MICE is Nice: Event Stories

This seems appropriate, since a feast of the Western Church that is heavily event driven falls on this date this year. An event happens! The Yellowstone Supervolcano erupts! The guy who wants to rebuild Atlantis wins the lottery! An anvil falls on the road runner! Boy meets girl and…

An event shapes and drives the story. That event could be an unjust accusation that spurs the quest for revenge, or to clear the hero’s name. It could be a (un)natural disaster that leads to the search for reasons. It could be a girl meeting a boy and being spurned, then seeking to get even or to win his love. In the original Burgundian Nibelung Saga, cursed gold along with a betrayal and false marriage start the events that lead to disaster.

I would argue that of the genres, some mysteries, thrillers, romances, and well heck, pretty much every genre could have a lot of Event-driven stories in it. But thriller, mystery, and Romances are probably the most commonly event-centered tales, with sci-fi not far behind.

So, to start with a marginal book that serves as a good (and bad) example, my novel Hubris. The plot is driven by an event: the Azdhagi attempt to tinker with their genetics to create a super-Azdhag* who is endothermic, larger and stronger, and who has psionic abilities. They don’t understand quite as much about genetics as they think they do, and the results cause a cascade of disasters that lead to the abandonment of half their planet.

The good: very clear event to event links. This happens because of this which also pushes a character to do that. The bad: there are three massive events in the first half of the book, and the second half of the book feels (and is) much more Character driven. Oops. The Ugly: too many POV characters.

Which leads to an important point. Event stories have to have other elements, unless you want to spend the entire novel doing a loving description of the simultaneous rupture of the Hayward and Ramapo (New York City and New Jersey) faults. Not that I won’t be cheering for the geology, mind, but most readers need something else to keep them engaged. Perhaps a mini-black-hole is on a near-miss course with Earth, and your characters are trying to get things organized for the possible disaster (Nomad). Or perhaps it is an asteroid on a collision course (Lucifer’s Hammer and others). You need characters, possibly some ideas, and a touch of milieu, proportions up to you.

Event novels and movies were really popular in the 1960s through the 1980s, with disaster books and films abounding. Alistair MacLean’s Goodby California and the original Towering Inferno; a really bad novel I read about an avalanche followed by a natural gas explosion at a ski resort; The China Syndrome, The Andromeda Strain (the movie is more Event than the book is, IMHO.) and so on. That sort of faded as political thrillers became more common in the later 80s-1990s, with that one about the Soviet sub that defected or tried to (Event) and the characters involved (Character). Again, movies seem to do Event more clearly than novels, probably because unless you have a Peter Jackson-sized budget and a very forgiving audience, you have to cram a lot of stuff into 90 to 120 minutes. That leads to more Event and Response than Event followed by thoughtful character development and idea development.

Unless you are Dumas, who got away  with it in The Count of Monte Cristo, or Victor Hugo. But most of us are not Dumas, or early Tom Clancy.

Although, that said, Rainbow Six is a thriller because it is event leads to event leads to event leads to event. There’s really no character development or growth, and the only Idea is “way out there hard-core environmentalists are not always Nice People.” Neither are Russian fixers, for that matter. Anyway…

All stories have an Event in them of some form. It could be internal, a change or disorder within a main character that drives the story, or external. Superhero stories are often both, where an Event changes the main character—Spiderman, the Punisher, Victor von Doom—and causes subsequent happenings in the story.

Milieu, Idea, Character, and Event – the four elements that help shape, describe, and place the story for readers and the author. A lot is built on those four legs, and not all stories have all four, especially short-stories. But without them, the story can teeter and collapse. A four-legged chair or three-legged stool are stable. Pogo-sticks… not so much.


*The experiment is a failure, except… 450 years later, one example of what the geneticists were striving for lives to adulthood, but no one recognizes it. His name is Shi-Dan.


  1. I admit that I don’t read a lot in the genre, but I would always have thought that romances would be mostly character driven. It seems to me that in their basic events, most romances are very similar. I know that the old cliche of boy gets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back isn’t all there is to romance plots, but there’s a reason that it became a cliche. It seems to me that what makes a romance novel work or not is the character of the principles: the boy and girl in question appeal to the reader to such an extent that they WANT this particular pair to get together and don’t care that they’ve read a million variants of it.

    Where am I in error?

    1. The characters are important, but are not the driver of the plot. Especially in the “mass-mass-market” sorts of romances where the publisher assigns writers characters with certain characteristics, a word-count, and basic plot. Boy meets girl, interest rises, Something Separates Them, and so on. There are character-driven romances, absolutely, but I was thinking of the Harlequin™ sorts of “generi-romance” like my Grandmother and aunts loved to read.

      1. I was thinking that even the standard Harlequins would be more driven by character, though maybe I’m thinking of this from the wrong perspective. I was thinking about the what was driving the reader, which I think in the case of even the most generic romance would be more a fondness for the characters than any sense of suspense from the events. Maybe what the post was supposed to be about was what was internally driving things in the novel, which in the case of Harlequins I could see being more external events keeping the main couple apart rather than their own internal struggles.

        1. Yes – what is driving the NOVEL, or short story? That determines where/how a story fits into the MICE categories.

          To go back to _Dune_. I’m fascinated by Lady Jessica, but what drives the novel is the planet itself, thus making it a milieu novel with some cool characters.

    2. I’ve spent the last six months’ worth of evenings browsing through the Pulp Magazine category at archive.org. From the 1930s to the 1950s, some SF, fantasy, weird, Western, and hardboiled detective magazines advertised they offered ROMANCE!

      Somehow, I don’t think that word now has the same genre meaning it used to…

        1. Right. Otto. What else can you expect from Otto (and I could tell you what “otto” means in Finnish and can be used in connection to – that scene, although there’d be another word too – but I won’t. Make a guess.).

            1. Bit by bit less is allowed to be seen. The smoking scene after that does seem to have disappeared from youtube. It’s been a year or two since I last looked at that clip, and think there were more than a couple of downloads which included that part. Now I couldn’t find any.

              1. I always giggle at the censored versions of R. Lee. Ermy’s speech from _Full Metal Jacket_. Because (other than “and” and “the” and “you,”) the words they let through were often worse than “the n-word” was during their time.

  2. Harry Turtledove, anyone?

    Lots of event novels have characters by the metric ton. How else could you chase the ripples outward?
    And as the situation stabilises, it’s pretty common for the focus to shift from how the end changed the world, to how the event and aftermath changed the characters.

  3. I think an Event story would work well for a shared-world setup. You have the randomized super (or not) powers and you get Wild Cards. That sort of thing.

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