As authors, we tend to focus on really big events. Rightly so. Weddings, coups, wars, rebellions, the births and death of kings, and the discovery of strange and faraway lands are all exciting and fascinating story elements. It is perfectly understandable that our readers want to experience the big moments life has to offer. However, it is often hard to ground oneself amongst all the grandeur precisely because these events are so far beyond most mortal experience. For this particular reason, I would argue that it is essential for a writer to consider the small and mundane details of their milieu as they plot out the huge and dramatic moments.
For me, the mundane details of milieu are powerful for two major reasons. First, they can serve as a touchstone point, and in so doing provide a bridge between the reader and the character. This is especially true when the protagonist is in an extreme or fantastic world. One of my favorite examples of this comes from the Elder Signs board game, which was inspired by the collective works of HP Lovecraft. When I first read the description for the “Yuggoth” portal card, I got chills for how profoundly it touched my senses.
“I found myself in a cold dark place. When I looked to the sky - gods - when I looked to the sky, the sun was so small, so distant. I could feel all the miles between myself and home.”
Looking up to the stars as a means of orientation and navigation is a technique that has survived millennia and is still in use today. Furthermore, most everyone has an instinctive feel for how large the sun should be. By taking the familiar and twisting it, the card’s author inspired an almost primal sense of dread and horror.
The second major use of mundane milieu elements is as a complicating factor or the delivery mechanism for an emotional twist. I remember an episode of Band of Brothers in which one of the characters, Malarkey, went to fetch his laundry from a local woman’s home only to find that her shelves were filled with uniforms that belonged to men who had died on the front.
If the scene had only been about him paying for his laundry, it would have likely been cut. After all, going to pick up clothes at the dry cleaners is boring. However, the writer’s turned the simple chore into a powerful emotional moment. The actor’s performance is beautiful. You can see the moment that this interaction drove home the true and personal cost of the war for Sargent Malarkey.
Many stories center on huge and dramatic events, but living is done in the small, quiet moments. By using these shared experiences, we are able to create a resonance with our reader. The examples I shared above aren’t big and dramatic, but they are very real and sympathetic. They form the bond through which the author can land the story’s emotional punch.Tags: Sequence 06: Making Milieu