Over the Garden Wall is one of my favorite animated shows of the last ten years, and there are plenty of reasons behind that. The sense of humor is pitch-perfect and it follows in the tradition of slightly creepy kids’ shows like Courage the Cowardly Dog.
But above all else, the show is a great example of lean and efficient worldbuilding, and I think it has some great lessons for animators and writers who are interested in genre storytelling, i.e. fantasy, sci-fi, horror, etc.
So that’s what I’d like to talk about: how Over the Garden Wall teaches us the basics of what I call Goldilocks Worldbuilding.
Starting from Scratch
I’m not usually a big fan of stories that take place in the real world or a version of it. Don’t get me wrong, there are some fantastic stories set in the world as we know it, but animation tends to interest me a bit more because animated stories are allowed to happen anywhere.
There’s a lot of room for originality and escapism, not so much in the area of story structure and character (that’s a whole different topic), but definitely when it comes to setting.
The settings of shows likes Adventure Time, Steven Universe, Bob’s Burgers, and The Simpsons are some of my favorite in all of fiction. Each one is unique and interesting, and they make me want to keep watching, just to be in that space.
But if you’ve ever tried to create your own fictional universe from scratch, then you already know just how tough it.
In my own experience, I tend to default to one of two extremes.
Option 1 is where I barely given any worldbuilding details and the viewer is left in the lurch.
Option 2 is where I give way too many details and they get in the way of the story’s pacing.
While knowing a lot about your fictional world is helpful when you’re writing, not all of it needs to be in the finished product.
You’d be surprised how little detail viewers need to be given to understand a fictional world. If you give them just enough detail and make use of shared culture, their imaginations will fill in the gaps.
This is what I’m calling Goldilocks worldbuilding. It doesn’t give viewers too much detail or too little, it’s juuuuust right.
Let’s take a look at Over the Garden Wall to see this approach in action.
By the way, there will be a few spoilers for the show.
Over the Garden Wall takes place in a setting called The Unknown. Right away, the show isn’t giving us much to go on, which is kind of the point. We’re put in the shoes of the lead characters. They’re lost, we’re lost.
But by the time we get to the third episode, we have a pretty good idea of what the Unknown is like and what the rules are here.
The Unknown is a mix of something new and something old. It’s part weirdo land where frogs wear clothes and have … record companies, but it also borrows a lot from stories that have become part of shared culture.
More specifically, there seems to be a lot of influence from Little Golden Storybooks and early 20th-century animation.
It feels like a fairy tale but with a modern sense of humor and characters and villains that we haven’t seen before.
Let’s zero in on a specific sequence that absolutely nails Goldilocks worldbuilding.
Adelaide of the Pasture, the Good Woman of the Woods
Adelaide’s character gets set up soon after we meet Beatrice. Based on her name, we assume she’s a good witch, like Glenda from the Wizard of Oz or something, but during her only time onscreen, Adelaide is revealed to be a villain, and a really creative one at that.
She’s kind of a witch, but also kind of just an old lady who keeps herself cooped up because she can’t survive fresh air. She also has a thing about knitting and wool.
The Adelaide scene is the turning point of the series, both for the storyline and character drama. On top of all that, the scene does sooo much worldbuilding.
We’re introduced to the magic scissors, which can turn Beatrice and her family back into humans by cutting their wings, a detail that’s a perfect example of fairy tale believability.
We’re also told Adelaide’s evil plan, which is to fill Wirt and Greg’s heads with wool so that they’ll forever be her obedient little servants.
The Adelaide nails a cutesy and creepy tone while also moving the story forward by giving us Beatrice’s big moment of betrayal.
From the time Adelaide is introduced to the moment she’s revealed as a villain, Over the Garden Wall never gives us more information than we need. Every step of the way, we’re allowed to fill in the blanks.
We get to imagine where those magic scissors came from, and we get to imagine the Sisyphusian horror of Wirt and Greg becoming woolified zombies for the rest of their days.
At no point did the show waste our time with labored explanations of why Adelaide was good and, later, why Adelaide was bad.
We don’t need Beatrice to deliver a monologue about why she really needs to get those scissors.
And we don’t need Auntie Whispers to explain how her sister Adelaide turned into a horror movie character.
This is Goldilocks worldbuilding at work. It’s so much more fun to guess at the other details of this world than it would be to have everything explained, killing off any and all ambiguity.
The perfect contrast to this efficient worldbuilding would be the Star Wars prequels and expanded universe materials.
The Dark Side of Worldbuilding
Plenty of critics and artists have talked about how the hints of worldbuilding we got in the original trilogy were great precisely because they didn’t elaborate too much.
I even remember a Junot Diaz interview (sorry, I couldn’t track it down) where he specifically explains that when Obi-Wan mentions the Clone Wars in A New Hope, he got to picture what that meant, what the Clone Wars were like.
Many years later, when Lucas gave us all these products that showed the Clone Wars in detail, the fun just evaporated.
And this is exactly why I don’t want Cartoon Network or anyone else to make more of Over the Garden Wall, in any form.
Part of the magic here is that the show didn’t fall into the pitfalls of the franchise era that defines the entertainment industry today.
We never learned whether the Unknown really exists because that’s not the point. It’s a place where our characters can be challenged, a place where they can grow.
And we, the viewers, get to decide what it all means.
There are definitely times when I enjoy more in-depth, detailed worldbuilding. Lord of the Rings tends to be the shining example of that approach. But when it comes to animation, and especially children’s animation, I think we’re extremely lucky that Over the Garden Wall never overextended itself.
So if you’re trying to build a fictional world of your own, try to remember that less is more. Pick and choose evocative details that suggest underlying depth.
Resist the urge to explain exactly what’s going on at all times and who is who and why they’re important.
Don’t underestimate your audience. They’re starving for entertainment that doesn’t treat them like babes in the woods.