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» Hatrack River Writers Workshop » Forums » Open Discussions About Writing » Milieu, Idea, Character, Event

Author Topic: Milieu, Idea, Character, Event
Member # 2267

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Yes, it's been said before . . . but saying it here, and maybe linking to it, will be good for those who haven't yet read OSC's Character and Viewpoint (order your copy right now!) or done the Writing Class or Boot Camp.

Stories, he says, come in 4 types.
Milieu: exploring
Idea: there's a cool idea
Character: someone's striving to change his/her role in life
Event: something happened to disturb the world.

If it's milieu, the story starts when you enter the new world, and ends when you leave it OR decide to stay. (Too rigid? Maybe. Frodo didn't enter the world, did he? Well, yes. He entered the wide world beyond the Shire; the story ended when he left it for Elvenhome.)

Idea: it starts with the question, the cool idea to explore, and ends with the answer. The murder mystery ends when we find out whodunit. Too many stories end when we get to the question. Finding out the land you're heartlessly developing has ghosts on it makes a terrible ending, I think -- but a fine beginning.

Character: starts when the character seeks a new role, ends when he gets it or gives up looking for it.

Event: starts when the event disturbs the equilibrium, and ends when the disturbance is resolved.

I post this so I can link to it . . . seems to me 1/4 - 1/3 of the critiques I give suggest considering this model. It certainly clarifies things for me.

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Member # 2354

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I agree. Excellent book. I loved both of the writing books of his. He has a natural sense of humor in his non-fiction that makes for fun and easy reading. I found the entire Elements of Fiction Writing series to be very helpful. I also like the Write Great Fiction series also by Writer's Digest books.
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Member # 2352

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I've been meaning to pick that up, but I've been in Freelance Lean Time lately. You freelancers will know what I mean.

Anyway, what does OSC have to say about balancing the overlaps? It seems to me there are times when, say, an idea and event are intertwined, or where an event is meaningless or confusing without a feel for the milieu. It seems like a character piece can fit in well with any other category, but what about these other overlaps? Any specifics from OSC's book might be good to edit into the thread-opener above, wbriggs; it makes a good reference link as is, but I thought this might enhance it.


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Member # 2267

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I don't remember what he'd say about hybrids. I know what *I'd* say about hybrids, which is that one of the 4 is dominant, but the other may also be true.

LotR: starts with Frodo entering the Wide World, ends with him leaving it. But. Middle-Earth's equilibrium has been disturbed (by Sauron) and it needs fixing (at Mt. Doom). Since Milieu is paramount, this determines the beginning and ending times; but it would probably have been unreadable without an Event.

My own WIP: Milieu, so we start when we enter the new world and end when we find we can survive there after all. But some of the threads are Character threads, and start later (when the character sees a need for change) or end earlier (when the character finds a new role).

And so on.

This may be obvious. But what a relief it is to think in these terms at all! It prevents us from having stories in which we stumble around for pages wondering what's going on, and just when we do, the story's over.


Another great POV on fiction: Aristotle! Boy, is he hard reading, but he makes his points, especially: the drama didn't work unless the POV character learns something (true or not), or changes internally. It can be as small a thing as giving up on ever being different; or as big as learning that if you reach out with your feelings the Force will be with you always.

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Member # 2454

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If I remember right from OSC, whichever story element occurs first is what the story is about. Then, everything else that happens after that is merely a subplot.
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Member # 1681

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While the MICE categories can be useful in other contexts, I believe OSC's purpose for them is in helping writers know where to begin, where to end, and how to make the end fit the beginning.

For a previous discussion of MICE, see:

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Member # 213

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Actually, he says that all good stories must contain all of these necessary elements. You always need characters, you always need a setting, you always need events,--including a climactic event, and you always need an idea or two. Since all of these elements are necessary to the story as a whole, they also tend to be necessary to each other.

However, usually one element stands out as being more important than the others. The story--and the other story elements--exist to communicate this one particular element. Which element the story exists to show determines what sort of story structure is most appropriate.

A milieu story is the easiest to identify because milieu is the least dependent on traditional dramatic forms. Milieu stories can be quite episodic (treating events lightly) and tend towards shallower characterization (often they don't even follow "core" or "main" characters). Ideas are left unexamined except where they have an effect on the milieu proper.

Character stories focus intensively on the personality of a single character, and the climactic action is almost always internal or directly causally linked to a major internal change in the character. A character story can only be about one character, if two characters are closely examined, you might have two character stories, but the story as a whole can't be a character story.

Idea stories are driven by what we most conventionally would identify as theme. Usually, a good idea story has more than one idea, otherwise it is too simple to boil the story down into a moral. Of course, many classic parables and fables are singular in idea, but you couldn't interest anyone in a new version.

Event stories tend to seem like a bit of a catch-all. After all, event stories are stories where the plot is the main point of the story. The story is about what happens, the most obvious thing for a story to be about, right?

These elements can interact in interesting and unexpected ways. For instance, Last Exile is clearly an event story, albeit one with a gorgeous milieu, compelling characters, and a really interesting theme. Bizarrely, the central theme is the horror of an ethical system that sacrifices the good of real people to achieve an aesthetic ideal. It's bizarre, because the story subordinates the characters to the development of plot, characters are developed just so that you will feel bad when they are pointlessly killed off getting to the central events of the story.

I suppose it is some kind of high art, but generally this is the sort of thing you want to avoid in your stories. If the ideas, characters, milieu, and plot of Last Exile had all been left the same, but the story had been presented as an idea or character story rather than an event story, I think that it would have been much better. It certainly would have induced less "wait, to the extent that I enjoy this as art, I'm like the evil character". Like I said, that effect might have been high art, but it didn't help me appreciate the story.

Okay, so the above example might not have been so clear to everyone. My point, simply put, is that consciously identifying all four elements of your story and deciding which element should be the focus of the story is a good thing. Do it.

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Member # 1955

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As pointed out, I believe MICE is a continuum. It might be that two or more indvidual elements, start and end at the same time. For instance, events transform character, and characters transform events.

LOTR seems to be an event story. Events revolving around the ringbearer.

It starts with how Frodo got the ring and ends showing the aftermath of the ring's destruction in all its implications, especially toward Frodo.

Of course, there are a few subplots and detours (Scouring of the Shire) that tie up loose ends.

Milieu is a big factor, and Tolkien seems to used the events at times as an excuse to showcase it. But even behind that were the events found in the Silmarilion.

And the events left thier marks upon the character's roles and personalities. Frodo was left without a role at the end and with a mind and body scared by events.

But overall, LOTR is event driven.

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Thanks for rehashing this, everyone. Looking back at the threads (thanks for the link EJS...I'm sooo lazy sometimes), I know the community's been through this exhaustively, but I think it's a good thing for those of us who are relatively new. Besides, MICE seems like a valuable enough tool that one should pick it up and reexamine it occasionally as experience and time accrue.

My personal take on it (and this certainly isn't the-all and the-end of it, to be sure--just where I'm choosing to grip it), is that it's the way one gives a sense of completeness to the story: the promise made in the beginning that unfolds and is fulfilled in the end. I can see how beginning with a promise of, say, a spotlight on a particular character and their issue(s), and then ending with the conclusion of an event--wherein the "final" developement of the character is either lacking or fulfilled much earlier--could make the balance of the story seem askew. In this regard, MICE makes perfect sense to me.

Vituosity or an avant-garde performance could no doubt create some interesting effects with an odd blending or even a complete disregard, as Survivor pointed out (I haven't read "Last Exile," but I think may now just out of curiosity), but what we're talking about here is producing a well-rounded, satisfying story, right? Of course, I can also see it as a way of establishing one's bearing if unsure how to develope a particular story seed.

I appreciate you bringing this back up, wbriggs. It's helped me clear up some mental debris, butI think the issue I was orinally trying to resolve by pondering this thread lies in a slightly different (but not to say entirely disconnected) direction. I guess I'm still trying to adapt to the "First Thirteen" approach here. I'm going to ponder this a bit more, and then I might start another thread-of-endless-rehash. I do promise to go back through the old threads myself first, though.


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Kathleen Dalton Woodbury
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I recently spoke at a writers conference on how to use MICE to figure out what story you are trying to tell.

I said that if you take a story you have completed, and look at what you are trying to explore in the story, MICE will help you determine how to structure the story so it best fits what you are trying to explore (whether it is a milieu--as in setting or culture, an idea, character roles, or an event--as in things out of balance).

Once you know what you're exploring in your story, you have a better idea of how to handle the structure in your rewrite.

By the way, I think it could be argued that LORD OF THE RINGS is an idea story because it explores the idea of how power corrupts.

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I feel like such a raw beginner at times. I had never heard of MICE. Well, not the kind that make up story structure, at least. I appreciate it when people reintroduce these topics from time to time because Hatrack newbies like me wouldn't have a clue what to search on to find this kind of useful advice.
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Last Exile is an anime, though of course you should watch it subtitled rather than listen to the English dubbed version. And it isn't unique in having an idea or central theme that accuses some element of the construction of the story itself. I remember how puzzled I was by the fact that Shrek, a movie that revolved around the theme of how wrong it is to judge people by their looks, chose to cast an extremely short and graceless man as the villian, and the main characters reacted to him almost entirely on the basis of his unprepossessing physical appearance (the fact that he was so gloriously lampooned by John Lithgow sort of made it worse). In fact, it is usual to find a few inconsistencies between some of the themes of any work of art and the artwork itself.

Last Exile was interesting because it related directly to the question of MICE. That's all. It's also a really cool show to watch. I think that the weirdness is sort of on purpose, the lyrics of that closing song totally give it away.

Ayway, back on point. Joe has a good point, one that I didn't make very well with my digression. MICE is especially important at the end of a story, because it identifies the central dramatic conflict and how it must be resolved. In a milieu story, once the miliue is introduced the story ends, usually by the hero either returning home or by settling down. In an idea story, the denouement of the story is usually the final revelation of the idea or its implications. Like I said, the climax of a character story is an internal struggle within the character. And an event story ends when the event occurs.

Seen in that light, we can characterize Lord of the Rings as an event story, because it ends with the elves leaving Middle Earth. Just as the text says, the story is really about the ending of the Third Age. The events of the war of the Ring are actually just incidents in the story. We could also regard it as a character story, since the narrative ends with Frodo's reconciliation with everything that has happened, just as it begins with the gift that drew him into it all. And of course, because the events describe the end of the Third Age, it is a milieu story. Sam settles down, Frodo leaves Middle Earth, and the milieu itself comes to an end.

If we read it as an idea story, then that idea must be connected to Frodo's parting statement to Sam, saying that he too was a Ringbearer, and must eventually leave Middle Earth. Indeed, Sam, Frodo, and Bilbo, the three people in the history of the Ring who gave it up willingly (with whatever assistance, but each did decide to relinquish it) are brought together for that final scene. And it cannot be a coincidence that there were three mortals who did not yeild up the Ring willingly; Isildur, Deagol, and finally Gollum. The idea itself, though, is not so easy to extract. Which is quite proper, in a really good idea story, the idea and the story are inextricable.

Grr...sometimes I think that italics are more trouble than they're worth.

[This message has been edited by Survivor (edited May 10, 2005).]

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Ahh you forgot Tom Bombadil- he gave up the ring too. That makes four.
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He's not mortal. If you count him you'd have to count Sauron.
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