Every Milieu Starts with an Island

A friend I once DMed for asked me for help with a game he was having trouble with.  Significant amounts of tea and conversation later, we found that his milieu was too aggressive for the story he was trying to tell.  Having been there myself, I gave him the best advice I could.  Every milieu, no matter how large or small can be defined as an island.  Not necessarily in the geographical sense, but still an island.

By definition, islands have boundaries that limit movement because the means to leave doesn’t exist, isn’t available or isn’t worth the trouble right now.  You can see and maybe even interact with the world beyond those boundaries and they will effect what happens on your island, but for now, you are limited to this space.  The boundaries of your island can be a geographic feature just as easily as they could be days of travel to the next point of interest or some obligation that holds you to the space you currently occupy.  For most people, the island is defined by how far we can travel after work on a Friday, but still clock in on time Monday morning.  More significantly, it’s how far we deem it worthwhile to travel in that amount of time.  He had to start the story by describing somewhere, so pick an island and figure out a reason why his characters couldn’t leave right away.  They would inevitably wander off, but the island would be an initial playground to establish the rules of the world.  After he left, I lingered and thought for a while.  Why do I start with islands when I world build?

First, it focuses my work and staves off world builder’s disease.  If I have a relatively small, defined space to start with, I am less likely to get caught up planning out each member in the lineage of a royal family across the continent.  As I world build and shape the plot, I will allow secants to fill in essential gaps, but always force myself to step back to the island.  Fill in what is necessary, now, and work out the rest later.

Second, I have found that starting with the island helps reduce reader learning curve.  I will have to devote words to overcoming that curve and if I limit the scope of my first milieu, I can explore in greater depth.  I can then use that first work as a stepping off point to explore the area outside my island later.  At that point, I would only need to remind readers of things I’ve already told them.

Finally, I think that it is human nature to feel comfortable with boundaries.  When confronted with too much at once, we feel overwhelmed and uncomfortable.  Readers that are confused, or even worse, feel stupid will put down your book.

In the end, defining my island always comes down to the same thing.  What do I need to tell my story?

Beginning the Conversation: What would happen if you were to drop everything in your life right now and pick a direction to drive in until you ran out of gas?


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