Along with exploratory storytelling, one thing that I absolutely love (both as an audience member and as a writer/artist) in horror, comedy, fantasy and sci-fi stories is the idea of unreliable worlds.
In case you’ve never heard this term before – an unreliable world is a surreal and constantly-changing dream-like world (which has no real “rules” to it) that the main character finds themselves in for part of (or sometimes the whole of) the story. Usually, they spend this part of the story either trying to understand the unreliable world and/or trying to escape from it.
A classic example of an unreliable world would probably be Wonderland from Lewis Carroll’s “Alice In Wonderland”.
But, more modern examples can be found in Satoshi Kon’s “Paprika“, in Studio Ghibli’s “Spirited Away“, in David Cronenburg’s “eXistenZ“, in Christopher Nolan’s “Inception“, in various episodes of “Star Trek: The Next Generation” and “Star Trek: Voyager”, in Neil Gaiman’s “Sandman” comics, in “Dreamfall: The Longest Journey” and also in most of the “Silent Hill” videogames too (although I’ve only played the first three of these).
Although they’re fascinating and/or terrifying to read or watch, good unreliable worlds can be somewhat difficult to create well. Yes, at first it might appear that none of the usual rules about storytelling apply when creating an unreliable world, but this isn’t quite the case. Even though literally anything can happen and literally anything can appear in your unreliable world, this doesn’t mean that it always should.
There are two main types of unreliable worlds in fiction, comics, films, games etc… and there are different “rules” for creating each one. These two types of unreliable worlds are worlds that exist within the main character and worlds that exist independently of the main character. Both of these types of unreliable worlds should be written in slightly different ways:
1) Worlds that exist within the main character: Usually, these kinds of unreliable worlds only really appear in dream, nightmare and/or hallucination scenes. But in sci-fi stories, they can sometimes take the form of computer programs, changeable planets etc.. which shape themselves based on the mind of whoever is there.
As well as providing an interesting change in settings, adding this kind of unreliable world to your story allows you to give your audience a deeper insight into their thoughts, feelings, fears, history etc… If you don’t do this, then you shouldn’t include this type of unreliable world in your story. It’ll only be an annoying distraction for your audience.
In this kind of unreliable world, literally anything shouldn’t happen. Yes, surreal and strange things should appear.Yes, different locations can be merged together in all sorts of strange ways. But, everything in this world should mean something to your main character.
All of the locations in this world should be places that the main character is already familiar with in some way or another – yes, you can (and should) make surreal versions of these places, but they should still be somewhere that the main character recognises.
All of the people in this world should be people that the main character has seen before or knows in some way or another. Their personalities in this type of unreliable world should also be an exaggerated version of what the main character thinks that they are like or possibly even the main character’s fears about them.
In other words, think of this type of unreliable world as a distorted mirror which you can use to show your audience more about your main character than you can do in the rest of the story.
2 Worlds that exist independently of the main character: These are strange worlds (like Wonderland) which have a life of their own. They existed before the main character found them and they will continue to exist after the main character leaves them. Although the main character might learn more about herself when she’s there, this isn’t the main reason why this world exists.
As well as providing a ready-made plot for your story (eg: your main character has to escape from this world), these kinds of unreliable worlds also provide a rollercoaster ride of exciting and unusual sights, scenes, character and events for your audience too. So, you have to make these kinds of unreliable worlds especially inventive and unique if you want to keep your audience interested.
Although you can include almost anything you want in these kinds of worlds, you should also always be very aware of what kinds of emotions you are trying to provoke in your audience.
Is your unreliable world meant to be awe-inspiring? Is it meant to be funny? Is it meant to be terrifying? is it meant to make people feel curious? You need to answer of all of these questions before you begin creating your world, because almost everything you include in your unreliable world should be there to evoke a particular emotion.
In other words, although there is no “logical” reason for anything in your unreliable world to exist (and everything in your world doesn’t have to follow logical rules), there should always be an emotional reason for it.
Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂