In the beginning, there was Joe.
Joe is a computer programmer and aspiring freelance journalist, as well as the uncle of the main character’s love interest, in my novel about a Pennsylvanian boy expected to fulfill his family’s unusual destiny.
I had my reasons for starting with Joe. He contributed to the mysterious feel I’d intended to create. Joe could actually see the main character’s peculiarities (which aren’t noteworthy from the boy’s perspective). He could learn of the rumors about the boy’s family as the story starts for the reader, which I’d thought was important.
I realized after writing two-thirds of a weak draft for the novel that Joe’s perspective did more harm than good. I needed a new opening, one without curious Uncle Joe.
Fortunately, soon after this realization, I had enough spare money to buy Orson Scott Card’s How to Write Science Fiction & Fantasy. I’d read this book twice before, but the part about Card’s MICE Quotient hadn’t stuck in my fore-mind.
If you’re not a fiction writer or don’t yet know about MICE, the acronym stands for the elements of Milieu (the world or setting), Idea, Character, and Event. Card teaches that in every good story, one of these elements is stronger than the others.
For example, the development of the characters in Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Left Hand of Darkness isn’t as important as the characters’ interactions with the world. It’s not a Character Story, but a Milieu Story. True, the question of whether or not Planet Winter will join the Ekumen is sustained through the novel, suggesting an Idea Story with possibly an accompanying focus on Event; however, I see the exploration of the world as more important than the politicians’ final decision.
For my novel, the MICE Quotient wasn’t clear. Joe presented questions in the opening that are answered throughout the novel; therefore, Idea was strong but not the strongest, because the answering of the original questions wouldn’t have ended the story. Milieu was (and is) important but not unique to the primary point-of-view character, who is the boy, not Joe.
Character and Event also vied for utmost importance in my novel and failed to be consistent. To strengthen the entire story, I had to determine which element matters most to me as I write the novel.
As I looked through my notes, the answer became clear. Everything changes for the main character when he meets Joe’s niece. She endangers his family’s destiny, and the boy’s struggle to reconcile a relationship with her and his familial duties dominates the plot.
It’s a character story. Therefore, it now opens (and will end) with the main character, the boy who must change to get what he wants. Can he do it?
Anything that doesn’t contribute to that conflict is, at best, secondary.