Sequence 06: Making Milieu

The Gist

Many of the most successful stories of all time share one thing in common: they take the reader to a new place or time. As writers, we control our worlds absolutely and cane make them as small or large as needed to tell the story. Know big to build, and how much detail to craft is an essential part of any writer's toolbox.

The Roster

  1. Let's Take a Journey [23Mar15]
    In one of my favorite writing books, Million Dollar Outlines by David Farland, I learned that of the top 50 grossing movies or all time, 94% were set in another place or time. It’s an astoundingly large number to be attributed to happenchance. So, as writers, let's take the time to make a milieu, not just a setting.
  2. Where in the World Shall We Go?: The Importance of Choosing Sexy Settings [30Mar15]
    Why does everything in blockbuster movies seem to happen either in huge cities or wildly remote countryside locations? Simply put, those locations are sexier, and do more to attract audiences to the story than the every day locales.
  3. Opposing Influences -- Part 1: The Wild on the Shape of Society [06Apr15]
    Historically, societies are a product of their environment. That's why I like to take the time to develop the regional geography and ecologies before populating the human cultural and political landscape.
  4. Opposing Influences -- Part 2: The Enviornment and the Evolution of Cultural Identity [13Apr15]
    As settlers sought resource rich areas in which to establish a home, they put vast distances and imposing natural boundaries between themselves and their neighbors. Eventually, the society would self-identify as a unit distinct from all others. In so doing, a unique culture was born.
  5. Human Efforts to Shape Their World: Part 1 -- Matters of Survival [20Apr15]
    Humanity has a greater capacity to reshape their environment than any other living species. In fact, many view this control as the mark of civilization. Looking at history however, it seems that populations go through three distinct phases in how they mold their surroundings to fit their needs.
  6. The Step Out of Subsistence [27Apr15]
    Once the community has established stable and dependable sources of food and water, built their shelters, and found ways to defend themselves against natural predators and hostile neighbors, they will turn their attention towards making their life easier. It’s the sociological application of the old engineering mantra, “Work smarter, not harder.”
  7. So, You've Built an Empire... Now What? [04May15]
    The cultural and diplomatic influence of conquest rarely ends when the swords are sheathed. In fact, I would argue that the most significant challenges that conquerors face happen as they attempt to consolidate their rule and provide for the needs of their new subjects. So then, why would we stop our world building with conquest?
  8. Anything You Can Build, I Can Build Better! [11May15]
    As a society progresses, city planning may become less important than aesthetics and ego. Sometimes, people build their mansions on the top of a hill simply because they enjoy the view and want to be seen.
  9. Things Fall Apart -- Decay as a Mechanism for Characterization [18May15]
    One of my favorite fictional milieus is the world of the Girl Genius web comics. I once had the privilege of meeting Phil Folio across a signing table and asked him for his secret. “The trick,” he said, “is to realize that everything will decay. To make your milieu feel real, pay attention to how it decays.”
  10. The Dramatic Power of the Mundane [25May15]
    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. 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.
  11. The Influence of Innovation on Story [01Jun15]
    Regardless of why an improvement is made, technology often translates into power, and power further translates into conflict. As conflict is the crux of story, we as authors need to be aware of this effect and use the technological state of our milieus to our advantage.
  12. When Science Fact is Stranger than Science Fiction [08Jun15]
    Many sources advise young authors to “write what you know,” without including the caveat, “and if you don’t know, go forth and seek answers.” You see, writing what you know doesn’t limit your material, but rather encourages you to expand your knowledge and experience.
  13. We Like to Party! - Celebrations in Milieu [15Jun15]
    As a rule, humanity will find just about any excuse to party. Whether personal or public, intimate or grand, quiet or out of control, celebration is a critical part of a culture and therefore milieu.
  14. Beasts of Burden, Commerce, and Affection [22Jun15]
    As much as we like to think ourselves as civilized, the human and natural worlds still coexist closely. Animals and animal products still play a significant role in our highly mechanized world. As writers, we can’t forget the opportunities presented by fantastic creatures.
  15. The Face of a Place [29Jun15]
    As a general rule, people don’t bond with buildings. Instead, we remember and react to the experiences and people we associate with them. In writing and in real life, it’s the people that bring the significance to the place and not vice versa.
  16. Dealing with Death - Dia de los Muertos vs. The Irish Wake [06Jul15]
    As writers, we need to remember that much of human culture is driven by our own mortality. Ultimately, the traditions that surround the parting with, the remembering, and the celebrating of the dead form an essential cornerstone of any society’s identity.
  17. Arriving at Theme by Way of Milieu [13Jul15]
    As writers, we need to consider not only what tone and mood our settings portray, but also how they will shape and accentuate the themes of our stories. For one, milieu will directly shape character, and therefore indirectly define theme through the actions and reactions of protagonist and antagonist alike.
  18. When Magic Feeds the God Machine [20Jul15]
    As we build our worlds, we must ensure that our magic’s scope is limited so that it doesn’t cheat our characters of their victory and the readers of their emotional release. The limits on magic’s power must be visible to the reader in order to avoid feeling like deus ex machina.
  19. Faith and Philosophy - A Cornerstone of Culture [27Jul15]
    The human need for answers is second only to our ability to ask questions that are beyond our comprehension. Though science has demystified much of the natural world, some of the most basic, most human, questions remain elusive. This is when faith steps in to fill the gap.
  20. On Law and Order [03Aug15]
    Conflicts, both large and small, are also an inevitable part of any group’s dynamic. As a society grows the group establishes both formal and informal rules to help self-manage the problems they face. After all, the need for order and justice is fundamentally human.
  21. Building Your Milieu Before You Hit the Ground [10Aug15]
    Some writers lavish extensive, even obsessive, attention on their world building before starting a project. While this often results in worlds of stunning realism, depth and scope, it isn’t necessary. Knowing when to stop world building is often as important as knowing how to start.


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