Friday, April 22, 2016

Of MICE and Men...

... and women, and gender-neutral pronouns, and folks who strongly self-identify as reincarnated Egyptian deities. Evetybody's welcome at The Blog of Doom, but the joke in the title demands alliteration.

With that understood, today I want to talk a bit about MICE.

okay but why are you shouting about mice

I AM A PIKA MOUSE AND I AM ACTUALLY QUITE CALM AT THE MOMENT! THIS IS JUST HOW I TALK!
So, MICE is an acronym - Milieu, Idea, Character and Event - and the balance between these four factors determines what can, must or should be in the story. Coined by Orson Scott Card in his excellent book on characters, I've found it to be an incredibly useful tool when trying to ascertain, what, exactly, a story is about. The idea is simple; every fiction story contains elements of each, but only one will wind up being the focus. And it's important to know the kind of story you're working on, and then do that.

Let's walk through it.

Milieu

Where does a story take place? In RPGs, we usually call this the setting, but the idea remains the same. The milieu includes not just the physical locations - one city, a sprawling wilderness, a series of curiously homogeneously-climated planets - with the associated sights, sounds and smells that come with the territory. It also includes the culture - social mores, laws and customs - the factors that shape how people think and react, and the choices they make.  


Lord of the Rings is a pretty good example of a Milieu story - the tale is really about Middle Earth, its people, their culture - and this informs what we do there. LotR starts way before the action, and only ends once Frodo and the Elves have departed Middle Earth forever - long after the climatic events have taken place.

The setting is the main character. We follow its journey, explore its depths, and we're not done until we've seen it all. 

Milieu stories are less common in fiction, but they actually show up a fair amount in video games and RPGs. A "discovery campaign" - where PCs plumb the secrets of a setting, learning cool new things at every turn - can be incredibly rewarding. "Sandbox"-style video games do this as well; Skyrim is a fine example of this, as while we've got two major plotlines in the civil war, and the rise of the dragons, those are things that are happening to the setting; the Dragonborn's just along for the ride.

Or not, if they don't feel like it.

And that gets to the heart of why milieu stories show up with more frequency in interactive media: if the player gets to decide what the story's about, then they'll go wherever they damn well please, and do as they wish. With less control over the other three factors, the milieu gets extra attention, and becomes the focus by default. 

Are you crafting a milieu story? If the setting is what really gets you exited, than probably. You still need strong characters, and something needs to happen to it all (unless you're writing a cultural "splatbook" for an RPG, in.  which case, you still need to provide idea seeds for GMs to make something happen in your beautiful setting), but if the focus is on the setting, then everything else can - and probably should - take a backseat to the milieu.

Idea

This is a classic structure; a problem or question is posed, and the story is concluded when we've answered the question, or solved the problem. Murder mysteries use this structure almost exclusively, as do heist/caper stories. Who killed this person? Once we know, we're done. How do we pull off this heist? The climactic scene is the heist itself, where we see how smoothly the protagonists' plan goes - usually not very - and then we call it a day.

Science fiction stories often use this structure too, but the title can be a bit deceiving. Technically, having some kind of "what if?" idea is a baseline requirement for something to be sci-fi in the first place, but that doesn't mean we're dealing with an idea story. 

If the idea is "what are the effects on society after a singularity?" that might be a milieu story.

If the idea is "How does Janice deal with the fact that her toaster's sentient and feels unloved?" that's probably a character piece. 

If the idea is "what happens when the singularity occurs?" it might be an event story.

But if the idea is "what happens to Dash Awesomelaser when all of his rad weapons gain sentience and become pacifists? How will he escape/triumph/not die horribly?"

A lot of RPG adventures follow this structure. Something has happened, and it's up to the PCs to get to the bottom of things/set it right/burn down the village because they're a bunch of amoral jerkwads/save the day. You get the picture.

Introduce problem. Story wraps when problem is solved. It goes without saying that an interesting idea is what's going to carry this kind of story.

Character

Not to be confused with "a story that has interesting characters," a character story is about someone trying to change their role in life. It starts when they find their current situation untenable, and they try to change; it ends when they've either succeeded in finding a new role, or given up, and returned to the old one.

It's worth talking about role a little bit here. Not to be confused with somebody's role in the story, a character's role in life is about their relationships with other people, and with society. If someone is happy, well-adjusted to their role in life, we don't really have a character story in the making. 
Affleck's done many fine things. But the character work in Jersey Girl is not among them, and the movie falls apart because of it.
A good example of a bad example.
So if you're wondering why so many stories are about unhappy people, this is why. Without enough dissatisfaction to leave their situation, we don't have a story; their tale begins when their role becomes unbearable. This doesn't always mean in a physical sense - you can have a character story about people who try to change a relationship without cutting the person out of their lives. In fiction - as in real life - this is incredibly difficult to manage, but it can lead to incredibly nuanced stories if done well.

Without conflict, we have no story. With conflict, we have story. Yay story!

It goes without saying that your characterization needs to be strong for this type of story to work.

Event

So, every story has events. Probably even a big, central conflict! But in an event story, the world is imbalanced somehow, and the story is about setting that right. It starts when the protagonists set out to heal the world from what ails it, and ends when they either succeed, or fail completely.

It's not hyperbole to suggest that the majority of stories are event-based. Evil forces what need stoppin' is a tale as old as history, and taps into some deep, primal stuff. The idea that the world should make sense, that there should be some kind of order, and that terrible things should be averted, or at least stopped? This is some fundamentally human stuff. 

So if you're wondering why we're always off to save the city/world/galaxy/space-time continuum from some Big Nasty, it's because the Big Event story is hardwired into our DNA. We've been telling these stories since we've been telling stories, and that's likely to continue.

So, if you're telling an event story, you need a compelling and credible threat, and addressing it should provide a palpable sense of relief. You also need to convey that the problem is actually a problem, and the world is genuinely better off without it

This is not to say that there haven't been very successful event stories that posit key societal values as The Problem - any tale about the evils of capitalism being told to a capitalist society qualifies - but if you want your story to work, the character's viewpoint needs to seem reasonable. Otherwise, they're the problem, because they're the ones looking to destroy society. 

They're the villain.

And you can have incredible stories about villains! Just recognize what you're doing, and do it on purpose. Which segues nicely into our conclusion:

A conclusion

Anytime you're telling a story, you're making an implicit contract with the audience. Whether your writing a song, GMing an RPG, whatever - you're implicitly telling your audience the kind of story you're going to tell them. And if they like what you're doing, they'll stick around to the conclusion of your story. Which is why it's so important to know what kind of story you're telling.

So if you begin with a murder, and focus on some characters who are interested in solving said murder, people can reasonably expect that, y'know, you will address that at some point. You've told them that the murder is important - you've told them that you're telling an idea story - and they'll hold you accountable to that.

If, on the other hand, the murder sets off a series of political maneuvering - and you focus on that in great detail - then you're communicating that this might be a milieu piece. Or maybe you focus on the murder victim's teenage child, struggling to cope with this massive change in their life, and how this has massively disrupted their life; in which case, people will expect you to resolve this character drama.

This doesn't mean you can't do both - but inexorably, one of these is going to be a subplot. We'll gladly follow the political fallout, and the child's search for identity - but you told us that this story was about solving a murder, so, y'know, you'll want to address that. Because you told your audience what this story was about. If you never resolve that, they'll feel betrayed - and not even in a fun, "George R.R. Martin, how could you?" kind of way - they'll feel like you lied to them. 

Don't do that.

Since I opened with a bit from Card's book, it seems like a good idea to wrap up with another:
"(Your audience) will expect the story to end when the first major source of structural tension is resolved."
Beginning a story is like throwing something out a window. No matter what happens before the end of the story, we're not done until that's resolved. Maybe it hits the ground. Maybe someone catches it. Maybe it develops self-awareness, and flies off into the sunset. 

But the story's not over until we know.