Let’s Take a Journey

In one of my favorite writing books, David Farland studies the top 50 grossing movies worldwide in order to reverse engineer the key elements that made them successful. Though all of his observations have helped me improve my own books, I found that one in particular was unexpected and yet obvious in hindsight. Of the top 50 movies, 94% were set in another place or time. It’s an astoundingly large number to be attributed to happenchance. Through my training as an engineer, I have developed a healthy respect for the descriptive power of statistics. However, correlation does not equate to causation, so let’s dig into the data a little to convince ourselves.

Farland spends five pages of Million Dollar Outlines criticizing his own data, so I’ll just hit the high points as I see them. The movies on the Top 50 list spanned genres, though there was a heavy bias to science fiction and fantasy. Is this a problem with the study? I don’t think so. The rankings were developed using gross revenue, which should be blind to genre. Though Farland admits that he didn’t correct the revenue numbers for inflation, I agree with his assessment that this should have little effect on the list overall, just the movies’ relative order. True, more recent movies with larger production and advertising budgets would be favored, but the trends shown by the group should still be representative of audience preferences. In addition, it is unlikely that any particular group of individuals or fandom heavily influenced the rankings as the list encompassed decades of work, with Star Wars (1977) as the earliest film and The Avengers (2012) as the most recent.

For one, I believe David Farland’s observation is spot on. Our audiences want to read about stories whose milieus allow them to explore new worlds and cultures. Still unconvinced? I’d encourage you to check out David Farland’s Million Dollar Outlines for yourself.

Though the words “milieu” and “setting” mean essentially the same thing, I feel that they have slightly different connotations. Setting describes the surroundings around the characters in the story, the political and social struggles that make the protagonist’s life more difficult. By contrast, milieu is a cascading chain of cause and effect that shapes not only the immediate physical, social and political environment, but every aspect of life for the characters who live there. The audience believes in a true milieu, and ends up wanting to visit the strange and faraway places.

“But Nathan! Isn’t a milieu just a really good setting?”

Yes. Exactly. That’s why I always strive to be making a milieu when I world build. If you take your audience to a place that they find fascinating and can believe in, they’ll love you for it.

Welcome to the sixth sequence of In Brief: Making Milieu. Care to discuss?


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