The M.I.C.E Quotient
People talk about the M.I.C.E. quotient in a number of different ways. I’m trying to wrap my head around the nuances enough to teach (yes, teach. Blind leading the blind) the M.I.C.E quotient to my local writing group. I am by no means an expert writer, or even a published one. So the contents of this article is not a lecture. This isn’t a recording of absolute truth. This is an exploration.
The four elements that Card identifies are Milieu, Idea, Character and Event. The quotient, ration with which these appear within a story affect various aspects. The most addressed by his book Character & Viewpoint, is characterization. Basically, different types of stories require different levels of characterization. You can’t have a character driven drama with a flat character, and you can’t have an amazing, deep and extremely interesting character when the point of the story is something else. Your interesting character risks overwhelming the actual core of your story. Card also illustrates how to use this to help frame your story, and to make sure that you are meeting the promises of the beginning.
Mary Robinette Kowal, both in the online workshop she runs, and on Writing Excuses, expands M.I.C.E a bit. I do not know how much of this she has gathered from other places, how much she learned from Card’s work and classes, and how much she created as part of her own work. But, she builds a true story framework out of the MICE quotient, using it as a way of tracking what is happening, what order it is happening in, and what this means in terms of plot, story and characters. I cannot match her eloquence. Go listen to the Writing Excuses podcast, and then wish they went far longer than 15 minutes on the topic.
Let’s launch into the thing itself now that I’ve acquainted you with my degree of familiarity, and how much of this I am pulling out of thin air. I am addressing these out of the usual order.
Character is probably the easiest to understand, on a instinctive storytelling level. Your character grows as part of your story. I’ve seen this broken down into Crisis, Conflict, and Climax, but it boils down to this: The character is unhappy and initiates change, meets resistance, and then either is successful with that change, or fails. If this sounds vague, that’s because it is. This change can be internal, making a change in themselves, or it can be external, making a change in their world and the status quo.
These run the gamut of types of stories. Fairy tales, adventures, disasters, all can be viewed as Event stories. They boil down to: Something changes the status quo at the beginning, and in the end the status quo either reverts to what it was, or is accepted as the new status quo. This sounds kind of passive, but take it from the point of view of your characters. Something has changed, and it wasn’t your character that changed it. It doesn’t need to be a comet falling out of the sky, it can be the start of a distant war, the death of a family member or as direct as an antagonist kidnapping someone.
You can just call this ‘setting’ if you get tired of fighting with how in the hell you spell it. It is the hardest of the four for me to really understand in terms of writing. Card seems more interested in telling you that you need only have a token character in this type of story. Your interest in the story, the actual character and star of the story, is the setting itself. The world is the primary focus of the story. There is always Milieu, it’s always there in the background, and that’s usually where we leave it, but the more unfamiliar it is to the reader and the character, the more it needs to be stepped up. When the setting is so strange and powerful that you can’t help but have it play a major part of the story, then you must let it come through. We can also view this as a change of the status quo, with the character entering the setting in the beginning, and exiting it at the end. I think this is predominantly true, but I think you might be able to have an exception if you are bringing the reader into the world instead of just the character. The character’s journey is the easiest way for the reader to also be brought in, but I think it does not need to be the only way it could work.
Finally, Ideas are mysteries. Idea stories are based around information. You can usually frame this story in the form of a question. Who committed the murder? Why is the house haunted? What if? The point, is one of discovery. If you just state answer the question, then it’s not a story. Either the reader, the character, or both are learning, exploring, or trying to solve the question throughout. When you get the answer, that’s the end of the story.
My Cheat Sheet
||The setting as character
||The plot is a question
||The character drives change
||Change drives the story
||There is a new place with its own (new to the character and reader) status quo
||Information that does, or could, change the status quo
||The Character changes the status quo, either in how they interact with it, or by changing the world
||External change creates a new status quo
|At the Beginning…
||Enter the location
||State the question
||Show character discontent
|…In the end.
||Leave the location
||State the answer
||The character acheives their goal or accepts defeat
||Change is either reversed or accepted
|When it’s done right
||Will leave the reader loving the world
||Solves a mystery, gives a truth, or illustrates a point
||Leaves the reader emotionally satisfied
||Gives the reader a sense of catharsis from the event
|When it’s done wrong
||The reader and character are trapped in a flat world
||Does now answer the question, and leaves the reader wondering
||Leaves emotions unresolved, or makes the character seem weak
||Provides no closure
||In the end, the character does not leave, instead choosing to stay
||Answering the question with another, deeper, question
||The character either foils themselves, or finds that their motivations are not what they thought
||The new status quo is the same as the old, the old status quo was never all that good, or the event itself becomes the new status quo
||Leave the world for yet another world? Settings within settings? Possible, but see Variations below.
||Your question involves going to another place, or the question is the other place
||The character is the reason the journey takes place
||The event forces things into a new world or setting. Stranded on an exotic island is both event, and milieu.
||Interesting settings are often filled with their own puzzles and mysteries. How to get home being the most common.
||Mysteries within mysteries. Think “Plot Twist”.
||Because of who the character is, he chooses to answer the question. Note that the Character initiation must happen before the question is asked.
||The event takes place, but why? how? and what can be done about it? Events often have the unspoken question of “What now?”
||Character is the least developed in a Milieu story. Ideally, the character changes, but except for the need to go home, the character rarely drives the plot.
||People can be enigmas. It is hard to have your point of view character be part of the mystery, but here lies unreliable narrators.
||While trying to make one change, the character initiates additional change.
||It’s hard to change the status quo when it is already changing, but there are different status quos. While the character’s world is dealing with one thing, the character initiates some other change.
||Create a world, establish what the status quo is for that world, and then disrupt it, try to resolve it, and then leave.
||Something happens while solving the question, but ultimately, you must get back to solving the question.
||Something disrupts the character’s plans. But, you must get back to resolving the character’s problems (or they were never all that important in the first place)
||Sure. Drop another rock on the character. Keep the character from finding up. Just don’t do it so often the reader can’t tell.
||Leaving Home (adventure as setting)A New (Magical or Literal) World
City (or setting) as Character
|Mystery (Murder or otherwise)What If?
Solving a Problem
|Character Changes SelfCharacter Changes the World
Character Fails in quest to change
Learning to Cope
Nesting and Combining
You can see in my chart above, I include a quick cross reference of what it might look like to say… have an Event happen within and Idea. There is no quick or easy or tried and true combination of these, and the examples I give are just off the top of my head. The variations of these combinations are infinite, and really, combining them is how you get to every story ever told. Sometimes, you can wrap them together, and event that leaves the character in a new milieu, can be both Event and Milieu, and then the Character may have to drive change and solve Ideas in order to fix the event and get home. The more of these elements you have that are strong, the more words it’s going to take to do them well, and the harder it may be to balance them out.
Additionally, the order and way you introduce these elements matters in how you resolve them. Mary Robinette Kowal describes them as nesting within each other like HTML tags. I’m a programmer, so I get that, but to describe it another way, you must resolve the more recent unfinished thing first. Start with Character, and throw in an Idea and then an Event, and you must resolve the Event, then the Idea, and then finally the character. As writers, we do this instinctively sometimes. The easiest way of doing this is to begin with our character, and show that characters discontent with life. Then, at the end, after the story has been told, we flash to the character now happy. We show the progress of the story through the characters eyes. It works often, because we usually treat all stories as human stories. Strong characters are a hallmark of modern writing. But, sometimes it doesn’t’ work. You watch a movie, and the final scene ties off things introduced about the character in the first scene, but it’s wrong. Something’s off. That is usually because somewhere along the way, a tag got lost. An Idea was not answered, an Event was not dealt with, or the Character element has just been tacked on without being needed or tied into the story.
I don’t know that the order is always 100% important, especially when you get into subplots, and more complex interactions (if you’ve got 10 mysteries in a novel, I don’t know that they each need to be answered in turn). The most important thing to make sure of, is that everything does get answered.
If you ask a question, you have to answer it. That’s fairly obvious. Or is it? The example I’ve heard from Mary, is that of a mystery and a romance intertwined. If the romance dominates, and the writer forgets to answer that question, it will absolutely ruin the story. That’s not to say you can’t have romantic detectives, but you must be careful how they interact with mysteries. If they don’t get to solve them, you’ll have to broadcast that. The others though… how do you answer those promises. Mostly, it is through the power of the status quo. Your story has disrupted the status quo in some way, either by changing it (Event), having the character change it (Character), introducing a new one (Milieu), or asking questions that must be resolved before you can return to it (Idea).
Status quo is something that we as readers are not often directly aware of, but we notice it. The status quo must be established, otherwise you are left with a story you don’t understand. You won’t get the world, or understand why it matters that the character is doing things. The status quo must also change in some way, and then either we must see the character adapt to that change, or the status quo must be returned in some way. If not, then nothing has changed, and you’ve written a story about nothing. It must also take effort to do this, either the emotional effort of acceptance and survival, or effort to change the world back. At the end of your story, you need to address the status quo again, and show it’s change.
Be aware of the promises that you make at the beginning of the story. Be aware of the character drives that a reader will want to see resolved. Be aware of the possibly subtle changes that may be throughout the story, that may accidentally become mysteries to the reader. If your character’s dog goes missing, then by god you gotta tell us where the dog went eventually, or that question will drive the reader nuts. If it’s not important to solve where the dog went, then was it important for the dog to go missing in the first place?
All that said, you don’t need to resolve everything into a nice little bow. Especially in a short story, that can be impossible. Sometimes questions have no answers. Sometimes there is no satisfaction to be had. Maybe there is no answer to the mystery? Maybe there was never a mystery in the beginning and it was all a misunderstanding?
This isn’t a death knell. It is possible. I think, the answer is to end your story promising more. Hint at the changes that are coming, hint that the character’s resolve will hold, or that the mystery will be solved right around the corner. Solve the mystery, but add another question. Leave the world of Oz, just to end up in the world of Alice. Show growth, show progress, show resolution, but don’t resolve everything. Resolve what must be resolved, but leave enough life to the story that the reader can see the world keep going. If everything had to be solved at the end of every story, there would never be a sequel.
And speaking of promising more, it’s impossible for me to get all of my thoughts together on this in a single blog post. You’ll note, that I did not list a single example of this above. The reason being that I want time to think, and do it right, and give complete breakdowns. It’s easy to say that Dune and Alice in Wonderland are Milieu stories, and much harder to say how exactly they’re different. Why are Dune’s characters deep and complex, with intrigues, and mysteries and catastrophes spread throughout, whereas Alice is a simple tale, about a girl. Consider this the first in a series.
Disagree with me? Feel free to comment. I’m by no means an expert. Just exploring the ideas.
Notes and Sources
Orson Scott Card’s Character and Viewpoint
Writing Excuses 6.11: Scott Card’s M.I.C.E. Quotient
Mary Robinette Kowal’s excellent online workshop: Writing on the Fast Track
Science Fictionwriting: Presentation by Dr. John L. Flynn
The M.I.C.E Quotient: Sean Malstrom http://seanmalstrom.wordpress.com/2010/06/16/the-m-i-c-e-quotient/
And finally, Karen Woodward has a number of posts, which are excellent and in depth: