Writing Excuses 16.36: Deep Dive into “Milieu”
Key Points: Milieu, stories driven by a sense of place. Thresholds and environments. How do you get in, and how do you get out. Heist stories. Survival stories. Often coupled with event stories, shifting the status quo. Or a character story, a personal transformation. MICE helps you decide what to focus on. It also helps you decide when the story is over. How can you tell whether it is a milieu story or just a strong setting? Look for the entrance, exit, and conflicts in the middle. If the main goal is getting out, it’s probably a milieu. If your ending isn’t satisfying or your middle is sagging, check for misplaced MICE threads.
[Season 16, Episode 36]
[Dan] This is Writing Excuses, coming back with another M.I.C.E. Quotient episode, Deep Dive into “Milieu”.
[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 second episode of this new master class, where we are going to dig really deep into milieu. So, Mary Robinette, this is your class. Very quickly, catch us up on what we’re doing today.
[Mary Robinette] All right. So we’re going to look at milieu. So milieu is a fancy French word of saying place, but it just made the acronym better. So, in this episode, we’re going to be looking at how stories are driven by a sense of place. Milieu stories are all about thresholds and environments. These stories, they classically start when a character crosses a threshold. That threshold represents a transitional period in the character’s relationship with the location. Then, again, in a classic milieu story, we end when a character succeeds in exiting their transition and ending their journey. So what this means is that you can start something in one place, like you can start by say entering a spaceship and then exiting the spaceship and that spaceship is the milieu. Or you can start by say exiting New York City, driving across country, and then entering San Francisco. The drive across country is the milieu. So you do not have to… The threshold you cross does not have to be the same every time.
[C.L.] I have a quick question because when I was thinking about stories about places, just because of the way that my silly brain works, I was like, “Oh! Do you mean like heist stories?”
[Mary Robinette] Heist stories? Yes. Heist stories have a very strong milieu component. Because it is all about getting in and getting back out again. Yeah.
[C.L.] Yes. So I was, like, you mean like Leverage? Because they’re always like just… Always the thing where they have to get into a location, succeed at the thing that they need to do in that location, and then get out again. I mean, there are other things that are going on in the story, but that’s what we came for. That’s what it says on the tin.
[Mary Robinette] Yeah. That’s a…
[Dan] Yeah. I…
[Mary Robinette] Go ahead, Dan.
[Dan] I would suggest survival stories fit into this really well. Stuff like Die Hard and Jurassic Park. You enter a dangerous location and then you have to live through it. Then the story ends when you successfully leave.
[Charlotte] Does this mean that Annihilation has to be a milieu story, by this definition?
[Mary Robinette] That is correct.
[Charlotte] Which makes me think also about my idea that Annihilation is a kind of a nice way to satisfy the itch of the popular like science fiction kind of story structure of here is a new planet that we are going to check out. It’s going to have all these great things. This is like Star Trek, the original series, was all about this. The other thing that I was thinking of just flew out of my mind. So give me a moment, I’ll try to remember it.
[Mary Robinette] But these are exactly the things. One of the things that I’m going to point out is that with Leverage and Star Trek, that these are often coupled with event stories. That there is a status quo element that they are attempting to shift, in addition to navigating this place. So when you’re looking at… When you’re thinking about the milieu and you’re thinking about these examples that we’re tossing out, concentrate in your mind on the conflicts that are around the place versus the conflicts that are around the shift in status quo. One of the things that’s cool with things like Leverage is that that shift in status quo is often the excuse for the milieu exploration. So when I was talking earlier about… In the first episode about a light frame or a minor thread, that’s the kind of thing that I’m talking about. Whereas in Star Trek, the navigation of the space varies. A lot of times, it is that they are trying to right some terrible wrong and that’s your major thread. But it varies episode by episode.
[Charlotte] I just remembered what I was thinking out. I was thinking of the movie Labyrinth. Because that basically… Like, it’s a milieu story, because you have to… She has to get through the labyrinth to rescue her brother. But also, the labyrinth is a symbol of where she’s basically going through a personal transformation. So as she goes through the labyrinth, she is discovering herself.
[Mary Robinette] Yes. That is a great example. Indeed.
[Dan] So is that… Maybe this is… I don’t know. Let me start my question over. Is that something you would describe as a nested story that is a character story framing a milieu story?
[Mary Robinette] Yes.
[Dan] The reason that I kind of prevaricated a little when I started the question is I thought, “Well, how important really are these definitions?” Then I thought, “Well, very important, because we’re doing eight episodes about them.”
[Dan] So, one thing that I say to people a lot of the time is you don’t need to really stress about these very granular definitions of specific writing things. But this is a case where we are. So let me just ask, what do we gain by the revelation that, yes, the Labyrinth is actually a milieu nested inside of a character? What does that teach us and how does that help us when we get that specific with it?
[Mary Robinette] So, at the beginning of Labyrinth, she’s faced with a couple of problems. She’s trying to get the baby to sleep. She wants to spend time for herself. The thing that she winds up needing to solve is getting the baby back. Right? And getting out… Which she solves by getting out of the labyrinth. But the thing that she is not spending time on is trying to get the baby to sleep. Like, she’s not spending time on trying to entertain her little brother. None of that is important. That… The M.I.C.E. Quotient helps us decide what thing we are focusing on. So that’s the thing that it’s doing. The… In… Trying to think of another example of a thing where it’s like we could have… Oh. Here it is. Let me use Wizard of Oz again. At the beginning of Wizard of Oz, when Dorothy runs away, she ends up at Prof. Marvel’s. He says to her, “You don’t have to go looking any further for adventure than your own backyard.” Had she taken that advice and come home, the story would have ended right there. So what the M.I.C.E. Quotient can help you do is decide not to resolve a conflict, because you need it to keep going through the entire story. Does that make sense about…
[Mary Robinette] [garbled a few sources]
[Dan] I think that makes a lot of sense. I would further say, and you covered this a little bit in the first episode, knowing that there is a character conflict wrapped around our milieu conflict helps you know when the story is over, as well. If Labyrinth ended when she escaped the labyrinth without having learned anything… Like C said, it’s about her kind of finding herself and learning who she is. If we didn’t get that resolution, and we just get the triumphant “Yay, we got out of the labyrinth,” it would feel unfinished.
[Mary Robinette] Yeah. The example that was given to me when this was first explained to me is if you’re reading a story and it begins with a mystery and there’s a dead body on the floor and the detective comes and he’s talking to the widow and over the course of the novel, the detective and the widow fall deeply and passionately in love and the story ends with them getting married and living happily ever after, but you never find out who did the murder… You would track the author down…
[garbled murder… We need to know…]
[Dan] Really, the detective did the murder because he wanted to meet this hot widow.
[Mary Robinette] Right. Or the hot widow did it because she was wanting to meet the detective. I mean…
[Mary Robinette] We don’t know.
[Dan] We don’t know.
[Charlotte] We’ll never know.
[Mary Robinette] That’s what it does, is it helps you identify those things that the reader is just going to be gnawing their arm off because you didn’t answer the question that you raised at the beginning.
[Dan] All right. Well, I’m going to continue this discussion a little bit with our book of the week. Because this week, we want to talk about my middle grade trilogy, The Zero Chronicles. The reason that we wanted to pitch this one this week is because each book takes a slightly different tack on the M.I.C.E. Quotient. So the first two are very clearly milieu stories. Zero G is about being in a spaceship. Dragon Planet is about being on a planet. The story begins effectively when they are kind of thrown out of the station, the colony where they live, and they have to survive in the wilderness. The story ends when they get back to civilization and they have survived. The third one though is very different. Stargazer is more about an inquiry. There is a mystery going on, what happened to the missing spaceship, and the story ends when they solve it. So depending on the type of M.I.C.E. Quotient element that you focus on, it can be very different. But, anyway, everyone go read the Zero Chronicles by Dan Wells because they’re amazing.
[Mary Robinette] Yes. Yes, they are. Actually, I listen to them on Audible, as does my dad, and we both enjoy them quite a bit.
[Dan] Aw. Thank you very much.
[Mary Robinette] Neither of us are middle grade. So, there.
[Mary Robinette] Fun for all ages.
[Mary Robinette] Charlotte, before the break, it looked like you had a thought. I just wanted to check in with you.
[Charlotte] I did have a thought. So, you’ve mentioned that milieu begins when a character crosses a threshold, and it ends when you and that thread, when the character succeeds in exiting their transition. But can you have a milieu thread where the character does not get out of wherever it is that they are in? Is that possible?
[Mary Robinette] Yes. It is extremely tricky to pull off in a satisfying way. So there’s a famous play called No Exit with… Which is basically people in Hell, and it’s an exploration of the idea that Hell is the… Is other people and there is no exit. So that is an example of just like enduring. The problem with these things… With something where the character doesn’t exit is that you have to hit a point where the reader understands that this is really final and understands why they have given up trying…
[Mary Robinette] That’s difficult to do in a… Go on.
[Charlotte] Otherwise, as a reader, they’ll just be frustrated and hate the book?
[Mary Robinette] Well, it’s like, “Why didn’t… Why don’t they keep… Why did they give up? Why don’t they keep trying?”
[Mary Robinette] Yeah. It’s a little frustrating.
[Charlotte] It’s frustrating.
[Mary Robinette] But it… If you can deliver it as a this is a design element. But it often winds up having them feel hopeless. So that’s if it is a straightahead milieu. The other piece of it is that I’ve seen at work successfully is when it is paired with a character story in which the character gets up to the point at which they could exit, and then they choose not to. So the point where they have the option to leave the space, it means that they have successfully navigated and they have the solution… Yes, yes, I can get out of here. But they choose not to take it because it fulfills a character choice. I have seen that work successfully in a number of cases.
[Charlotte] Okay. Great. Thank you.
[C.L.] I have another question really quick. I was just thinking about how place is, as we all know, extremely important to science fiction and fantasy stories. That… Like, it’s kind of… Like, it’s the marquee feature of a science fiction and fantasy story is that it is taking you to a place that is not like where you are. How… What are the markers that tell you whether you are writing a milieu story or whether you just have a really strong setting?
[Mary Robinette] So, for me, it is all about… There are three markers. There is where you start and stop the story. Then there’s the stuff that’s happening in the middle. So the question to ask is, are they trying to get out? Are they trying to… Is their goal to exit? If their goal is to exit, then it’s probably a milieu story. There are, like… Being in a high school, walking into a high school, you can treat that as a milieu story. Because no one’s goal is to live in a high school. No one’s goal is to permanently… Like, to never graduate. So, arguably, that is a milieu. Whereas someone who enters a university and wants to get a tenure track, that is arguably an event story, because they’re trying to change their status quo. Even though both of them are going to involve navigating elements of the place as a new place. Does that make sense?
[C.L.] It does. Thank you.
[Mary Robinette] I say arguably because people can argue other thing. Like, the main thing about this is it really is about helping the writer make decisions about how to focus the story. I should say, as we are going into this, that I have definitely seen examples… And we’ve all read them, of things that do not nest, and that’s just fine. But I have found that if you… If your ending is not satisfying or if your middle is sagging, that frequently it’s because you’ve got a thread that is misplaced.
[Mary Robinette] So with that, I think we should probably do a little bit of homework.
[Dan] I agree.
[Mary Robinette] So, the homework that we’re going to have for you, you’re going to be doing a variation of this homework for this… For each episode. What I want you to do is I want you to pick a fairytale, something that you’re fond of. The reason I want you to pick a fairytale is because they tend to be fairly simple, but also have lots of weird extraneous elements in them. I want you to tell that fairytale so that it is only a milieu story. So, for instance, Goldilocks and the Three Bears. In the classic Goldilocks and the Three Bears, she goes out, she visits this house, she pokes around in the house, she breaks things, and then the bears come, and she runs away. So in a milieu story, Goldilocks would go into the meadow, then she would go into the house, she would look around the house. But she wouldn’t necessarily break things, because that is a shift of the status quo. Then she would leave the house. The bears would never come home. She would never see the bears. She would just leave the house because she had finished exploring. She can break things, it’s not that you’re not allowed to have events happen. But they aren’t the drivers. So the drivers are all about her exploring.
[Dan] It seems also like the… If you cut out all other M.I.C.E. Quotient stuff, you would not have the inquiry of whose house is this, why are there three weird things, and then answer that with the bears. So that would just be removed completely.
[Mary Robinette] Exactly. Like, again using our Wizard of Oz example, if we cut Wizard of Oz down to just a milieu, Dorothy just arrives in Oz. The tornado that messes her house… That… Messes with the farm? We never see Kansas. We just see her arrive in Oz. Then we don’t need to meet the Tin Man, the Cowardly Lion, or the Scarecrow, because they all exist to teach Dorothy something about herself. We don’t need the ruby slippers, because that’s the inquiry of how do I get out of here. Then when we get to the end, we just get in the balloon and go.
[Dan] So it sounds like kind of what we’re asking you to do with this homework is to fundamentally break a story and make it less interesting and less effective.
[Mary Robinette] Yes. That is exactly what we’re asking you to do with this. This is why I tell you that single thread stories are usually pretty dull. So, I am not recommending that you tell stories this way. But I want you to be able to identify what the elements are.
[Dan] Perfect. Great. Well, that is going to be some exciting and different homework for you. So dig into that. We will see you next week. For now, you are out of excuses. Now go write.