There’s this thing out there called the “MICE” quotient (originally from Orson Scott Card). It’s a useful way for thinking about your stories, but even more so, it’s a useful way for knowing where to step next when you’re forging ahead without a plan. There are plenty of excellent resources on the MICE quotient out there, but this is more designed to look at how you can use this idea if you’re not really a planner when it comes to writing.
The basic idea is that stories contain things that they concentrate on. Some stories will concentrate on their scenery (milliue), some will focus on an idea, some on character and some on a particular event. And by concentrate I mean explore. Every “doorway to fantasy world” book you’ve read or movie you’ve seen is dominantly a milliue story. The story has characters in it, yes, and things that happen, but they’re there to help explore the scenery. Alice in Wonderland, Narnia – these stories start when the characters move into this second world, and end when they leave it.
Character stories focus on what the character is doing, what they want, how they change. They start with a character who is unhappy with their lot in life, who goes about changing that, and end with a character who has either excepted their lot, or changed their lot in life. Idea stories focus on, shocker, and idea. A “what if”. They start with someone asking a question, and end when that question is answered (mysteries and who-done-its are probably the purest example). And event stories start with an event, something happenings which changes the world, and ends when a new “world” or status quo is created, or when the old one is re-established.
The important thing to realise is that most long stories, are made up of all of these in various ways. Let’s take Harry Potter. The first book is perhaps the easiest to work with. Milliu : Hogwarts/he wizarding world. The story starts in the Muggle world, and ends when Harry returns to the muggle world. Character: Harry isn’t happy with his lot in life, by the end of the story he’s changed and feels more capable on returning to his Aunt and Uncles (remember the “they don’t know I can’t do magic” line?). Event: Someone tries to steal the philosophers stone, unicorns are dying, someone is trying to bring Voldermort back. The world of Hogwarts changes because of this (fluffy appears, the troll, teachers start acting strangely), and it eventually goes back to as it should be after Quentin is defeated. Idea: What if there was a stone that could give you everything. What would be the appropriate response?
Notice that some of these story lines take up more of the book that others. Harry Potter, is, at the end of the day, much more of a Millue and Character story than it is an event story, and while the idea part of it is explored, it is not the dominant feature of the story.
Also take note of how things happen, and the sequence they happen in. We start with Character – Harry is not happy, wants things to change. Then we go on to Milliue – Harry enters Hogwarts. Then event – someone tries to steal the Philosophers stone, Hogwarts changes because of this. Then idea – Harry is confronted with the idea of getting what he wants most, his parents. Now look at the order of things end. First, Harry refuses the stone. That’s the idea part of the story wrapped up. Then, Harry defeats Coldermort – Thus the event is rectified, Hogwarts goes back to normal, as seen at the end of year feast. Then, Harry is sent home, thus leaving Hogwarts. Thus the Milliue story is wrapped up. He goes home much more confident and capable then he used to be, as shown by his plans to not let his Aunt and Uncle know that he can’t do magic, and his plans to terrify Dudley. Thus, the character story is wrapped up.
Each of these separate stories is like a Russian doll – they fit inside one another, and it is far more satisfying to wrap them up in the opposite order from which they were introduced. Think of them as bookends.
This is incredibly useful when writing without a plan – if gives you a backbone on which to write, even if you don’t particularly know what’s going to happen next. It also helps enormously with your ending – something which most people have a lot of trouble with. If you started with a place, end with the climax in the same place. If you started with a character dissatisfied with their life, end with their satisfaction. As I said – it’s bookending everything, and as such, completely useful both for those who like to plan, and those who would just like some clues on where to go when they get to their ending.
Picture taken from flick, attributed to Luke and Kate Bosman, @ https://flic.kr/p/e7pR3