Tuesday, July 05, 2005

MICE in the House

I finished Orson Scott Card's book on writing science fiction the other day. I found one of his points very interesting, as it was something I hadn't considered before. According to Card, all science fiction stories can be grouped into four categories: milieu stories, idea stories, character stories, and event stories. This, of course, gives the amusing acronym of "MICE," hence the subject of this post. A milieu story is an exploration of the world the author has created. Gulliver's Travels is a classic example of this. The main point of the book is to experience the strange worlds the protagonist visits; ultimately, we don't really care what happens to the protagonist himself -- and in this case, he really doesn't change much at all. An idea story is often a "what-if" story. What if, for example, Kennedy had not been assassinated in 1963? Stephen Baxter's Voyage explores this very idea, with particular focus on what might have happened to America's space program. The idea story focuses on carrying an idea to its logical conclusions and imaging how things might occur as a result. (Interestingly, this is the main type of story that Ben Bova discusses in his book -- he doesn't address the others all that much.) A character story is closest to literary fiction. How does the character change and grow as a result of the story's events. Holly Lisle's Fire in the Mist is a good example or showing how a character can be affected by her surroundings and the events of the story. While this type of story can appear in almost any genre, in a science fiction story, it should be that key science element of the setting that precipitates the change in the character. The final category, the event story, is a story that -- obviously enough -- focuses on a specific event and its consequences. H.G. Wells War of the Worlds or the movie Independence Day are both classic examples of this. While all four characteristics will likely appear in every story (the milieu may be what is affecting the character, or characters could be changed by an event), each story is organized around its primary theme. Card notes that if you recognize the type of story you have written, then there's no longer any question as to when the story should begin or end. War of the Worlds begins with the start of the alien invasion and ends when the aliens are defeated. A character story begins when the character realizes he needs to change (or that a change is coming) and ends when the change is complete (for good or ill). It's an interesting and useful system.

My thoughts are that milieu stories would be hard to sell. They can become travelogs much too easily, and these just aren't all that interesting to read for most people. I think milieu stories also draw writers who have spent such a great deal of time researching and creating their background, that they really want to share it with their readers ("I suffered for my art. Now it's your turn."). According to Bova (who was editor of Analog magazine and therefore is in a position to know), idea stories are the easiest to sell to magazines. I can see why. Idea stories are often uniquely science fiction and have consequences that can easily be explored within the context of short fiction. The other three types often need to be a bit longer to fully resolve their conflicts.

At first, I actually thought milieu stories were the kind of story I liked to write, but in looking at the things I've written so far, I think most of them are actually character stories -- and that surprises me. One of the things that has always attracted me to writing is that I want to live in these societies of the future. I want to know what it is like to be a citizen of these eras. Writing lets me play in these worlds for a little while, at least in my imagination. Ultimately, it seems what really interests me is not the world itself, but the people that live and interact in that world, since that gives me a feel for what it would be like for me to live there. I imagine that's probably the attraction of character stories for me.

As I mentioned, there are elements of all four types in every good story, but the prudent writer knows what the focus of the story is. This keeps you (and your tale) on track and moving along at a good dramatic pace. I think this one piece of advice from Card will help me more than anything else I've read in a quite a while!

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