Fifteen minutes long, because you're in a hurry, and we're not that smart.

16.39: Deep Dive into “Event”

Your Hosts: Dan Wells, C.L. PolkCharlotte Forfieh, and Mary Robinette Kowal

Our fifth M.I.C.E. Quotient episode focuses on the “Event” element, and explores how to use disruption of the status quo as the driving element for story. From plumbing problems to alien invasions, event stories are often structured by telling how difficult it is to return to normal, whether you’re getting the aliens off the planet, or the water back into the pipes.

Credits: This episode was recorded by Marshall Carr, Jr., and mastered by Alex Jackson.

Homework: Use the same fairy tale as last week, and strip out every element that is not Event.

Thing of the week: When Sorrows Come, by Seanan McGuire.

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As transcribed by Mike Barker

Key points: Event stories are driven by disruptions of the status quo, the normal. They tend towards externally driven conflicts. Begin with a disruption of the status quo, end either with a restoration of the old or a new status quo. Events happen! But mostly, sequences of breaking, over and over and over. Cascades following one decision. But not just big events, small disruptions too. Obstacles are when each action further disturbs the status quo. Complications are when one problem opens up a different problem. Focus on where the characters are expending effort, what are they trying to solve. External events can be overwhelming, how do you avoid that? First, every try-fail cycle does not need to be the same size, or have the same difficulty. So, control pacing by picking smaller events and consequences, and stacking them. Make a list of possible problems, and slowly escalate them. Consequences are what matters to the character. When you start a story, you have a million choices. When you get to the climax of a story, you only have one. Gradually take away choices, close doors, until there is only one left. Make it a hard choice!

[Season 16, Episode 39]

[Dan] This is Writing Excuses, Deep Dive into Event.

[C.L.] 15 minutes long.

[Charlotte] Because you’re in a hurry.

[Mary Robinette] And we’re not that smart.

[Dan] I’m Dan.

[C.L.] I’m C.L.

[Charlotte] I’m Charlotte.

[Mary Robinette] And I’m Mary Robinette.

[Dan] We are back with the fifth episode of our M.I.C.E. Quotient master class. So excited to have you all here for it. Today we’re going to talk about the fourth and final element, event.

[Mary Robinette] Right. So event stories are driven by disruptions of normal. These are… Tend to be very externally driven conflicts. They began when a status quo is disrupted, and end when it is restored or there’s a new status quo. So many things that we think of as plot are actually event. There’s a tendency I’ve noticed among particularly science fiction and fantasy readers to think that the big actions that are happening are all of the plot, and they forget that all of the other pieces are also plot.


[Mary Robinette] But event is all of the things that happen. But it’s mostly about things breaking over and over and over again. It’s that thing that happens in the real world where you’re like, “I’m just…” And I should say, we are having our bathroom remodeled as we are recording this.


[Mary Robinette] The cascading effect of making one decision to change a status quo, which is, let’s have a new bathroom, winds up impacting everything else. Because once you decide that you’re going to peel up the floor, then you discover that since your grandfather built the house, that the floor beams are actually two by sixes instead of two by tens which is standard for a floor. So that then in turn breaks their ability to put in water lines and air conditioning because they have to fit them into smaller spaces. Also, then you have to have things reassembled. Then, when you’re trying to record a podcast, there are contractors who are constantly coming in and interrupting. None of you have heard any of this because we have solved it by managing to record around things. But it is this cascading chain led from one decision to make one change in the status quo that is then breaking all the rest of my normal. Good times.

[Charlotte] Good times. I’m so glad that you said that, because I think certainly for me when I was starting out with event, I always thought of it is something massively big, explosions, a meteor coming, Independence Day type thing, but it can actually be something much, much smaller, like a bathroom or a tap on your sink breaking, something like this. Anything that disrupts the status quo, or your normal. Right?

[Mary Robinette] That is absolutely correct. So, again, as you say, this is… But a lot of times when we think about ramping up the tension in event stories, we think about needing to make things bigger and bigger and bigger. It’s really just about this cascade of normal breaking, that you attempt to fix something and not only does it not work, but something else breaks next to it. So, again, in the obstacle versus complication thing, obstacles in this form are when each action causes the status quo to become more disturbed. So, again, in small frame world, if someone has a problem with their boss, that’s an external problem. That’s not the problems they have with themselves, that’s an external problem. So they want to change that status quo. They go to HR to try to resolve it. That action then directly causes them to get fired. So that’s an obstacle. It’s where they tried to change something and a problem in the same thread line causes it to just go wrong. Complications are when a question opens up to a different problem. So someone has a problem with their boss. They go to HR. That, in turn, leads to them being held prisoner by terrorists. Who are the terrorists? Where did they come from? This is heading things in a completely different way. So these are… This is the kind of thing that you’re looking for. I mean, you could make the argument in some cases that this is a continuation of a disruption of status quo. I am thinking of it is kicking off an inquiry thread about who are these people and the milieu of escaping a hostage situation.

[Dan] Yeah. I was going to say, event is the one that is the hardest for me to get my head around. Is that your experience as well? Is there something trickier about event, or am I just thinking about it wrong?

[Mary Robinette] I think that it is that… Because event is action driven, everything feels like it’s an event. Stories are inherently about change. That’s a thing that happens in stories. So when you’re looking at… Let’s say that you’re doing a milieu story and your characters… Let’s say your characters crash land on a planet. If they arrive on the planet, that is definitely a milieu story and the thing that they’re trying to solve is getting off the planet. If they are explorers and they land under a controlled set up in the story begins after they have already arrived on the planet and they are attempting to… Their ship breaks. Okay, the ship breaking is, at this point, an event. Because it has disrupted their status quo. Because they’re supposed to be there and they’re supposed to be exploring. Whereas if they are crashing on the planet, if they are there unexpectedly, and trying to leave, their primary goal is to leave the planet and fixing the event of the problem with the ship is incidental to the primary thrust, which is getting off and surviving the planet. That’s why it is… With this one, and with all of them, the question that you’re looking at and the thing that is often the deciding factor isn’t necessarily… I mean, a lot of it is where you start and stop. But a lot of it is what are they trying to solve. Where are they expending their effort? In a murder… If someone is murdered and you put the focus, the primary effort goes into trying to answer questions, that’s an inquiry. If the primary focus goes into learning to live after this person has been murdered, and someone else’s dealing with the question of who did it, there are detectives who are going off and solving things. But the focus of the story is on how does the widow survive, how does the widower learn to fold his own laundry… It’s a little bit of gender stereotyping, and…


[Mary Robinette] We’re just going to roll with it right now. My husband is actually the one who does laundry in our household. So… But this is… That’s the… One of them, the focus is on trying to establish a new normal, and the other is on trying to answer a question. That tells you the kind of conflicts that go in the middle and where you’re putting your emphasis.

[Dan] Okay. So, as with some of the other ones we’ve looked at, the value then of figuring out what kind of story, which of the four M.I.C.E. elements you’re dealing with is that it helps you to focus your story and it helps you take it in the right direction, so that you’re not spinning off like you said into story bloat and adding unnecessarily unnecessary elements because you know more exactly what your story is about.

[Mary Robinette] That is correct.

[Mary Robinette] Actually, I’m going to talk… Pause here to talk about our book of the week, because I think that’s a good example of this, and the trickiness there. So I am the audiobook narrator for Seanan McGuire. Also, currently, as we are recording this, I am in the process of recording When Sorrows Come which is her new book. When you hear this, it will be out. It’s book 15 in the October Daye series, so FYI. But the thing about these books is that they are a combination inquiry-event with character going on as well. But the thing about the inquiry… Toby is a detective, and there are things that she needs to answer. But really, when you’re signing up for the books, what you’re interested in is watching her kick some ass. So the primary driver in a lot… Is arguably that these are event books. Chaos just surrounds her, things are constantly going wrong. She’s constantly getting stabbed, she’s constantly needing to solve problems. There is much less emphasis put on the actual detecting. The detecting exists is a set up to give us all of the events that go wrong. Are we there and interested in it? Yes. Does it need to carry weight? Absolutely, because it’s a novel, and it has multiple threads. But the driver for most of this is about this… These events, these things going wrong. There’s also character stuff that’s happening that is wonderful. There’s… It’s kind of a constant coming-of-age. But it is a coming-of-age that is always being kicked off by things going terribly, terribly wrong. And that affecting everything else in Toby’s life. I like these books a lot. I enjoy narrating them. I… In every book, Seanan makes me cry while narrating.


[Mary Robinette] So, I highly recommend them. I get better as a narrator, FYI, over the course of 15 books. So don’t judge me too harshly on the first books. But…


[Dan] But that was… The new one is When Sorrows Come. Correct?

[Mary Robinette] When Sorrows Come by Seanan McGuire. Yes. It…

[Dan] Awesome.

[Mary Robinette] Is absolutely a… It is status quo disruptions, just constant status quo disruptions. Like, we’re going to check this thing out. Then the process of checking this thing out causes someone to get killed. The process of checking out how they get killed causes someone else to get killed. This is not a spoiler if you ever read an October Daye novel.


[Charlotte] So, with an event story, if it’s about action, external things happening, status quo’s being disrupted, how do you keep that from becoming overwhelming? Like, something happens and then something else happens and then another thing happens and it’s all related, it’s all consequence and staying in the same M.I.C.E. element. I guess it’s a question about pacing, really. Like, how to control that?

[Mary Robinette] Yeah. So, pacing… The… One of the things that I misunderstood what I was first learning to apply the M.I.C.E. elements to things is thinking that every try-fail cycle had to be the same size, and that they all had to be the same levels of difficulty. So, similarly, that I that all of the consequences had to ramp up at the same proportional level.


[Mary Robinette] So one of the things that you can do when you’re trying to control pacing through the events that happen in the consequences of those events is to think about smaller consequences and stacking them. Sometimes what I will do is I will make a list of possible consequences, things that can go terribly wrong. Then I’ll… This is in a… I should say, this is in a phase when I’m stuck and brainstorming. It is not the way I just… Normally I just write. But when I’m stuck and brainstorming, I’ll list the consequences and then I’ll rank them in kind of best case scenario to worst-case scenario.


[Mary Robinette] Then remove the best case scenario and sort of dole out the worst-case scenarios in a slowly escalating piece of rolling disasters.

[Charlotte] Right. This is all…

[Mary Robinette] But, like pacing is… Go ahead.

[Charlotte] No, I was going to say, this is always in relation obviously to your character, because what is devastatingly awful to me might not be the same for my sister or my friend. So it’s always with the character in mind, right, the list of consequences?

[Mary Robinette] Yeah.

[Charlotte] Yeah.

[Mary Robinette] Right, right. Exactly. Because you’re thinking about the character’s status quo being disrupted. Although… So it is their sense of normal and their place in the world. The world being disrupted, for instance, there are big disruptions like the horrible disruptions happening in Greece right now as we’re recording this. Terrible, terrible fires. Those are not affecting me. So it is a disruption of the status quo, but it is not a disruption to my status quo. C?

[C.L.] There was something I wanted to add around pacing. One thing that really got my head around the concept of pacing was the idea that when you begin a story, you have a million choices. When you get to the climax of the story, you have one. Pacing is all about taking choices away, gradually. Closing more doors until there is only one thing left to do.

[Dan] Oh, that’s brilliant.


[Mary Robinette] I’m sitting here going, “Yeah. Yeah, because it really is…” It is about getting to… Trying to get them to a point where it’s an impossible choice, it’s a choice that is hard.


[Dan] Yeah.

[Mary Robinette] Yeah. Speaking of things that are hard, should I give them homework?


[Dan] I think that’s great.

[Mary Robinette] All right. Grab your fairytale. You are going to attempt to strip out everything except the event stuff. So with Goldilocks and the Three Bears, the three bears come home, there is a home intruder in the bear’s home. Furniture has been broken. They have to drive this little blonde girl out of their home. Their dinner has been eaten, they have to re-make dinner. Papa Bear has to repair furniture. Then, and only then, after they have restored their status quo, are they truly safe.

[Dan] Awesome.

[Mary Robinette] Or there’s a home intruder and Papa Bear just kills her. Now they have to live with the consequences.


[garbled… Porridge. What are you doing, Papa Bear? I’m retiring.]


[Dan] Okay. So I want to ask, and I know this is homework, but I want to dig into this for a second. Is there a way to cast Goldilocks and the Three Bears as an event story from Goldilocks’ point of view without making it just a milieu story?

[Mary Robinette] So, it is about a disruption to the status quo. If we start…

[Dan] If we start the story when she’s in the house and the bears show up?

[C.L.] I think in this case…

[Dan] I don’t know.

[C.L.] Goldilocks and the Three Bears, as an event story, Goldilocks is the antagonist.

[Mary Robinette] Yeah. Yeah. The only… Like… I think if you… Huh. So, it is about a change in the status quo. If Goldilocks wants to make a change in the status quo, then she would need… What does she want to change? Goldilocks. Goldilocks’ mom won’t cook her lunch. You have to start it at a different point.

[Dan] Okay.

[Mary Robinette] Goldilocks’ mom won’t cook her lunch and is trying to force her to take a nap. She doesn’t want anything to do with that. So she is going to make a forcible break from her family and she’s going to run away from home. It gets back into character again.


[Mary Robinette] Wow. I’m not sure. I think there’s got to be a way to make Goldilocks an event story.

[Dan] Well, rather than puzzle over it now, that’ll be a bonus homework. If anyone comes up with a really good one, let us know.

[Mary Robinette] Yeah.

[Dan] But, for now, you are out of excuses. Go write.