What is the Best Form for Your Story? (NaNo Prep 10)

Decide what you want, decide what you are willing to exchange for it. Establish your priorities and go to work. — H. L. Hunt

Focus is a matter of deciding what things you’re not going to do. — John Carmack

This is an optional step, so early in the game when everything is still subject to change. BUT if you know from this early what you want to do, it will be able to inform your entire process and lend a continuity that could streamline continuity.

Of course there are different kinds of stories, and of course they can all be summarized in a way that cynical people have used to belittle those who know stories’ power.

But categories and definitions are not limits or demeaning. In the right hands they are useful tools to streamline the work of writing those stories down.

One of those tools is Orson Scott Card’s MICE divisions of story. By consciously naming what territory your story intends to explore, you can make more effective choices about where your story starts and ends.

MICE stands for

  • Milieu
  • Idea
  • Character
  • Event

These designations cover a huge swath of story writing, fiction or non-fiction.

Milieu stories (click the link to hear how to pronounce it) are about the main character being dropped into a new setting (hence the “middle place” lable).

This story typically begins in earnest once the MC is in an utterly new setting, and ends shortly after the MC leaves the unique setting. The point of the story is as much an exploration of the scenery and setting as it is of the characters (on the the case of my last example, more about the setting).

Idea stories are most closely aligned to the detective or mystery novel. They begin with concealing, and end when the answer is revealed.

These you have to be careful with. Mystery readers are used to being in the dark and following your MC into the light, but readers of other genres may grow impatient if you hang your whole fantasy or (attempted) thriller on concealment.  Not all readers are patient enough for the slow unraveling of the villain’s plot.

On the other hand, short stories can use this to great effect (even for non-mystery settings) because readers don’t need as much patience to get to the end.

  • The Healer’s Keep (Idea story is one explanation for this non-mystery. You begin by asking who the MC really is, and why she’s valuable, and the story ends shortly after her great power is revealed.)
  • A Generous Death (Murder mystery novel. Also, technically a suspense novel, since the MC’s life is in danger.)
  • Princess of the Midnight Ball (Unraveling the mystery of the dancing princesses’ enchantment.)

Character stories are all about the Main Character changing. They usually begin with him/her miserable and feeling out of place in his/her world/country/village/ethnicity/gender and end with the MC coming to know him/herself and where s/he belongs in the community s/he is a part of.

These begin with the introduction of the character in question, right before something arrives to disrupt the status quo. Something in the MC’s world makes them start to change. The story ends when they have found their new place in the community that matters to them (old or new), or when they give up the struggle.  Either of these ending can be happy or sad, depending on the story being told.

Finally we have the Event story. Or another e-word would be Epic. These stories may have amazing, complex, and nuanced characters, but ultimately the story isn’t about them, it’s about the balance of good and evil in the world. Or, rather, the ballance of chaos and order. This isn’t to say the characters are unimportant. Due to the vast scale of the story the characters are critically important. They are what keep the reader bound up in caring about events that could be too big to comprehend.

This is why good journalist will start a story about AIDS orphans or homelessness by focusing on individuals’ stories, rather than rattling off statistics. Unless we are engaged with actual people, we are unlikely to be engaged.

The Event story begins when a previously stable environment is thrown into chaos. It ends when order is restored, a new order is established, or chaos pulls the whole world apart.

  • Lord of the Rings
  • Star Wars (the first trilogy, #s 4-6)
  • Gone with the Wind

Some of these stories can double as another type, without question.

Lord of the Rings, for example, could have been primarily about the character arc of Frodo Baggins, but it would have hugely narrowed the scope of the story.

Ultimately we know that it wasn’t a Character Story, because Frodo never reintegrates into his community. He remains estranged, not just on the outskirts, but in a type of exile or escape leaving the world entirely.

The actual question is Which type tells your story the best?

3 Comments

  1. Reply
    Kati October 10, 2013

    Looks like mine will be a character-based story….. After all, it’s about the character coming to terms, learning to deal with, her special ability, how it affects her life, and perhaps on how to manage it so that it helps her, rather than hinders, which she’s definitely feeling it is, at the beginning of the story. A hinderance, I mean.

  2. Reply
    Becky October 10, 2013

    Ooh, I love your inclusion of good feature journalism as an event story humanized by focusing on individuals!

  3. Reply
    Heather October 23, 2013

    Well, that confirms that I write usually write Epic, although I’ve always called them Adventure. I like knowing all about an event, but it’s even more interesting to me all the ways people respond to that event.

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