In the recent challenge, I deliberately attempted an opening for a milieu-type story - i.e. one where the world is the real focus and character, action and idea are all secondary. There were about four other openings that seemed (IMO) to promise milieu-type stories, and only one - The Middle Road - did well in the voting. And even that one did well more because of the originality of a key idea that made the world distinct - triggering a response to an idea as much as to the milieu.
So what are the elements of a good milieu opening? How do you set up an implied promise of a milieu-type story? Do you need to hook the audience on some other focus (character, idea or action) or does that oppose the implicit promise of a milieu story?
(PS. This is _not_ a gripe about low votes for milieu stories, or my story in particular. They are hard to do, and mine was simply too vague or ungrounded for a reasonable number of readers. You experiment, you fail or succeed, you learn I am following this up simply because I want to learn more from the experiment, to learn how to do it well next time.)
[This message has been edited by Brendan (edited April 11, 2011).]
I think when you want to do this kind of opening, the setting itself has to become a character. It needs to be unique and have it's own personality. Instead of just describing a house, describe why that house is unique, or if it has an attitude different from those around it or attach an event to it to make it important.
Also, a mileu story doesn't negate character, it just means place is the focus. You can use a character viewing a place, especially a new place and infuse that setting with all sorts of personality. Of course, that will inform us about the character as well, in what he chooses to describe and how he chooses to describe it, but it can really set the place up to be the central theme.
I will approach this subject from a reader's perspective.
Milieu stories are much like the 3 rules of real estate: location, location, and location.
In milieu stories the setting is the protagonist, and everybody else that inhabits it make up the supporting cast. Since the Main Character is the Setting typically the implicit promise made to the reader is that the MC will be somehow threatened by an evil force and balance will be restored by the good guys.
For instance, in Lord of the Rings, the main character is not really Frodo Baggings. The MC is Middle Earth, specifically The Shire, which is threatened by Sauron's evil forces and it is up to the goodly hobbits to save the day. Similarly, in Dune, while we do follow Paul Atreides, the story really is about the planet Arrakis.
For a milieu story to work you do need a character on which to focus, otherwise the reader will lose interest. In other words, you need to give the reader a tour guide. Usually, the approach is a "fish out of water" one where there will be a character who will be exploring the setting for the first time much like the reader. Therefore, just like Frodo, the reader goes along with him to explore what is outside The Shire. Just like Paul, the reader discovers the strange wonders of Arrakis.
To use another example, this time from cinema, in the movie Dances With Wolves the main character is not Lt. Dunbar. He is the focus character. The MC is The West - the last Frontier - Old America threatened by the New America. The audience gets to experience "old America" (aka the one inhabited by Native Americans) through Costner's character and his experiences and then feels threatened by the "new America" when the US Army shows up to conquer the West.
So, I guess for a good beginning for a milieu story you need to somehow establish a very strong and vibrant setting but give the reader a character on which to focus. A tall order and I do not envy you the challenge
[This message has been edited by redux (edited April 12, 2011).]
My understanding is that a milieu story really "starts" when the main character finds him/herself in a strange new place. The problem is that often there needs to be some kind of set-up to show the main character in his/her normal setting so that it can be made clear that the strange new place is strange and new to the main character. Makes it tough to hook with a "character in normal surroundings" approach, unless you also show that the character has a problem with being in those "normal surroundings."
So I'd suggest showing the character's unhappiness (or whatever negative reaction you like) in what is normal to the character before introducing the milieu of the story, but introduct that milieu as quickly as you possibly can.
Or, you could look for published examples and see how they start (always a good idea, I think). What's the name of the Isaac Asimov novel that starts out with an experiment that went wrong and sent an ordinary guy, just walking down the street, into another world? Couldn't that one be considered a milieu story?
Even though in his book, OSC refers to Lord of the Rings being a mileu story, last year at Boot Camp he admitted he didn't know what he was thinking when he wrote that and that he would consider it a character story.
quote: Just a note of update/correction. Even though in his book, OSC refers to Lord of the Rings being a mileu story, last year at Boot Camp he admitted he didn't know what he was thinking when he wrote that and that he would consider it a character story.
The mileu is very strong though.
The mileu is strong in this one.
But why can't it be both?
I would like to write a novel of that type but I don't like the term, perhaps because I don't think I can pronounce it...or because OSC is the only person I've seen use it.
Mileu stories-novels always seem to be fantasy, or the examples are, but I think you could do a SF. Something set way out in space with planets and plasma clouds etc..
"Redux" is mistaken...The Lord of the Rings is driven by plot and character and motivation...the locations they pass through are interesting, but do not themselves shape the story. (If you've looked at the volumes of The History of Middle-Earth, you can see how much Tolkien changed things around as he put them together.)
I'm leery of milieu stories, if that's the correct term. Too many of them have characters wandering through explaining basic facts to each other, like "This is called an elevator, and you push these buttons and the little room goes up or down in the building...long ago, a man named Otis invented it," or saying something along the lines of "What a wonderful (or terrible) world it is we live in."
I think that if the key thing you remember about a story is its world, then it probably is a milieu story. Therefore to me the following come under the milieu bracket: Rendevous with Rama, Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Red Mars, much of Jules Verne, Treason, Star Maker, several of John Wyndam's stories. To me they often are associated with a sense of discovery and wonder.
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When discussing the MICE quotient, the thing we have to remember is that while a story might focus on one element and therefore be put into one of the categories, no story is exclusively one category. All four elements are in every story. The category comes down to proportion and importance.
Brendan, I like your interpretation for mileu.
All in all though, no formula or chart should matter when you're evaluating a story. The question should be, are the elements in this story accomplishing what I want them to? IF you want the setting to contribute significantly to the story and it does, then you've succeeded. I wouldn't worry about categories.
The very first book I ever tried to write could be very much termed a milieu story. It's about a young woman who, while looking for her sister, travels through the Bermuda Triangle that just happens to be a portal into another galaxy. She finds out her sister arrived there first and spends the rest of the book having adventures on several different worlds before she finally finds her sister.
So, yes, a milieu story can easily be done as science fiction instead of fantasy .
quote:When discussing the MICE quotient, the thing we have to remember is that while a story might focus on one element and therefore be put into one of the categories, no story is exclusively one category. All four elements are in every story. The category comes down to proportion and importance.
Well said. I think that's why even OSC himself classified Lord of the Rings as a Milieu Story in "Characters & Viewpoint," as an Event Story in "How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy," and then as a Character Story at one of his Boot Camps. LOTR is simply one of those stories that defies categorization - there is something in it for everyone.
Milieu stories can also be mainstream fiction, as in SHOGUN.
One way I recommend using MICE categories is to ask yourself what you are exploring in your story: settings, ideas, characters, or events?
Another way to look at them is to consider the story structure (which OSC discusses as it relates to MICE in HOW TO WRITE SCIENCE FICTION AND FANTASY).
His discussion of MICE is different in CHARACTER AND VIEWPOINT, by the way, so if you want to understand the categories and apply them to your own stories, I'd recommend reading both discussions.
By the way, LORD OF THE RINGS is a milieu story in that the Hobbits explore and learn about several "worlds" they never knew existed. It's an idea story because it explores evil and how it can corrupt even those who have the very best intentions. It's a character story because it folows the growth (and downfall) of several characters. And it's an event story because it's about the ending of the Third Age of Middle Earth and the beginning of the Fourth Age.
I've always wondered about this. Is there such a thing as a 'pure' milieu story?
I can think of a lot of stories where I derive as much enjoyment from learning about the setting as the action; James Michner's _Chesapeake_ for example, or all of Tony Hillerman's Joe Leaphorn/Jim Chee stories, or Dick Francis stories set in and around British horse racing, or John D. McDonald's Travis McGee Pier 66 stories. For me these stories would lose some of their magic without the unfamiliar (to me) setting. Does this make them milieu stories?
I'm thinking that Jan Karon's "Mitford' stories come close, but they also have action and memorable characters.
Can anyone name a milieu story that isn't also some other type of story as well? I don't think I can.
I think Jules Verne's stories such as "Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea" or "Journey to the Center of the Earth" could be considered milieu stories.
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I open my YA novel with the main character in the entryway to her new home - a space station. She and the other new arrivals ("landers") are shuttling through the doorway, but when she tries to go through, the doorway closes on her and she is thrown back. The space station literally rejects her from the start (though the reality is that she set into motion events that caused this to happen to her anyway, which makes it nice and circular.)
Since the premise of the story is about this character and whether/how she adapts to living in this strange new place, I thought it fitting that the environment rejected her just as she was trying to reject her environment (grumpy teen.)
Just one more example, but I liked the interplay of ideas there and it's one of those things that as I went back and modified the opening to include this, it just felt exactly right, like that's how the story was supposed to begin all along. I've had great feedback on the story so far but nobody's offered me a contract yet (this is one I'm leaning toward indie publishing myself...)