Building a world is hard, and Candy Gourlay has covered some of this stuff in her excellent post on the SCBWI Fantasy Fiction Master Class. My personal epiphany came last night while watching Friends. Yes, you did read that right - a slightly dated sitcom involving six over-caffeinated New Yorkers on a sofa, trading bon mots and relationship advice.
Anyhow, I've avoided the endless re-runs on TV since it finished and forked-out the money for the latest uber-boxset with the intention of watching the series from the start. And what a start! The pilot drops us immediately into a scene at Central Perk, with Chandler, Monica, Joey and Phoebe slumped on the sofas, trading sharp lines and neurotic thoughts. A little later, Ross comes in, being prissy and in a moment of (mild) drama, Rachel turns up in a wedding dress having jilted her fiance at the altar. But she's soon on the sofa too, drinking coffee.
"So what?" I hear you cry, "That's what happens in every episode of Friends." Which is exactly my point. In most pilot episodes you would expect to have some set-up, some introduction and coming together of the characters who will henceforth be on your screens every week. Very little of that happens in Friends. For the first five or ten minutes we don't even know what the characters names are! Everything is done through dialogue, so by the time we find out their names, we already know their inter-relationships and inner tics. The actors are all really familiar and comfortable with each other. We are very much in a world that has existed for some time and will continue to exist long after Monica shuts her front door, 236 episodes (and 40 DVDs!) later.