Torches and Hallways: Exploring Your Milieu

While there are some readers who revel in massive, lovingly crafted milieu, I believe that it would be a mistake to write a book without character, idea or events to support and flesh out the milieu.  The question becomes then, how do you choose what parts of your world to show and when?  When you have built so much, what is important?  How much do you need to show?

As an example, we have established that Alicia the Archaeologist has risked reputation, her personal fortune and her career on an expedition that she believes will uncover the tomb of Pharaoh Whatshisface.  Her funding is running low and if she doesn’t find something to bring back to her financers within the next few days, they will no longer be able to justify the expense of her expedition and intend to cut her off.  Alicia believes that there is artifact that was buried with Pharaoh Whatshisface whose recovery will secure funding for many years to come.  The chapter three ends with Alicia discovering the entrance to Whatshisface’s tomb, cracking it open and smelling the dry must of a complex undisturbed since it was sealed.

Let us also presume that you have spent a significant chunk of time and effort building Whatshisface’s tomb.  Grade A world building.  Your ridiculous amounts research has allowed you to map out the enormous complex to the last sandstone brick and rattlesnake’s den.  You’ve compiled lists of treasure that includes artifacts described his history but yet to be recovered.  You have both pictogram and English translations of every wall etching.  Anyone would want to show this world off a bit, but what are you goals as a writer?

Like Alicia, you are on a deadline.  In order to secure your own financial backing, you must first recover your own prize.  You must sell your book.  So instead of going into exploring each room in descriptive depth, pick your battles carefully.  I would take my descriptive queues from Alicia’s torch.  As she explores the crypt, her light will play over the walls she passes, illuminating only the small area around her.  Fingers of light will play across sections of nearby rooms she doesn’t explore, giving only vague details and tantalizing hints.  She might encounter pits or vaulted ceilings whose extremes elude the touch of her torchlight, but not the racket and rumble of a thrown rock.  Alicia would likely get side tracked, lost or take time to enjoy the view now and again, but she is motivated.  You and she both have the experience and skill to make it to the end of the tomb and claim your respective prizes.  The story ends when she gets the artifact and brings it back to her backers.  If you have done your job right and secured your book deal, the financing will allow both you and Alicia to return to Whatshisface’s tomb in the future for further exploration.

Beginning the Conversation: Given more detail than would be prudent to describe, how do you choose what is important to describe in your own writing?


6 Responses

  1. Jess B says:

    Amber and I ran into this problem a lot when we were plotting our story together. After compiling a massive amount of information (economics, politics, blah blah blah) we decided to make a few key illustrative scenes with our characters to highlight the differences between this world and our new dystopian world. In essence, we applied what you described above.

    • Nathan Barra says:

      Would you describe what you did as suffering from world builder’s disease or did you end up using your expansive milieu? Have the illustrative scenes worked well for you?

      • Jess B says:

        We did end up using our milieu frequently, especially since many aspects of our characters’ personalities would be impossible without addressing the world as well.

        • Nathan Barra says:

          I remember talking to you about it a few years back and you gals seemed unsure as to how to go about covering an extensive milieu without killing your pacing. How did you end up using your milieu? Were you able to strike that balance? It’s a problem I’ve been struggling with for a while as well. Often, I am trying to express some aspect of characterization but find myself having to backtrack and explain some aspect of milieu. It takes time, words and attention away from where I want it. I’ve been experimenting, but have so far been unsuccessful in figuring out how to decouple any of the MICE from the other three. In the end, I have found that it is a balancing act.

          • Jess B says:

            Sorry for the late reply! Still am not getting an email notification of a reply. Last year we completely revamped the storyline — now it seems our love of certain characters is taking over, but I’m not sure it’s an awful consequence because the story is so much more interesting and complex the way that it’s turning out.

            An example of the milieu…We recently found a plot hole because original idea of how character X would react was basically nonsensical in the period he lived in. So we brainstormed and came up with a whole new branch of the world that solved that dilemma for us. It is, of course as you said, a balancing act.

          • Nathan Barra says:

            No worries about the late post. Life has been very, very busy on this end of the keyboard too. If you forgive my tardiness in responding to you, your tardiness is already forgotten. 😉 I’m glad that your reworking was able to help you towards making a better story, deeper worlds and more interesting characters. That’s always the goal at least of a rework. See my Smoke and Mirrors post to see how I understand the need to change the milieu to fit what you need it to do.

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