Craft powerful story by paying attention to milieu

While thinking of the elements of a story in terms of plot, setting, character, point of view, and theme is extremely useful, sometimes novice writers don’t recognize that each is much more complex than the standard definition given for them. Take setting, for example. It typically is defined as the place and time of the story. But setting is much more than geographical location or dates on a calendar.

Another aspect of setting in a story is the milieu, or the social or cultural environment in which the action occurs. This might include what the houses look like to infer how people who live in a location interact and relate to their environment. To wit, homes on the prairie would be one-story and spread out like the landscape around them. The milieu might include what kind of music the characters listen to on the streets; for example, an upbeat reggae performance can indicate a community’s zest for and love of life.

Indeed, whole stories can center around the milieu, such as when a character arrives at a new location and is emotionally affected then transformed by it. This typically occurs in science fiction and to a lesser extent fantasy stories. A good example of a mainstream novel in which the story pivots on the milieu is James Clavell’s “Shogun” in which the main character, a European explorer, observes and is transformed by medieval Japanese society.

All stories naturally have a milieu. When an author pays attention to crafting it, however, it can be a powerful storytelling tool. After all, the more immersed readers can become in the story’s milieu, the more likely they will be hooked in the story.