Speculative fiction writer, Orson Scott Card (Ender’s Game), has also written how-to books on writing, including Characters and Viewpoint, and How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy. In the latter book, Card outlines four elements that make up story structure: Milieu, Idea, Character, and Event (MICE). A story will typically contain all four elements, but one will predominate, depending on the type of story the author wants to tell. Each element is described below:
The milieu is the world in which a story takes place. Authors who love to world-build may choose this element to show off their skills. This type of story typically begins when the main character enters a new world, and ends when they leave (or the world leaves). The other elements should not stand out in any way to detract from the milieu. For example, the characters should be typical of their worlds, and events should either not overshadow the landscape, or should incorporate it into events, such as when Frodo and Sam have to slog through swamps and climb mountains to reach Mount Doom in Lord of the Rings. Or when Paul Atreides has to learn to cope with the harsh environment on the planet, Dune, in order to find his true self. In Arthur C. Clark’s Rendezvous with Rama, an alien ship enters our solar system, and a ship is sent to investigate. The story is about how the crew members explore the ship and what they find, and ends when the ship is flung into outer space.
In this story type, the main characters discover pieces of information to solve a puzzle or answer a question. The story is bookended by a question at the start, and the answer at the end. Mysteries are typical idea stories, for the question of who killed someone begins the tale, and the detective has to gather clues to find the killer in the end. In P. Djèlí Clark’s A Dead Djinn in Cairo, Special Investigator Fatma el-Sha’arawi of the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments and Supernatural Entities, weaves her way through the city’s underside to put together the pieces that will solve the riddle of who killed a supposedly immortal djinn. In Richard K. Morgan’s Altered Carbon, Takeshi Kovacs has to find out why a rich man was found murdered hours after his last personality backup. And Arthur C. Clark’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, begins with a monolith discovered by apes that lets out a strong radio signal. Why? We learn by the end that it was activated to inform the creator race that proto-humans were ready to move onto the next level in evolution.
Character stories are about growth. What does the main character know, or can do, at the end that she or he could not at the beginning? In this type of story, the writer needs to fully flesh out the main characters and start near the point where the character decides she is unhappy with her life’s status and will work to change it. In Octavia Butler’s Wild Seed, Doro is the main antagonist, who can extend his life by simultaneously killing and possessing another person. He diligently conducts his pet project of breeding humans, all while eliminating those who refuse to kowtow to him—until he meets Anyanwu. She is an immortal healer and uses her powers to help others in her community. Doro latches onto her and tries to control her, incorporating her into his breeding project. She acquiesces for a time, but then threatens to commit suicide to stop Doro from creating new species. He agrees to compromise and they agree to work together on equal terms. In my book, Cog, the main character, Nicholle, grows from a once-failed intern at her family’s company to its savior.
“I felt a great disturbance in the Force,” Obi-Wan once said. This discovery of an imbalance is the crux of an event story. In Star Wars, it was the Death Star coming online and fulfilling its purpose of blowing up planets. In Lord of the Rings, it was the revelation that Sauron was alive—in one form or another. In Blade Runner, it was the escape of four Nexus 6 replicants, who had come to Earth. Before the big reveal, however, the stories centered on the main characters in their world, which drew in the readers and viewers and made them care about the characters. Only then did the true adventure start. The story then ends when balance is restored, with either a new structure to the world, or a revival of the old structure.
Whichever type of story you decide to write, be sure to begin and end with the same type. Readers will be disappointed if they begin reading a science fiction story that promises to be about the discovery of a new world in an alternate universe, and then ends with the main character deciding to leave the adventure and go off to marry and settle down. They’ll be left with questions: What happened in the alt uni? Were there any new life forms? Be sure to satisfy your readers, and they’ll keep coming back.
Wright received her master’s degree in Writing Popular Fiction from Seton Hill University in Greensburg, PA, and Cog was her thesis novel for the program. An accomplished poet, Wright’s science fiction poem “Doomed” was a nominee for the Rhysling Award, the Science Fiction Poetry Association’s highest honor. Her other publications include “Of Sound Mind and Body” in the Bram Stoker award-nominated Sycorax’s Daughters; “Dear Octavia Butler” in the Locus Award-winning and Hugo-nominated Luminescent Threads: Connections to Octavia Butler; “The Haunting of M117” in Genesis: An Anthology of Black Science Fiction; “Cyberpunk Remastered” in the award-winning Many Genres, One Craft; “The Last Stop” in Diner Stories: Off the Menu; “Bequeathal” in Far Worlds; and “Mission: Surreality” in The City. Find her on Twitter @KCeresWright.