Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Are Their MICE in Your Stories?

Great new questions everyone. Beginnings, talking animals, prologues. Lots of fun stuff to discuss. Since I recently wrote an article about where each type of storyline begins, I thought I'd post some of it here. Be aware that this is not answeing Melinda's question exactly. But you kind of need to know about the beginnings and endings of storylines before you try and figure out where to start your book. So we'll do this today and do prologues, the beginning of the actual book, and of course talking animals tomorrow. And by the way, great feedback on villians everyone. It really makes doing this blog fun when everone chips in. So who is your favorite villian of all time?

A lot of times writers are unclear on where their novel should start and end. I don’t mean the first paragraph or page per se. That’s really more of a choice of what will hook the reader. What I’m talking about is the point of focus of the novel in which the story itself actually begins. I’ll be discussing this in more detail at the Storymakers conference, but here is a brief example of what I am talking about.

A good novel should usually have at least three storylines. Too many storylines, and you risk losing the reader’s focus. Too few and you go from a novel to a tale. Each storyline must start and stop at the proper point, in order to give your novel a good flow.

Orson Scott Card divides stories into four types, which he calls the MICE quotient. Stories can either be milieu (place driven), idea driven, character driven, or event driven.

A good example of a milieu driven story is Lord of the Rings. In a place driven story, the story is about exploring a place unfamiliar to the main character. The story begins with the discovery of the new world and ends with the wrap-up of the world. People who complained the third LOTR movie had too many endings didn’t understand that the story was not about the ring. Therefore it didn’t end with the ring’s destruction. It didn’t end with Frodo returning home, because it wasn’t about him. It was about the world, which is why we needed to find out everything that happened to the world.

An idea driven story is a story that revolves around a problem. In a mystery, a person may be killed. The story ends when the killer is caught, killed, escapes, or in some way leaves the story. Idea stories typically have lots of false turns and red herrings. Characters may be minimally fleshed out.

Romances are a great example of character driven stories. The character driven story begins when the protagonist finds his or her lot in life unbearable (bad husband, no husband, dull job, etc.) It ends when the protagonist either changes her life or comes to realize she is actually okay with their life.

Event driven stories are stories where the “world” is out of order. It begins when the main character tries to find a cure. It ends when the goal is achieved or when the character fails. The event can take many forms: a usurper, a betrayal of trust, or a crime unpunished.

By analyzing what type of story you have written, you will find it easy to locate the correct beginning and end.

Let’s use this tool to break down the first Harry Potter book.

Is there a problem Harry must solve? Yes it is the potential theft of the Sorcerer Stone. Who is trying to steal it and will HP and friends solve the mystery? It’s possible then, that HP1 could be an idea driven book. Except that the book does not begin or end with the mystery.

Moving on to milieu. Does the main character discover a new world? Obviously. A major part of the story is Harry discovering the world of magic. By seeing it through the eyes of a person who has never seen magic, we get to experience his delight as well. So HP1 could be a milieu. He does discover the world of magic before the issue involving the Sorcerer’s Stone, and he leaves the world after. So it could be a place story. But wait there’s more.

How about event? In almost every HP book, the world of magic and the world in general are in danger. In particular, Hogwarts itself is in danger of being shut down by one thing or another. And after Harry resolves the conflict, we learn that—for the moment, at least—Hogwarts is safe. Event? Maybe, but . . .

What every HP book starts and ends with is Harry being unhappy with his state in life. He is living in a closet, he doesn’t hear from his friends, he is possibly going to get kicked out, he has lost a loved one. And what is the last thing that happens in every book? Harry comes to settle with his current lot in life. By examining each of the storylines in HP 1, we determine that while there are elements of all story types (which is one of the things that gives the HP series such universal appeal), ultimately HP is a character driven story.

All of the above being said, you don’t have to start with the beginning of the main storyline—although you’ll almost always finish with it. It’s very common to start with a secondary story line. Tomorrow I will talk about the actual start of the book itself, including the pros and cons of using prologues. In the mean time take a look at your novel (or novel in progress and try to determine how many and what type of storylines you have going on)


Anna said...

That was a great post! My favorite villain of all time is either Sauron or Voldemort. I would say Gollum except that he is an anti-character. Which character do you think was Tolkien's best? Not exactly your favorite, but the one that he wrote best.

Melinda said...

Hmmm. Very good info. I'm going to analyze my ms now and so I'll be ready for tomorrow.

Thanks so much for the Q and A. It has been very helpful and insightful. And it's not every day that you get to ask an author something and get a timely response. You rock.

Do you mind if I link to this from my blog?

Melinda said...

On villains: here is a link that ranks the 30 best Disney villains and comments about each one. Some good ideas to think about how Disney designed their villains.

My favorite Disney villain is probably Yzma and her sidekick Kronk from Emperors New Groove.

Overall, I don't like villains much -which is probably the whole point. :-)

Queen of Chaos said...

This is a very well thought our post! You dig deep. :)

-Autumn Ables

Sean Ashby said...

I like my villains to be memorable. The most memorable ones usually have something that makes them unique, even though it can be a small detail. Captain Hook's has his hook for a hand; Darth Vader has that distinctive mask; Count Olaf has his acting troupe as well as his own aspirations for theatrical greatness; the White Witch of Narnia has her preferences for all things icy and cold; and the mother from "Coraline" and her buttons for eyes still creep me out to this day!

Voldemort actually struck me as pretty generic until I got to know more about his past, and eventually about his fear of death, and subsequent thirst for immortality.

Of course, a snazzy costume doesn't hurt either =)

Becky said...

I love this post. It's given me a lot to think about :)

Brian said...

Wow Scott-
That was a really good post. It well help me think a lot about the story I'm writing. By the way, my favorite villains of all time are Snape, even though he's not really a villain, Murtagh, Saruman, and Tigerclaw.

Anna said...

whoa Brian I forgot about Tigerclaw!!!! As good a villain as he is, Scourge REALLY creeped me out. I mean the way he killed Tigerclaw. And that image of the mountain of bones that Firestar saw....I was surprised at how spooked I was by those two last books in the cycle.

I love Scar as the Disney Villain, as also Jafar. I was excited to see them right next to 1 (Malifecsent...I know I didn't spell her name right.....). The Lion King and Aladdin are two of my all time favorites. The Lion King is SOOOO cool!