MICE: The Millieu

Stage, © 2011 by George Foster


In my last post about Orson Scott Card’s MICE quotient, I talked about The Idea. As I said in that first post, MICE represents the four elements every story must have at least one (but preferably more) of: Milieu (Setting), Idea, Character, and Event.

The next one of the four items I want to talk about is Milieu, or Setting. As I said before, Card only chose “milieu” instead of “setting” because SICE doesn’t make a word.

There are a lot of stories I can think of that are inextricably rooted in the setting. The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit spring immediately to mind. These stories were as much about Middle Earth as they were about the characters and the events and ideas that they involve. Mirkwood, The Shire, Tom Bombadil’s wood, Smaug’s lair, Khazad Dûm, the Ents’ forest, Mordor…such riches of setting, and so beautifully described by Tolkien. Chances are, if you’ve read them—and if you’re reading this and you haven’t read them, then stop reading this right now and go read them—as soon as you read the words “Mirkwood” or “Smaug’s lair,” you knew exactly what I was talking about, right down to the creep factor. Because they were so vividly described.

Another that fits in this category is Zilpha Keatley Snyder’s Green Sky trilogy. Again, if you haven’t read these wonderful books, go do so. The world of Green Sky is vividly described, and is as integral to the story as any of the characters. The characters are of Green Sky and the stories evolve from Green Sky.

The Chronicles of Narnia by C. S. Lewis. I mean . . . come on. I’d still go to Narnia as readily today—as a 46-year-old with a mortgage and several thousand dollars in credit card debt—as I would have as a 12-year-old suffering through the Chicken Pox first reading them. Because Lewis made the world of Narnia come alive for me. It is a real place to me, every bit as three-dimensional as my own hometown. And I think I’d recognize Cair Paravel, the Beaver’s Lodge, the Lamp Post, or The Stone Table if I saw them today . . . off on the horizon . . . beckoning.

I think therein lies the key. To matter, the setting of the story must be at least as integral to the story as any of the other aspects. The characters must exist in the world described by the setting, and the events and ideas must interweave with it. Unless you have this, your story could literally happen anywhere.

Would Dune have been as good if it had been set on a lush, forest world like Yoda’s Dagobah? Perhaps. But it would not have been Dune; it would have been some other work. Because the desert planet with its Fremen and its worms and its place in the empire were the solid foundation upon which the story we know—again, go read it if you haven’t—was built.

If Idea is the framework of a story, then surely Milieu must be the foundation. And without a strong foundation, it doesn’t matter how sturdy the framework is.

As much as the stories I mentioned above depend on their settings to be the stories we know and love, there are those for which the setting is more of a convenience, and it’s fairly easy to tell when that is the case.

Take, for instance, The Belgariad and The Malloreon by David Eddings. I thoroughly enjoyed all ten books and can’t recommend them highly enough . . . but they did have a certain sense to them. A sense of, “I drew this map, and I spent a lot of time on it, and by god I’m going to make you read about every square centimeter of it!”

I was going to mention some settings from the books to see if they’d immediately put as much of a picture in your head as “Mirkwood” or “Narnia” did. But the only ones I could think of were “the farm where Garion grew up with ‘Aunt Pol,’” “Belgarath’s tower,” and “the forest of the dryads.” I can’t even remember the names of these places. Ten books. I read all ten books—multiple times, I admit—and I can’t recall one single place name that is more than a suggestion. But I remember the events, the ideas, and mostly the characters. As far as Milieu goes, these two series could have been set in Cleveland and it would probably have been just as entertaining.

Well, OK, maybe not Cleveland.

Sometimes it works for other reasons. Take The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, The Unbeliever and the sequel series both by Stephen R. Donaldson. He spends a good amount of time describing how wonderful The Land is in the first book because his character, Thomas Covenant, is a leper in the real world, but in The Land, he’s not. So everything there is new and fresh and he experiences it all in a rush of heady abandon. And in the second trilogy, The Land has been destroyed and it is only in the ugly contrast to the first books’ descriptions of The Land that we are led to despair as much as Covenant does to see how it has changed. He uses his Milieu as a tool to show us, the reader, how everything has changed, and to make us feel the change as badly as his character.

C. S. Lewis does this in The Last Battle, as well. We all know how wonderful Narnia is, but in the last book, the wonderful Narnia of old is . . . diminished. The dryads are dying because their trees are being chopped down. Aslan is believed to be a myth because He hasn’t visited in so long. The horrible creature Tashlan has been gathering followers, and as readers, we are as upset as the characters living there because our Narnia has been blighted.

Sometimes the Milieu can take on a life of its own. For instance, in Star Trek, the Milieu is a utopian future wherein all mankind is happy and fulfilled. Aliens live and work side-by-side with humans on Earth and other planets. Transporter technology, replicator technology, holodeck technology, and a myriad of other technologies have made everything perfect for everyone everywhere. No one wants for anything they can’t get instantly.

So what stories can we possibly tell? There can’t be a story about a regular guy living on a regular planet with a regular job because he can’t want for anything. He can push a button and get whatever he wants, whenever he wants it. So the only stories that can be told are the ones on the fringes of the utopia. The frontier. During conflicts with alien races who—for whatever reason—want to destroy the Federation Way of Life™.

Superman would be bored in the Federation. He’d have to become a Q to have any fun whatsoever.

This is why every episode of every Star Trek series was an exercise in how to subvert the utopia to get to a problem. We have infinite power . . . but what if the dilithium crystal submatrix decrystalized because of an isolinear ovolithic radiation discharge that destabilized the anamorphic subspace field? Chaos, that’s what! Or so we were led to believe, until the end of the 45-minute episode, at which point the problem was solved by the application of good old-fashioned human—or alien—ingenuity and technology.

Or, you know . . . Wesley.

I lay most of this on the utopian society in which the Star Trek shows and novels were set. (Which, incidentally, is what was intended. It was literally Gunsmoke In Space™, so the whole ‘frontier’ thing wasn’t an accident.) Where there is no conflict, there simply is no story. The biblical story of Solomon and the two women who claimed the same baby could not have happened in the world of Star Trek. Solomon could simply use the transporter to create an exact replica/clone of the baby. Then both women could have the baby. Problem solved. No wisdom required.

I could (continue to) expound at length on Star Trek, and drag in the three Stargate series and Babylon 5 as well. My point is this: when the world—the Setting, the Milieu—is well-developed, it and the characters, events, and ideas will be inextricable from one another.

I seem to have stumbled into writing urban fantasy. You can’t talk about urban fantasy without Milieu. That’s the ‘urban’ part. The city in which the stories are set is an inextricable part of the lives of the characters. The events take place in that city.

True Blood, The Dresden Files, the Greywalker Series, the Anita Blake series, the Kate Daniels series, the Kitty Norville series . . . all of these take place in a known city or one very similar to one we know. The authors weave the stories into the real cities, overlaying them with magic and fantastical creatures, but they are still Chicago, Seattle, St. Louis, Atlanta, and Denver. True Blood takes place in a fictional small town in Louisiana called Bon Temps, but anyone from the south will recognize the town as being like every other small town in the south. With very few name changes, it could be set in my hometown of Eutaw, Alabama. (Population: 1800! SaaaaaaLUTE!)

The difference between Milieu and Idea is, I believe, that while Idea can ‘carry’ a story by itself, Milieu can’t.

Not entirely. Dragon’s Egg by Robert Forward is set on the surface of a neutron star. I mean wow! But he had to have characters, ideas, and events to make me want to keep reading past the first few pages. Flatland by Edwin Abbott Abbott is almost entirely Milieu, but to carry it, he has to develop equally interesting characters and events and ideas (mostly ideas). Vernor Vinge’s Zones of Thought books depend deeply on his Milieu, but again, without interesting characters, ideas, and events, it wouldn’t be readable.

Imagine a novel written like a travelogue. Travelogues are fun if you’re, say, in Greece, and you want to know more about the place. But then, you are the character having your own ideas and making your own events. You wouldn’t read the travelogue of Greece if you weren’t either in Greece or going soon.

Unless someone comes up with a really interesting second-person-POV Choose Your Own Adventure book in which exploring a place is the only goal, I don’t really see Milieu as being capable of carrying a story. Not a very long one, anyway.

So, to sum up: Milieu = foundation. Idea = framework. We still have Character and Event to go. Stay tuned!

(cross-posted from http://garydhenderson.com)

MICE: The Idea

"idea" © 2005 by Tony Dowler

"idea" © 2005 by Tony Dowler

I was listening to a recent episode of the Writing Excuses podcast. It’s about Orson Scott Card’s M.I.C.E. quotient.

M = Milieu (Setting, but S.I.C.E. doesn’t spell anything useful.)
I = Idea
C = Character
E = Event

Good stories will have more than one of these present. Novels may have all four. But one will usually stand dominant above the rest.

I was thinking about this as I was driving to work the other day listening to a totally different podcast (Adventures in Sci-Fi Publishing). They were talking on that podcast about whether published authors ever give negative book reviews.

And I got to thinking about what makes even a book I wasn’t overly enthused about worth reading all the way through.

I can forgive a lot of things, but I think Card’s M.I.C.E. quotient is a pretty good indicator of what I won’t forgive.

In this post, I’ll talk about Idea, because it’s what came to mind first, and I think it’s the most unforgivable deficiency in these genres when it’s not there. Subsequent posts will deal with the other three components.


How Writing is Like Packing School Lunches

Writing, and packing school lunches. I realize the connection might not be immediately obvious. It wasn’t to me, either, until this morning, when I was going about the weekday business of–you guessed it–packing school lunches.

And I suddenly realized that this job (although I don’t consider it one of my more enjoyable tasks) is no longer the huge, pain-in-the-butt undertaking that I once considered it. It takes less time now, and the results are better.

To put it in context, it’s only the past few years that I’ve been packing lunches for both my kids every morning. For the first years of school they came home to lunch every day, but as schools and lunch hours changed, we eventually got around to the point where it made more sense for them both to take lunch with them. And I had to learn the necessary skills for making that happen.

I didn’t take to it very well at first. If you’ve ever packed school lunches, you might understand some of the variables that must be considered. Such as, what can I expect this child to eat (likes and dislikes)? The answers generate a list of possibilities, long or sadly short if your child is a so-called “picky” eater. Scratch off this list any foods verboten at School X, such as peanut butter, eggs, etc. The list is shorter. Scratch off foods that don’t meet microwaving criteria like times or days at School X. Shorter again. Eventually you will probably scratch off foods that the child has grown tired of. With the current brevity of the list, everything might fall into that category at some point. And if you have more than one child, it’s quite unlikely that their final lists are going to contain anything in common. Sigh, and hie yourself off to the grocery store.

So I remember a blur of many, many mornings of repeatedly opening and closing the refrigerator and cupboards, hoping to notice something that I’d missed when I looked ten seconds ago, trying to cobble together lunches while supervising wake-up calls, wardrobe calamities, homework emergencies, and any number of other morning trials.

The epiphany I had this morning was simple: it’s not like that anymore (most mornings, anyway). I’ve somehow become better at packing lunches. And I realize that this is not due as much to broadening palettes or relaxed school restrictions as it is to the plain fact of practice. I’m better at many of the elements of lunch-packing. I prepare better, making sure I have enough lunch supplies on hand at the beginning of the week. I monitor likes and dislikes better. I’m more organized in simply gathering everything up and doling it out. I’ve grown better at dealing with or pre-emptively avoiding morning emergencies.

And finally, here’s where I tie this whole strange musing into writing. Writing, too, is all about the practice, and getting better at all the myriad, interrelated skills one needs to become a better writer. Better planning, whether it’s outlining or cogitating or whatever method you use to work out the story idea rattling around in your head. Better time management, both in making time to write and juggling planning, research, and actual writing. Better execution, because the mere act of writing more words over and over improves the end result. Better troubleshooting, in noticing plot or character problems early and dealing with them before they run your whole story off the rails. And finally, better editing and revising, yielding a more polished, professional final draft.

So just as there’s more to packing school lunches than just sticking things in a lunch bag, there’s more to writing than just putting words on paper. Both tasks require several interrelated skills, and becoming proficient in all of them leads to both an easier process and a better end result. Like just about everything else, practice makes…if not perfect, than an enormous improvement.

And now I’m off to make myself a sandwich, feeling thankful that in my job, I don’t have to pack it…

(cross-posted from www.sherrydramsey.com)