Mowrer on World-Building
Kevin Mowrer is a two times Emmy award-winning, Gemini award-winning, and Leo award-nominated Intellectual Property (I.P.) creator with over 25 years of broad experience in the kids and all-family entertainment and entertainment product business. His background in television, motion picture, online web stories, publishing, card gaming, video gaming, online gaming, board gaming, toy product and consumer licensing have given him a unique overview of how stories work in each media and why.
From this perspective he developed the Meta-story process that is his consulting business and is frequently hired by Motion Picture companies, I.P. holders, gaming companies, and toy companies to organically expand their intellectual properties to express well across other media forms. He is also an exceptional artist.
During a world-building discussion on The Steampunk Writers & Artists Guild forums, I quickly realized that Kevin’s level of expertise and experience would make for a fascinating interview. He agreed to answer a few questions and I’m delighted to be able to share them with you here:
Lia Keyes: Can you explain the concept of the meta-story for us?
Kevin Mowrer: Meta-story is the craft of developing a story and/or narrative so that it treats many of the different media formats as one seamless storytelling canvas.
Each media or format has unique narrative needs and opportunities. Historically and currently, most stories and entertainment are developed for a single media or expression. I often tell my Meta-story clients that stories are just like software in that you have to build them to run on the platforms you want them to play on or it’s likely they won’t do so very well, if they work in those venues at all.
Interestingly, we live in a rapidly changing age where the audience often seeks to expand their contact with a story that is meaningful to them by looking for it in multiple forms. They read the book and want to spend time every week with the characters they’ve fallen in love with on TV. With those stories that have deep and unique worlds, they want to explore them for themselves beyond the linear experience of a book, a movie or a TV show through deep online worlds and other forms of gaming and site-based experiences.
I could keep going but I think you get the idea. The media narrative forms, in all their varied richness, are quite alive and evolving at the edges and audiences are redefining what it means to adopt and experience meaningful and deep stories.
I have spent my entire career exploring and developing how to organically and authentically create and expand stories to fulfill this new contiguous story landscape. This is the 50K foot up view of what the emerging craft of Meta-story is.
LK: Can any story become a meta-story, or are some stories better suited to cross-platform extension than others?
KM: Not all stories can express in all media and formats. Each story has an organically natural landscape that it can be crafted to fulfill yet most stories can expand significantly beyond their conception size. This is certainly good for business but its also wonderful for the creator/author’s reach and for the audience’s depth of experience.
It’s very important for a Meta-story writer and creator to first and foremost be the story’s advocate. There can be a lot of pressure from various media partners or even Intellectual property owners to make the story work in certain media by adding elements that traditionally drive popularity or commercial success in that format. It is critical to the Meta-story process to know what those are and how they work but good Meta-story is not a template or a boilerplate form to be filled out. Fundamentally, Meta-story development still needs to be about vision, inspiration and creator-driven holistic integrity.
I like to tell people that the act of creation isn’t a team sport. I don’t think anyone can name any of the big mythological stories that were created and shaped by a large team of people all collaborating around a pre-determined strategy and gap analysis. There are often teams that get involved as the story moves into production in their various forms and those teams will bring their own creativity to bear on their media but the story still has to have enabled that expansion and the original creator still has to have set the “DNA” of the story to keep consistency and integrity during that expansion.
Figuring out how much larger, and for what media, a story can be crafted to expand into is something that can be determined by careful narrative analysis.
The eventual answer to “how big and what do I consider?” is fundamentally driven by a number of key factors:
- who the story is being written for
- whether or not it is a heroic or non-heroic story
- how deep and unique the world is
- whether or not the story has the action elements, relationships, themes and sufficient characters to build on.
Lastly, I’d like to add that not all stories should or need to be expanded through Meta-story. Forrest Gump is a beautiful and moving movie and fundamentally not a Meta-story.
LK: What childhood fascinations, professional training or self-taught passions have shaped you into the world-building master that you are now?
KM: I truly believe that we have one main job in life and that is to figure out who we are and work towards being that person as best we can. When we figure out what we seem to be made to do best, we start doing our best work.
I have always been someone who goes deep in whatever it is that I do but at the same time, I’ve always had interests and passions that are quite varied. Since before I can remember I’ve been drawing worlds and writing the stories that go into them. I grew up in a household with a mother who wrote children’s stories and I found that my ability to draw and paint could bring my own stories to life. My story making process developed quite organically as a marriage between these two things. The narrative always shapes the art and the art always brings to light ideas and possibilities I hadn’t yet considered.
I’ve also always been fascinated by why and how things work. I went to college and got an industrial design degree and trained in painting, illustration, sculpting, graphics and other arts.
My passion for stories has always been with me as well and no matter what project I was on, I continued to create properties and stories. My wife is also a creative and for decades, beyond my Meta-story consultancy, we have brainstormed together and refined our understanding of Meta-story through questioning and debating all things narrative. (You don’t want to watch TV with us because we disassemble the narrative structure so quickly we figure out who’s going to do what within a few minutes).
I also consider myself profoundly lucky in that I have gotten the opportunity to actually create and/or develop multiple projects in many of the different forms of media, entertainment and play products. Theory is learnable in classrooms but I find you get a whole different and actionable set of insights that go far beyond the theory through hands-on experience that involves both successful and unsuccessful work.
LK: What prompted the creation of your current project, FRAHNKNSHTYNE?
KM: Since I first read Mary Shelley’s book, and then saw the original Karloff movies, I’ve been fascinated by the story of Frankenstein, in part, because it’s a story about a man who makes a son whom he doesn’t love! He sees the creature as proof of his theories and beliefs and little more.
For my story, I wanted to explore the tragic nature of the monster but in a way that didn’t treat the monster as a metaphor for man’s misguided and unrestrained ego. I wanted to explore the power of the monster through themes of heroism and the sometimes-high cost of catalyzing change in the midst of institutionalized oppression.
This led me to the idea of crafting Wyctor Frahnknshtyne ©2010, a brilliant inventor, as the eventual unintended and tragic donor of the mind that gets placed within his own creation. A creation of great beauty, built by this hopeful maker, to solve a terrible problem faced by many in this Steampunk world. When the father becomes the son and the life he had planned becomes forever out of his reach, what will happen to the high ideals and dreams of change that the-powers-that-be have tried to crush? Can a man who is no longer human still hold on to his humanity? Can his belief in “making” as a solution for even the greatest ills of society still be carried out?
LK: Why give the Frankenstein story a Steampunk re-mix?
KM: To me, Frankenstein has always been Steampunk and is perhaps one of the original Steampunk novels that are a literary “parent” of the Steampunk Genre. It is set in the right age with exciting and retro-futuristic technology being manipulated by a mad scientist. There is electricity, steam, wild machinery, mechanism, brass, and a misunderstood soul at its center. All these things and more seem to be solidly Steampunk to me. I felt that it was the perfect launching pad for not only my story ideas but also for jumping into my own interpretation of a Steampunk world.
LK: In what way did you integrate technology, the staple fascination of the Steampunk genre, into Frahnknshtyne?
KM: In Frahnknshtyne, unique and Steampunk tech is soaked throughout the story and the world. There is my take on a steam driven technology that is the primary energy source for most of the “grounders” who live in the city of Travaille. There is also a much more advanced technology called “Technica Royale” for the super rich who live in a fabulously opulent Victorian city in the air. The whole world is shaped by the addictive “Aether economy” that has grown up over hundreds of years of learning how to harvest installments of human life force (Aether) like borrowing on credit. There is also a terrible and inventive misuse of that Aether by the super long-lived, Aether-addicted, ultra rich. Finally, there is a new technology invented by Wyctor Frahnknshtyne that could solve the city’s dependence on Aether and he’s proving its viability by building a clockwork being powered by it.
LK: Did you develop the world first, or the characters?
KM: The two are developed together after I excavate the themes and meaning of the story. Every aspect of the world has to be shaped to support and host the action, act as powerful metaphors for themes in the story, and balance just enough recognizability with rich invention and other elements that will enable this story to expand into many formats (I am a meta-story creator after all).
LK: How can creators use world-building to help their audience connect to the meaning in the story?
KM: The thing that we all strive for in good storytelling is human authenticity. Said another way, no matter how unique, invented or exotic the narrative we are creating is, as storytellers we are working to develop and posit our perspective (hopefully insightful) on some aspect of shared human truth (fleeting or timeless).
No matter how radical and individual that story and world is, if it can’t illicit understanding and meaning in our audience than we’re just writing our idiomatic truth that isn’t relevant to others and that means we have an audience of one. In this way, the world itself must be crafted to have meaning and metaphor that is aligned and contributing to all characters and themes in every way possible.
Stories are different than direct conversation or debate in that the storyteller is making a contract with the audience to willingly suspend active exchange and profoundly immerse themselves within our narratives and worlds in the hope and belief that we, as a creators, will move them with an unexpected and nuanced truth and narrative insight.
The world we create is the medium we are asking the audience to descend into and release the everyday world we all live in. It is a “narrative eco-system” within which everything that happens and everyone you create exists, including the audience.
Audiences rapidly and instinctively evaluate whether our narratives and worlds are ones they want to spend time in. For this reason, the worlds we build are at their narrative and connective best when they are intriguing and unique on the surface (acquire the audience) and authentic, layered, rich and full of metaphor and meaning that is a critical part of our narrative goals and movements.
The worlds we make contribute to the audience’s willingness to connect to our story’s meaning because when it’s working correctly, it is an inherent part of that meaning. The world births and shapes the characters. The world contains the social and political state. The world’s integrity removes us from our reality and replaces it with it’s own. The world hosts each of the key narrative moments and must not remain neutral in doing so. It must either reinforce those moments or present and contrast them.
LK: How do you make a fantastic world feel real and relatable?
KM: I have four measures I look at when evaluating if a world is as strong as it can be in terms of setting its own reality and making that reality accessible:
Authentic detail – This is detail, no matter how fantasy, that is consistent with the rules of man, nature and science that you as a writer have created. Once you’ve established those rules, remaining consistent to them is critical to not betraying your audience’s sense of investment and belief in this place.
Experiential anchors – Again, no matter how fantasy a world you are creating, you are still making a world for an audience that shares common experiences and expectations here in this time and reality. It is important to put enough of those expectations and touchstones into your world to anchor our instinctual social and emotional reactions even in a fantasy world. It’s called “chaining” when we recognize something enough to infer and adopt the rest. This is important even in historical fiction because the time we live in may not hold a lot of similarity to the time of the story. Often, it’s the small mundane activities in a world that bring the audience into sync with it. Thinking about designing and including some of those details and using them early in the story helps personalize the place quickly.
Mythological and practical integrity – All stories have their own internal mythology. Sometimes we make that Mythology part of the primary narrative and sometimes the mythology is simply around us in the story as a quiet way to create authenticity. Understanding what mythology is part of your story and crafting its presence into the world, the structures, the societies and the tone of your story, establishes a place that feels complete and part of its own continuum. Practical integrity is simply insuring that the rules of how things work in your world are followed…complete with their clearly established limitations. One of most frequent mistakes I see in world and narrative development is not being consistent with the world rules in service of solving a plot point.
Metaphorical Power – Metaphor is for me, one of the most under used yet powerful tools for world building in terms of taking your story up a notch without having to write additional narrative.
I’ll give you the visual touchstone from a film but this kind of thinking serves brilliantly well in the written word as well:
In Werner Herzog’s 1922 classic “Nosferatu,” the moment that Count Dracula enters Renfield’s room to prey on him, he is standing in a stark door frame that is a pointed gothic arch. As he pauses for a moment, he becomes a man in a casket. He is the perfect metaphor for walking death coming to visit and no dialogue needs to be spoken to understand this. The choices we make about where we set our key moments of our story can add layers of rich and powerful meaning that connect the audience to much more primal feelings, foreshadowing and histories within them.
LK: You’ve said that “structuring deep worlds is a craft with some clear steps.” Can you describe your process?
KM: (LOL) that’s a bit like asking a comedian “How are you funny?” The approach I use is a process I’ve developed over the course of 25 years and we could talk for hours about it. I’ll try and give you the Readers’ Digest version.
In short, the world is one of the most important supporting characters in your narrative.
Depending on what ambitions you have for your story, the world can also act as an incredibly key component to enabling many of the other expressions of your story in the future. As an example, you have to have a deep, broad and truly unique action-enabling world in order to have your story work in the world of video gaming.
World is also often a key component of being able to write additional titles or produce additional sequels. How and why this is true and how to go about creating and enabling those possibilities in a way that is authentic and 100% organic is a rich and exciting process.
For the kinds of Meta-stories I develop here’s how I go about finding and building the world…
As in most good story craft, good world development needs to start with clarity about what the meaning is at the heart of your narrative. Once I have some sense of what that is I begin doing research (both visual and non-visual) to inform finding what the overall mythological metaphor is that I will base a lot of my thinking on. As an example: a story about a teenager discovering his first true independence might be told best on an island that seems extreme and full of young mountains and exuberant forests. A place that is a great metaphor for the isolation, energy, enthusiasm and new growth that is what being a teenager is all about.
From there I jump right in to asking myself what my overall goal is for what I want the story to do. Is this a book? Do I want the story to also become a game, a movie, something more experiential? If the answer is yes to one or more of these other narrative expressions I step back and look at them all together as a single, seamless, storytelling canvas and I recognize what each of the media can do best and needs uniquely.
With that landscape in mind, I begin the development of the narrative at the same time that I develop the place.
Since most of the stories involve big changes to the characters, each of the places the narrative moves through must be shaped to function as the best place to deliver that component of the journey of the characters.
Said another way, each major place in the world has to have meaning that is a component of the larger meaning of the story.
LK: What questions do you get asked most often?
Why don’t you wear a tie? (Really not me)
What is Meta-Story? (A story created to treat all media forms as one big storytelling canvas)
How do I learn to do it? (Get the experience working in other media and study why and how each one works. Then learn how to balance it all so that it works.)
Where did you learn to draw and paint like that? (Art college and I have been drawing and painting all my life)
How long can you hold your breath? (Not very long. Frogs are way better.)
LK: Why do you want to create Meta-stories?
KM: Because I love working on stories you can live in.
What this really means is that the themes and narrative of the story hopefully become truly meaningful to the audience to the extent that it is inspirational and empowering.
The wonder of good storytelling is that it actually touches us in ways that truly affect out lives. I think it’s a massive underestimation of the power of fiction to simply call it escapism. That would imply that the reason the audience enters and experiences the story is simply to escape from reality. In my mind that would describe a terribly un-empowered populace that doesn’t believe in their own actualization and seeks only to distract themselves from droning reality. My outlook for story is much more positive than that and I believe there is a great deal of evidence to support this exciting larger and active role for narrative and fiction in informing and empowering thought and self action.
With stories that inspire and empower, the audience finds meaning and internalizes that meaning as both an ideal and a goal! There is a real church of the Jedi in England with tens of thousands of real members because the empowerment within Star Wars was real and humanly truthful even if it was created within a grand work of fiction. “Stories you can live in” then implies that you carry the empowerment with you and it inspires and effects your behaviors and beliefs.
It gets better from there. Once a narrative with a deep world and fully realized narrative “ecosystem” gets adopted as meaningful, the audience then begins the process of surround their lives with it in many ways. The story’s language begins to creep into everyday interaction and they begin to find others (community) who feel this empowerment. Together, they begin to adopt that story and bring a community growth and contribution to life. The audience then begins to “pull” the story into their lives in lots of other forms.
This is fundamentally different than “marketing” a property (a pushing function) versus the authentic and meaning-driven relationship that Meta-story enables. These concepts of “authentic,” “narrative-driven,” and “meaning” as the keystone upon which everything is built, are often hard for companies to understand but intuitive for creators of stories who already feel every aspect of their creation as real.
LK: What is important to you in your storytelling?
KM: Heart, guileless heroes, deep worlds of wonder and mythology. I am a romantic whether I am making children’s stories, all family stories, or stories for adults. I have always been fascinated by stories of heroism and for me, feel some of the best have strong themes of love lost and love found within them.
Personally, I truly like stories of heroes who aren’t celebrities, become celebrities or seek celebrity. I feel that too much of our modern culture puts value on celebrity above all else and yet I believe that there is great depth and talent that lives mostly amongst those whom are unsung yet deliver installments of wonder every day. Because I am a maker and know so many people who are makers, it is what I know and as such, many of my characters or heroes are makers of one sort or another.
The deep worlds part we’ve covered pretty well in other parts of this interview, as it is simply part of how I think and what I personally like to create. Worlds of wonder and mythology has to do with those deep worlds in that I love to take people places that are unique and profoundly rich with detail that has a connection to what has come before. It is a wonderful way to show the changes that are at work in the stories and at the same time, put a lens on the themes that are important to the narrative.
LK: You’ve said in the past that world-building should serve the story, rather than be a ‘kitchen sink’ hodge-podge that fails to move the story forward. What advice can you offer about that?
KM: I’ve seen a lot of worlds in stories that have been created for many reasons that lie outside of servicing the narrative. This can happen sometimes from not thinking about your world with the same care and narrative view used for character creation but it can also happen from commercial desires. I would suggest avoiding putting things into your world simply because they seem interesting or cool or texturally fascinating. Instead, work to make every decision about what you are putting into it based on the meaning, narrative and journey that you want your audience to experience. Everything in a world should advance the story but, more than that, there is such opportunity to put layered meaning and mythological richness into any world. It is also very possible to carefully build an incredibly deep world that enables your story to expand into a narrative eco-system that lives across multiple media and formats.
LK: How do you know you’ve created a fully-realized world that’s “alive at the edges” as you described it in your interview with SteamCast?
KM: Stories become “alive at the edges” when your audience begins to surround themselves with it and contribute to it because it is so alive for them. Think of Star Wars, Star Trek, Lord of the Rings, and many others. Those stories, and many other epic tales, have inspired their audiences to such an extent that fans, other creators, and even large companies have helped to expand them in many ways.
Some stories grow to become living mythology and the audience begins to own it as much as the creator.
LK: What would you like people to know about Frahnknshtyne?
KM: Over time, I will continue to share parts of the ongoing development of the Frahnknshtyne story with the community following it. This began as an experiment in community visibility and has become so much more. Frahnknshtyne is also a story that I will be executing in a number of media and formats. I am humbled, thrilled and grateful for the interest and support I have received to date from the worldwide Steampunk community.