Hatrack River Writers Workshop Post New Topic  Post A Reply
my profile login | register | search | faq | forum home

  next oldest topic   next newest topic
» Hatrack River Writers Workshop » Forums » Open Discussions About Writing » Milieu vs. Character

Author Topic: Milieu vs. Character
Member # 8108

 - posted      Profile for philocinemas   Email philocinemas         Edit/Delete Post   Reply With Quote 
I have read several openings of late where the writers have put forth great effort in establishing character early on, but they seem to exist in a vacuum. By this, I mean that I have no idea where or when the story is taking place.

I am curious. We have had prior discussions about the importance of character traits, such as gender and appearance, being established early in a story. But what about milieu? Is it as important to you as readers to know the setting or does this take a back seat to character? What do you find more common in what you read?

How do you feel when the author establishes setting first or uses a more ethereal opening?

This isn't so much a list of questions needing answers, but I am curious more about perceptions and observations.

Posts: 2003 | Registered: Jul 2008  |  IP: Logged | Report this post to a Moderator
Member # 8991

 - posted      Profile for axeminister   Email axeminister         Edit/Delete Post   Reply With Quote 
People round here tend to point that out if my 13 liners are missing it. I point it out to others. Less milieu per se than just something stating where the character is spatially.

I like to refer to Star Trek for this one. Whenever they came back from a commercial break, they showed the ship from the outside for about 1 second, then cut to where the action was taking place, resuming the show.

Sitcoms do this a lot too. They show the outside of the house for an instant, then go inside.

I did this in the first 13 of my finalist entry. I explained the vessel in space, then moved inside it. Thinking of Star Trek as I wrote it.

It's easy with a ship in space, naturally, but I do very much prefer to have one sentence, or even part of a sentence tell me where the characters are.


Posts: 1543 | Registered: Jan 2010  |  IP: Logged | Report this post to a Moderator
Member # 9148

 - posted      Profile for LDWriter2   Email LDWriter2         Edit/Delete Post   Reply With Quote 

If milieu is the same as setting as it seems to be, I think one person finally answered that but I forget what they said- I never heard the term until I read one of OSC's book on writing- than it is important. One pro writer says it's very important to set the setting at first.

But I don't think it's a matter of one vs. the other. You need both, at the same time, that might be one of the tricky aspects of writing we need to learn.

Posts: 5283 | Registered: Jun 2010  |  IP: Logged | Report this post to a Moderator
Member # 8019

 - posted      Profile for extrinsic   Email extrinsic         Edit/Delete Post   Reply With Quote 
A narrative with little to no orientation to time, place, or situation upfront signals to me an introspective piece, or, really, a disembodied mind speaking in a vacuum. It's left to me to invent, project, substitute my own time, place, and situation until I'm clued in otherwise. Which is no stretch for my imagination, only I feel I'm held at arm's length narrative distance-wise.

Sounds like a medical triage process for gauging consciousness, alert and oriented times four: to person, time, place, and situation. Written word follows, though, at first, a linear sense of orientation. For best possible close narrative distance, a narrative must quickly orient readers within the times, places, situations, and persons of its events. Depicting sensations does that, all at once when possible, by reporting personal sensory perceptions of person, time, place, and situation orientation details.

Posts: 5439 | Registered: Jun 2008  |  IP: Logged | Report this post to a Moderator
Member # 5137

 - posted      Profile for KayTi           Edit/Delete Post   Reply With Quote 
If you think of the setting as a character, it's much easier to squeeze in an intro early-on. In speculative fiction, I think it's vital, or your reader doesn't know what KIND of book this is - dystopia, future, space opera, alien, cowboy space, moon, different planet, star travel, etc. are all just basic flavors of sci-fi (and I've only listed a small small portion of the universe of sci-fi settings.)

Dean Wesley Smith also says that setting is the *opinion* of a character (I'm sure other writers have said this, too, but he's the one who first said it to *me*). Anytime you're talking about setting, you have an opportunity to further characterize the people who populate your stories.

Posts: 1911 | Registered: Mar 2007  |  IP: Logged | Report this post to a Moderator
Member # 9381

 - posted      Profile for EVOC   Email EVOC         Edit/Delete Post   Reply With Quote 
I think it comes down to the length of the piece. After all in a Novel the first 13 is hardly an accurate representation of the opening. Where as in a flash piece of say 700 words, the milieu should be established a lot sooner.

That being said, establishing the location of the scene is fairly important to me. Even if it isn't actually written out but implied based on the activity.

Posts: 725 | Registered: Jan 2011  |  IP: Logged | Report this post to a Moderator
Member # 8631

 - posted      Profile for MAP           Edit/Delete Post   Reply With Quote 
I really want both (character and milieu) at the same time. I hate feeling disoriented when I'm introduced to a character without any context, and unless the setting is very unique or very intriquing, I'm usually bored with beginnings that focus only on setting. I need a character to latch on to.

Like Kayti said, I like it best when the setting is described through the eyes of the POV character, so that you have a sense of who the character is and where the character is at the same time. Hard to do in thirteen lines.

Posts: 1102 | Registered: May 2009  |  IP: Logged | Report this post to a Moderator
Member # 8108

 - posted      Profile for philocinemas   Email philocinemas         Edit/Delete Post   Reply With Quote 
I suppose part of what I'm asking is - Does it matter to you whether the setting is introduced first, or do you prefer the character first?

I like axe's Star Trek analogy. I was more of a sci-fi TV and movie fan before I was a sci-fi literature fan, so I'm more accustomed to seeing the ship, or planet, or robot, etc. presented first before "meeting" the main character.

However, I have noticed that about 2/3 to 3/4 of the stories I read start with either setting, conversation (internal or external), or some idea or perception. Only about a third to a quarter of the stories actually start immediately with the MC. If you actually study this, I believe you will find my observation consistent with professional shorts and maybe even more frequent in novels.

Now obviously, a third to a quarter is still a significant amount, so it doesn't negate the MC as a valid starting point, but I do find the trend somewhat disconcerting. I also find MC-starting stories disproportionately more abundant in novice writing.

Posts: 2003 | Registered: Jul 2008  |  IP: Logged | Report this post to a Moderator
Member # 8019

 - posted      Profile for extrinsic   Email extrinsic         Edit/Delete Post   Reply With Quote 
Introducing the narrative point of view I believe is the singlemost important introduction. Meanwhile, doing so by introducing a freightload of other setting, plot, idea, character, and event features that engage readers' imaginations. Introducing, that's all an opening needs to do so that readers immerse in a story's interior-world being. If that's through the eyes of a central character, a sensory setting description, a disembodied thought, whatever, so be it, just engage my imagination and get to the point, please.

A settled and identifiable narrator identity is one quality I notice separating inexperienced writers from experienced ones. An unsettled opening starts with one narrative point of view, awkwardly switches midparagraph or midesentence to another, back and forth, awkwardly, willy-nilly a fraction of the way through, settles down for awhile, more awkward switches back and forth, settles down, and so on. Get to the first awkward point of view switch, I wonder who, what, when, where, why, and how the story's about. I can usually figure it out; however, my imagination has long since lost touch with the story's track.

[This message has been edited by extrinsic (edited October 03, 2011).]

Posts: 5439 | Registered: Jun 2008  |  IP: Logged | Report this post to a Moderator
Member # 8631

 - posted      Profile for MAP           Edit/Delete Post   Reply With Quote 
Philocinemas, I don't see this trend in my reading. The vast majority of the novels I read (I don't read shorts) start with the MC in some way. However, I do consider internal monologues and dialogue starting with the MC. I'm not sure why you don't.

I think it might just be indicative of the type of stories you enjoy. If milieu or an idea has a major role in the story, it is a logical place for the story to begin. I tend to enjoy stories that focus more on characters, so it makes sense that the stories I enjoy reading start with characters.

I think it is important to study the openings of stories that appeal to you.

I'm curious. Why do you find the trend disconcerting?

[This message has been edited by MAP (edited October 03, 2011).]

Posts: 1102 | Registered: May 2009  |  IP: Logged | Report this post to a Moderator
Ken S
Member # 9010

 - posted      Profile for Ken S   Email Ken S         Edit/Delete Post   Reply With Quote 
I think that it can be done at the same time. Even if your focus is on character, your character isn't doing what they do in a vacuum (unless you're writing Sci-Fi and then they just might be doing it in a vacuum ) they are interacting with their environment and you want to include that. I would include it gradually though. When you introduce your character, you don't want to include a laundry list of ALL of their physical characteristics, mannerisms, what they had for breakfast this morning, etc. You also don't want to detail the environment down to the last splinter or rivet. You just want the most important stuff about the environment and let the rest filter through on its own.
Posts: 50 | Registered: Feb 2010  |  IP: Logged | Report this post to a Moderator
Member # 8501

 - posted      Profile for Owasm   Email Owasm         Edit/Delete Post   Reply With Quote 
You don't need to distinctly describe the location, but I feel it's important to give the MC a space to be in, even if he/she just sits in a chair or on a horse.

We don't need to describe the weather for two or three pages, but it doesn't hurt to know if people are standing outside or inside or if the MC is under duress, just where that it.

The purpose of a 1st 13 is to provide an entry point into the story so the reader can get engaged. You can do both to certain extents in a milieu-heavy opening or a character-heavy start.

My opinion...

Posts: 1608 | Registered: Feb 2009  |  IP: Logged | Report this post to a Moderator
Member # 9398

 - posted      Profile for enigmaticuser   Email enigmaticuser         Edit/Delete Post   Reply With Quote 
Hmmm, this is tough. Until lately, I have never paid much attention to openings. I am one of those poor souls who will generally finish a book if he starts no matter how he feels about it. The only book I can think of starting and choosing not to finish was "The Stand" which wasn't for its literary quality, I just found it too dark.

But I guess, I prefer a character heavy story, but I hate the disorientation of not knowing where this character is. I don't need a lot (it is the opening after all). I think it's the disembodied thought that disembodies me from the story.

So it could be just a minor "From horse back overlooking the town..." Or "Smith wasn't too thrilled with the new house..." Or "Jones never much cared for rainy days in the forest, but staring down the barrel of a 5.56 assault rifle he didn't so much mind the rain..."

I don't need names, or details. I don't care why the character is there or what he just did, I'll trust you to bring that all together in time.

But then I am overly trusting and probably not a good representative.

Posts: 336 | Registered: Jan 2011  |  IP: Logged | Report this post to a Moderator
Member # 8108

 - posted      Profile for philocinemas   Email philocinemas         Edit/Delete Post   Reply With Quote 
Here is the first set of opening lines from several popular science fiction novels on my shelf with a listing of number of lines before the MC is introduced:

As the Captain looked up, the hooked desk lamp threw his face into ridges of darkness and craggy highlights. – The High Crusade (Anderson, 1960)
Deceptive – 37 lines before the MC.
Hari Seldon-…born in the 11,988th year of the Galactic Era; died 12,069. – Foundation (Asimov, 1951)
First line – ba da bing.
One minute it was Ohio winter, with doors closed, windows locked, the panes blind with frost, icicles fringing every roof, children skiing on slopes, housewives lumbering like great black bears in their furs along the icy streets. – The Martian Chronicles (Bradbury, 1946)
28 lines
Jinn and Phyllis were spending a wonderful holiday, in space, as far away as possible from the inhabited stars. – Planet of the Apes (Boulle, 1963)
Deceptive again – 5 pages before the MC
Even in this metric age, it was still the thousand –foot telescope, not the three-hundred-meter one. – 2010: Odyssey Two (Clarke, 1982)
Sorry, don’t own 2001 – this one it’s 12 lines.
A merry little surge of electricity piped by automatic alarm from the mood organ beside his bed awakened Rick Decker. – Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (Dick, 1968)
First sentence, second line
Were they truly intelligent? – The Puppet Masters (Heinlein, 1951)
Random Heinlein book (no peeking, I promise) – 6 lines.
A beginning is the time for taking the most delicate care that the balances are correct. – Dune (Herbert, 1965)
Muad’Dib is mentioned in third line, Paul is mentioned in 14th – counting italics (I did for Foundation)
It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. – 1984 (Orwell, 1949)
line 2
The explosion was utterly silent. – Privateers (Bova, 1985)
28 lines
There was silence and peace. – Return to Eden (Harrison, 1988)
4 lines

Posts: 2003 | Registered: Jul 2008  |  IP: Logged | Report this post to a Moderator
Member # 8108

 - posted      Profile for philocinemas   Email philocinemas         Edit/Delete Post   Reply With Quote 
I count 3 out of 11, but possibly 5 out of 11 if you want to count first paragraphs and include "Muad'Dib".

That's all I can do for now, but I'll try to post more later.

Posts: 2003 | Registered: Jul 2008  |  IP: Logged | Report this post to a Moderator
Member # 1467

 - posted      Profile for johnbrown   Email johnbrown         Edit/Delete Post   Reply With Quote 
I suppose part of what I'm asking is - Does it matter to you whether the setting is introduced first, or do you prefer the character first?

I like something interesting first. That could be character, setting, problem, style, or idea. Then get me the rest in short order.

Here's what I think is a brilliant beginning. Chapter 1 from Connelley's THE BRASS VERDICT.


Everybody lies.

Cops lie. Lawyers lie. Witnesses lie. The victims lie.

A trial is a contest of lies. And everyboy in the courtroom knows ths. The judge knows this. Even the jury knows this. They come into the building knowing they will be lied to. They take their seats in the box and agree to be lied to.

The trick if you are sitting at the defense table is to be patienht. To wait. Not for just any lie. But for the one you can grab ont to and forge like hot iron into a sharpened blade. You then use that blade to rip the case open and spill its guts out on the floor.

That's my job, to forge the blade. To sharpen it. To use it without mercy or conscience. To be the truth in a place where everybody lies.

That's all of chapter 1. Brilliant. I couldn't stop reading. It starts with idea, with tension, with stylistic vigor, some general setting (courtroom stuff), and at the very end brings in an I, a character.

Here are some more opening lines I love.


• Dr. Hirum Danforth sat in a room, deep in the basement of the National Security Agency, and listened to the voice of God. (Bob Defendi)

• The old man was dying an ugly death and for all their skill and faith there was nothing either the Chirugen or the priest could do to prevent it. (Steve Savile)

• Mars was a life sentence. (DavidGill)

• The trouble with calling up the Devil is that you usually get his answering service. (IanCreasey)

• The chair stank of piss. (IanCreasey)

• People always ask me, "Does it hurt?" (IanCreasey)

• From the instant Daniel heard the words, “Dixon’s Syndrome,” he knew he was a dead man. (Christine)

• For an electric chair, it was very nice. (Dex)

• You humans make me sick. (Dex)

• Our whole stinking family lived on a half-derelict salvage ship that floated so far from the space station that we sometimes had trouble picking the station out from the stars. (Luc Reid)

• “Miri didn’t know she was being raised by monsters.” (Ami Chopine)


1. When Charlotte folded her menu and asked the waiter for a slice of lemon, I knew the iron nail in my pocket was useless.

2. Scared? Bubba, I ain't scared of nothing.

3. Hobgoblins, knockers, bugbears and hobhoulards. Boguests, bullbeggars and gallytrots.

4. Solveig, the Queen of Suntown, said that in this evil time, the only thing that separated us from the Wolves was etiquette.

5. The old witch hoisted herself out of the Buick and stood blinking in the blizzard of flashbulbs until the tourists got bored of the shot and lowered their cameras, keeping them at the ready like sports photographers waiting for a touchdown.

6. It was about cutting, then as always – snipsnipsnip, like a breath of tainted air in the space between worlds.

7. When I die, I'm going to have someone cure my hide like an animal skin.

8. When your spouse is in the Service, it's best not to get too attached to anyone.

9. He was at it again, the man next door, pounding ten-penny nails into the roof of the big black box in his back yard.

10. Another mark on C. today – cigar burn, under her r. breast. So realistic, could almost see ashes on sheets during bath time.

11. I stiffened at the red and blue lights flashing behind me, because there was no way I could explain what was in the back of my truck. I pulled over, holding my breath as the sheriff came to my window. (Jeaniene Frost's Halfway to the Grave)

I think almost any element can be interesting. Tolkien started with a description of a hobbit hole. A lot of those above start with character or situation. The key is to get something interesting, whatever it is. Then get the other elements to make it clear in short order.

[This message has been edited by johnbrown (edited October 15, 2011).]

Posts: 327 | Registered: Jul 2002  |  IP: Logged | Report this post to a Moderator
Member # 5174

 - posted      Profile for NoTimeToThink   Email NoTimeToThink         Edit/Delete Post   Reply With Quote 
I usually need some sense of setting at the start - otherwise I paint the wrong image in my mind, and it can sometimes be impossible to correct it later. In spec it's more important than other genres.
I like what Kayti said about revealing the character's attitude through the setting description.

Posts: 406 | Registered: Mar 2007  |  IP: Logged | Report this post to a Moderator
Member # 9674

 - posted      Profile for Auskar   Email Auskar         Edit/Delete Post   Reply With Quote 
Long ago, when I re-read some of my early attempts at a short story, I noticed that I dived right into the story. As a reader, I was lost. The story made no sense. Therefore, I learned that you have to PLACE your major character for any action to make sense. You must have a setting. You can expand upon it later, but it is important for the reader to understand where the MC is located, then when he/she/it moves -- it is important to explain the relationship of the things around him, where he/she/it moves to, what is behind, in front, etc. Not all the time, but enough where you communicate from the author to the reader. There has to be communication and understanding.
Posts: 9 | Registered: Oct 2011  |  IP: Logged | Report this post to a Moderator
Member # 2807

 - posted      Profile for Smaug   Email Smaug         Edit/Delete Post   Reply With Quote 
One thing you can do is to reveal character through how he or she reacts to the setting. I think to take a lot of time giving character descriptions at the outset is a waste of time and doesn't really get the reader into the story quickly.
Posts: 440 | Registered: Aug 2005  |  IP: Logged | Report this post to a Moderator

Quick Reply

HTML is not enabled.
UBB Code™ is enabled.
UBB Code™ Images not permitted.
Instant Graemlins

Post New Topic  Post A Reply Close Topic   Feature Topic   Move Topic   Delete Topic next oldest topic   next newest topic
 - Printer-friendly view of this topic
Hop To:

Contact Us | Hatrack River Home Page

Copyright © 2008 Hatrack River Enterprises Inc. All rights reserved.
Reproduction in whole or in part without permission is prohibited.

Powered by Infopop Corporation
UBB.classic™ 6.7.2