Short Saturday: Milieu, Idea, Character, Event

I think about these elements all the time, of course—milieu, idea, character, event—but this article from science fiction author Orson Scott Card made me think of them differently. He says one of the four determines the structure of the novel.

Thus a milieu story is begun by an arrival and ended by a departure (or perhaps, a decision not to depart). An idea story begins by raising a question and ends by answering it. A character story begins with a character beginning a process of change and ends when the change is completed (or fails). An event story begins with a world out of order and ends when order is reestablished.

Here Card discusses the event story:

In other words, the viewpoint character, not the narrator, is our guide into the world situation. We start with the small part of the world that he knows and understands and see only as much of the disorder of the universe as he can. It takes many days—and many pages—before Frodo stands before the council of Elrond, the whole situation having been explained to him, and says, “I will take the ring, though I do not know the way.” By the time a lengthy explanation is given, we have already seen much of the disorder of the universe for ourselves—the Black Riders, the hoodlums in Bree, the barrow wights—and have met the true king, Aragorn, in his disguise as Strider. In other words, by the time we are given the full explanation of the world, we already care about the people involved in saving it.

Too many writers of event stories, especially epic fantasies, don’t learn this lesson from Tolkien. Instead, they imagine that their poor reader won’t be able to understand what’s going on if they don’t begin with a prologue showing the “world situation.” Alas, these prologues always fail. Because we aren’t emotionally involved with any characters, because we don’t yet care, the prologues are meaningless. They are also usually confusing, as a half-dozen names are thrown at us all at once. I have learned as a book reviewer that it’s usually best to skip the prologue and begin with the story—as the author also should have done. I have never—not once—found that by skipping the prologue I missed some information I needed to have in order to read the story; and when I have read the prologue first, I have never—not once—found it interesting, helpful or even understandable.

It’s a longish article, but worth digging into.

Tweet: One of these four elements determines the structure of the novel.
Tweet: Orson Scott Card neatly explains why some prologues fail.
Tweet: A milieu story is begun by an arrival and ended by a departure.

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