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Short-Short Sighted — Bruce Holland Rogers

April 2009

Flash Fiction of Milieu: What It’s Like Here

  Artwork : Photo courtesy of the author.

Artwork : Photo courtesy of the author.

This is the eleventh column in Bruce’s series on writing the short-short story. You can visit the first installment, last month’s column, or his author page to view them all.

What are the basics of a good story? Well, there has to be a character, even if the character is something as untraditional as a personified chair. And the character has to do something, even if the action is as quiet as thinking. (There’s not much more that a personified chair can do, probably, but just wait and think about the people who sometimes sit on it.) Action, even action as static as sitting and thinking, requires an arena, a place where the action happens, though the reader will supply that if the writer leaves it out. Give the reader an actor and an action, and the reader will imagine a place. Finally, a good story must have a point. The point may be subtle enough that the reader isn’t able to paraphrase it, but if the reader can’t detect any point at all, the story will feel rather empty.

I won’t say that every story needs these elements. The fun of some experimental writing lies in leaving out things that every story “must have” and finding ways to please and satisfy the reader anyway. But for the vast majority of stories, the winning formula is a character in a setting acting to shape events in a way that gets the reader to say, “Huh!” or “Aha!” Character, Milieu, Event, Idea.

Pay attention to these elements when deciding how to structure a story. Orson Scott Card says that all stories must have Character, Milieu, Event, and Idea, but different stories will emphasize them in different proportions. To be more precise, Card actually says that all stories must have Milieu, Idea, Character, and Event. Not the most natural order for talking about how to create a story, but it does make for an easy-to-remember acronym: MICE.

The ratio between these elements is what Card calls the MICE Quotient. A story that is mostly about setting and the particular events that happen in that setting might have a MICE Quotient of 4:1:1:4. The point of the story is simply to give the reader the experience of the place and the events that happen there. The characters in the story may be stock types. Details about them aren’t important, so they get only a fourth of the attention allotted to Milieu and Event.

Actually, I’m making the Quotient more esoteric than Card himself does. The key aspects to understand about the Quotient are that usually one element of the four dominates the story, and that none of this is as pure or precise as the use of numbers might suggest. No one sits down to write a 5:3:1:2 story or a 4:1:1:4 story. But we can set out to write a story that will aim to mostly please the kind of reader who reads for milieu, or the kind of reader who reads for character.

I recommend reading Card’s own thoughts about the MICE Quotient in his books Characters & Viewpoint and How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy. In this column and the next three, I will consider how an emphasis on each MICE element in turn can be used to generate flash fiction.

Card observes that milieu stories (call them 4:1:1:1 stories) are common in science fiction and fantasy. If the main focus of a story is to take the reader on a tour of an imaginary place, the most logical way to tell it is to start the story with a character in the reader’s world, and have that character travel to the imagined world, wander about to look at all the interesting places, and then return to the reader’s world. A milieu story is the literary equivalent of tourism, and the reader’s chief pleasure is experiencing the imagined world. Fully developed characters or an elaborate plot would draw too much of the reader’s attention from the real star of the story, the place.

The pleasures of entering another world aren’t limited to SF and fantasy. The appeal of some historical novels is to give the reader the experience of living in eighteenth-century Vienna, say. Some literary novels set out to show the reader what it would be like to be a jazz musician living among jazz musicians in New York.

A story of milieu isn’t really over until the reader has a sense of the place, and if that place is eighteenth-century Vienna, it will be difficult to do the place justice in a short piece of writing. It might require a novel. Writing about milieu is about defining a space, and the bigger that space, the more words the writer will need to give the reader an adequate tour. The opposite is also true. If a space is small, then the writer might be able to get its essence across to the reader with only a page or two. Rather than delivering the experience of eighteenth-century Vienna, then, the short-short story might set out to reveal the essence of a garret apartment on Ebendorferstrasse where a series of students live while studying at the university.

As Card points out, milieu is not always a matter of physical setting. Milieu includes the social or cultural setting of a story. A novel about an alien world reveals not only what the alien houses look like, but what the mating customs and alien music are like. The culture of an alien world may take a novel to demonstrate, but the culture of one book club or a small motorcycle gang might be something that the writer could get across in a thousand words. Just as the whole of an alien culture can’t be conveyed in a few pages, one tradition or narrow set of practices might suit the short-short. How about the story that reveals how ogres bury their dead, and why, for hundreds of years, dead ogres have always been buried head down?

The pattern that Card suggests for longer stories (travel to new place, exploration, and return) can be abbreviated by skipping the transitions. The short-short lends itself to getting to the heart of things immediately. Rather than going on tour with an outsider, the short-short can let an insider already on-site explain his milieu to the reader.

The story for this month, “Unpleasant Features of Our New Address,” is an exaggerated version of my real living conditions in London. The characters are undeveloped. The action of the story is also simple and repetitive. The same events recur over and over, so that conditions keep getting worse without anyone doing anything to resolve them. The idea (as I see it, anyway) is expressed as a characteristic of the place and the people living there. Milieu is the controlling element, and once the portrait of the building and the shared attitude of its residents has been delivered to the reader, the story has done its job.

When you’re looking for ideas for a short-short story of milieu, my advice is to consider small spaces, small groups, or one custom or tradition. Write the story of the last two rows on the number 54 bus, the three smokers who huddle outside at the same time every day, or the tradition of hazing the new busboy that has hasn’t changed in the 29 years that the restaurant has been open.

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About the Author

Bruce Holland Rogers

The eyes of Bruce Holland Rogers

Bruce Holland Rogers has a home base in Eugene, Oregon, the tie-dye capital of the world. He writes all types of fiction: SF, fantasy, literary, mysteries, experimental, and work that’s hard to label.

For six years, Bruce wrote a column about the spiritual and psychological challenges of full-time fiction writing for Speculations magazine. Many of those columns have been collected in a book, Word Work: Surviving and Thriving as a Writer (an alternate selection of the Writers Digest Book Club). He is a motivational speaker and trains workers and managers in creativity and practical problem solving.

He has taught creative writing at the University of Colorado and the University of Illinois. Bruce has also taught non-credit courses for the University of Colorado, Carroll College, the University of Wisconsin, and the private Flatiron Fiction Workshop. He is a member of the permanent faculty at the Whidbey Writers Workshop MFA program, a low-residency program that stands alone and is not affiliated with a college or university. It is the first and so far only program of its kind. Currently he is teaching creative writing and literature at Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest, Hungary, on a Fulbright grant.

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