Worldbuilding: Ephemera (signage)

October 3, 2020 garrison worldbuilding, ims228 7 minutes, 53 seconds

Transmedial Experiment 1: Ephemeral/Evental

An charming indie film ("Safety Not Guaranteed", 2012) starring Aubrey Plaza is built around an intriguing Personals/Wanted ad. While the film is 99.5% about how we live in this world, the possibility of escape from the world we know too well is what motivates this movie.

WANTED: Someone to go back in time with me. This is not a joke. You'll get paid after we get back. Must bring your own weapons. I have only done this once before. SAFETY NOT GUARANTEED.

If you've ever spent time in the Help Wanted, Situations Wanted, or Personals section of a free newspaper (like CityNews), you'll recognize the weirdly earnest but demented tone of the ad. It is pitch-perfect.

With a clear sense of the pleasure of an unexpected surprise, publicists for the film placed the same ad in the Personals/Help Wanted sections of newspapers throughout the country immediately prior to release.

While we've been focused (mostly) on the things, artifacts, and objects that VRGs (viewers, readers, gamers) may find in your world, it is now important to ask: By what means does my world open up to others? How is my world made apparent? How is it conjured, evoked, or brought into being?

We want to think about how transmedial worlds may differ from more commonplace ideas of "literary" fantasy worlds, for example, or the conventional worlds of cinematic SciFi. What is unique about worlds built across multiple media from the start, for example? How might it change the how we think about the existence of built-worlds: Not as "possible worlds" or "alternative worlds," for example, but as "paraworlds" (para, beside) or "hyper-realities".


  1. In this first experiment, we'll look at how transmedial worlds are often instantiated (that is, called into existence for the VRG): Not all at once, as in a novel or a film, but gradually, and in ways that are surprising or may repay closer inspection;

  2. We'll also see how technologies -- from lo-fi sticker campaigns to consumer-friendly augmented reality (AR) apps -- can increase the richness of VRG engagement with our worlds even as their design-density is lessened.

  3. Finally, we'll look at how this novel form of engagement encourages a different set of expectations and opportunities for authors. We'll survey a few transmedial worlds of special note, from ones designed to live across media (like BEAST and I<3 Bees) to accidentally transmedial worlds (with special emphasis on Star Trek).


First, a caveat: Your built world as you've imagined it so far may not be ideally suited for this experiment. But (as always), this isn't just an opportunity to create something you will actually use in your world-building work, but it is an opportunity for invention, too: The ideas you generate here, and the techniques we explore, may be useful in unanticipated ways. So try and stretch your sense of what is possible.

What we're making

We started by creating ephemera (posters, trash, book fragments) that might be located in your created-world. But now we're on this side of the door between this world and your world -- and we want to blur the boundary between the two in a way that hints at your world, and its "reality", but doesn't offer the VRG unchecked access to your efforts.

Like a "Golden Ticket" you might find inside a candybar wrapper offering a tour of a famously secluded candy factory, or a weirdly interesting Personals ad in a local newspaper, our manufactured ephemera will be lo-fi, but highly engaging. By emphasizing one way in which your "subcreation" is markedly different from "creation" itself, you work to engage your VRGs' help in rendering your world.

Sample forms

While I encourage you to draw from ideas I've not imagined here, options include:

  1. Lost Animal Poster
  2. Situation Wanted (Roommate)
  3. Vehicle for Sale
  4. Help Wanted

Our media-saturated world is so over-crammed with ephemera like those above that even when they speak to desperate situations (a lost child or pet; a person's need to find housing; and so on) they are easy to ignore. Whereas literary and cinematic science fiction are sites for active and intentional engagement by VRGs ("We're bingeing on BattleStar Galactica this weekend," for example), many instances of transmedial worlds are not so casually evoked. In some cases, they may require VRGs' to re-examine every inch of the world around them in order to uncover links to your world. That kind of considered engagement is gratifying, and rare.


Draw on the tropes and conventions common to advertisements you find around laundromats, in some grocery stores. Consider the candidate signs in yards around the country.

You'll create at least one for Tuesday, but you're welcome to draw up a few draft ideas to present in class. We'll discuss them in class, tweak them, and then on Thursday, you'll have revised your signage and -- just as importantly -- captured an image of its placement in a specific ("real-world") context: A coffee shop, a book shop, etc.


Only that you create and place a sign, poster, or otherwise common form of public communication in a public place; and that your sign, etc., draw on ideas, characters, objects, lore from your world, instead of this one.

In many cases, these will be humorous: The rupture between a fantastic world and a banal form ("Help Wanted") is often funny. But it is also an exercise of engagement with RVGs -- how can you reward them, repay them for their scrupulous review of your document in public?

NB: Please avoid subjects or ideas that someone may find painful -- you are welcome to engage in biting satire or nihilistic comedy, but save it for after this course.