Smoke and Mirrors: Milieu by Deception

I use the analogy of torches and hallways to choose what I show during milieu exploration. However, how do I choose the extent to which I build and leverage my milieus? Knowing myself, I’ve tried discovery writing to combat world builder’s disease. Inevitably, however, I end up finding missed opportunities in my prose. Brandon Sanderson has described writing as a performance craft akin to magic, but then, what are the key elements of an illusion? I can identify four: the buy in, the distraction, the implication and the payoff. I can write posts about each of the four elements, so for the moment, I’ll focus on the middle two, the smoke and mirrors of magic.

First, I sketch my milieu so that I can see the path of the through-line and subplots, filling in detail as necessary. To add depth, I pick a few elements that are tangentially related and develop them for later use. I then recheck my milieu for consistency and to ensure that the details that will drive my character’s motivations are reasonable individually and when taken in as a whole.

With the frame work established, I determine which milieu points are truly critical to the plot and obscure them. Like a magician, I seek to draw attention away from the hand that is actually doing the work and to something less important. Frequently, milieu is used to do this for some other story element. But how am I going to pull off the obfuscation? Am I going to take a page out of Dan Well’s book and explain something simple and unimportant in great detail to buy the reader’s trust on something more complicated later? Or am I going to make my protagonist ignorant about the details and have the discovery of those details feature as part of the plot? Both of these techniques risk losing the reader, but can be powerful when used effectively.

Distractions in place, I can work on my shaping my audience’s perceptions. The implication that something impressive or magical is about to happen engages the audience’s imagination to do work. So then, what scenes and scenery establish not only the plausibility, but the inevitability of the climax? How can I use my prose to imply depth to the world beyond what I need to show directly? One technique I love is to mention details in passing, especially in dialogue. By mentioning a pizza joint where to characters shared experienced, I’ve established history, character and setting, all in a few lines.

Using distraction and implication, I not only shape reader sympathy, but get the most mileage out of a limited milieu. By thinking of how my milieu not only supports, but shapes the plot, I am able to refine what I build and show to the most essential components. Not only does it strengthen my story, but helps control the temptations of world builder’s disease and leaves my milieu open enough to be flexible for sequels and beyond.


Beginning the Discussion: What support function do your milieus fulfill in the greater scheme of your works?


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