The MICE Quotient

The MICE Quotient is an idea that originated with Orson Scott Card, in his books on writing: How To Write Science Fiction and Fantasy, and Character and Viewpoint. It has been updated and expanded by Mary Robinette Kowal, one-time student of Card, and award-winning author in her own right, who is one of the main hosts of the Writing Excuses podcast.

In its latest incarnation, MICE stands for Milieu, Inquiry, Character, and Event. It’s a framework for understanding where the overlapping threads of a story start and end, and how they’re affected by obstacles and complications along the way. It can be useful for architecting stories, or figuring out what’s wrong with a story when it seems to have gone off the rails.

Milieu

Milieu threads are all about setting and place. The thread begins with the character entering or exiting a place. It ends with exiting the place, returning home, or entering yet another place.

Obstacles in a milieu thread typically prevent the character from freely coming and going — physical barriers or something more subtle like emotional ties.

Sci-fi and fantasy often have a milieu component in the form of new worlds or fantastic places. The hero’s journey often includes a milieu thread that starts with “crossing the threshold” and ends with the “road back.” Prison dramas and heists, The Wizard of Oz, and Alice in Wonderland are clear examples of milieu threads as a main driver of the story.

Inquiry

Inquiry threads are all about asking and answering a question. The thread begins when the question is posed and ends when it’s answered and understood.

Obstacles in an inquiry thread typically prevent the character from gathering the info needed to answer the question, or things that broaden the scope of the question.

Murder mysteries (any mysteries, really) are the classic example of inquiry-driven stories.

Character

Character threads are all about a character’s self-discovery or change. The thread begins when the character questions who they are, and ends when the character decides the answer to that question — either accepting who they are, or changing in some fundamental way.

Obstacles in a character thread are things that prevent the character’s self-discovery. That may mean the character tries to be something they’re not, and fails. It may mean the character tries to stay the same in the face of changing circumstances, and has to bear the negative results of that.

“Coming of Age” stories and romances are typically character stories.

Event

Event threads are all about disruption of the status-quo. They start when the established order is disrupted, and end when the status quo is restored (or a new status quo is set up).

Obstacles in event threads are typically things that prevent the situation from settling.

Disaster movies and spy thrillers are often driven by event threads, as characters seek to overcome the disaster or stop the villain’s evil plot.

Multiple Threads and Nesting

MICE threads can describe sweeping arcs across a whole novel, but stories can also be analyzed as a series of MICE micro-threads. An inquiry thread might be a character having a question at the start of a chapter, and finding the answer by the end. A character thread might consist of a single conversation where one character changes another character’s mind. Ideally, the resolution of one small thread will lead naturally into other threads, keeping the momentum going.

A single thread by itself produces a very simple story. Most stories have multiple interrelated threads. Threads do not have to proceed serially, one after another — they can be nested several layers deep, although at some point you risk muddying the waters for the readers who has to keep track of it all.

Kowal suggests that nesting threads in a first-in, last-out (FILO) structure is easiest for readers to parse. For example, my novel Razor Mountain begins as a classic type of Milieu story—the survival story. Christopher is lost in the Alaskan wilderness and he wants to get back home. However, as the story continues, there will be a Character conflict as well. Christopher will end up facing challenges that make him question himself and what kind of person he wants to be. Near the end of the book, Christopher will face a final choice that determines his character, finishing the character thread. As a result of that choice, he will exit the milieu, one way or another.

Simple nesting looks like matryoshka dolls, one thread within another. Complex nesting looks more like IKEA furniture, with each box possibly containing multiple boxes of different sizes.

Applying MICE To Outlining

Using MICE in outlining is a proactive approach to building story structure. Stories usually contain bits of all of the MICE elements, so the strategy when outlining comes down to asking yourself as the author, “What matters to me in this story?” As Kowal illustrates with the Writing Excuses homework assignments, any given story can be told with any one of the MICE elements as its primary driver.

In the outline, you can choose which MICE thread is most important, and nest all the other threads within it. You can then construct obstacles for the characters that block the resolution of specific threads. You can tweak inner threads so their resolutions affect the threads containing them.

Applying MICE to Editing

Using MICE in editing is more of a reactive approach — looking for parts of the story that don’t feel right, and analyzing them in terms of their MICE threads.

When the story isn’t working, try to identify the different MICE threads. Which ones are introduced first? Are they all getting resolved? What order are they resolved in? Are the sub-threads creating obstacles that contribute to their parent thread, preventing the characters from resolving a larger issue? Or are they introducing side complications that only distract from bigger, more pressing issues?

For example, take my favorite dead horse to beat: the show LOST. It introduces dozens, probably hundreds of inquiry threads, and many character threads. The character threads are mostly resolved, but some are resurrected later on. Many of the inquiry threads are left hanging with no resolution. The nesting is impossible to follow because there are so many threads.

As a different example, Lord of the Rings creates an epic story with a sequence of endings that irritate some readers. Reordering those endings to follow a clear FILO nesting structure would probably make them feel less like the books keep ending over and over for five chapters in a row.

That’s MICE

Like any writing technique, the MICE quotient is not a magic bullet. It won’t fix every problem in every story, and sometimes you can break the formula and still come up with something that works. You can probably think of at least one classic story that stands up despite breaking the nesting rules or structuring story threads in unusual ways.

On the other hand, the MICE quotient is a great starting point or default. It can be a guardrail when a story starts going off the tracks, and a guide when navigating the mire of a difficult outline. It’s an easy way to analyze plot structure through beginnings, endings, obstacles and nested threads.

If this piqued your interest, the full series of Writing Excuses episodes provide a great deep dive in eight short parts.

Reference Desk #13 — Writing Excuses

I have a system for listening to podcasts. First, I hear about a podcast that sounds interesting. Then I subscribe to it on my phone. Then, for weeks, sometimes months, I occasionally look at the icon in my podcasts. Once the podcast is nicely aged, I might decide to try listening to it. Either that or I get irritated with the number of things I’m subscribed to, and I delete it.

I’m glad I didn’t delete the Writing Excuses podcast. I finally got around to listening a week or two back, and now I’m listening to it pretty much every day during my lunchtime walks. It’s my new favorite writing podcast.

There are four regular hosts in the episodes I’ve listened to thus far: Mary Robinette Kowal, Brandon Sanderson, Howard Tayler, and Dan Wells. Each episode typically includes several or all of the regular hosts, along with one or more guests.

The resulting discussions feel a bit like writing conference round-tables with a rotating selection of professional authors. This is a speculative-fiction heavy podcast, with all of the regular hosts and many of the guests working in the sci-fi, fantasy, and horror genres. However, they also bring a diverse set of writing backgrounds, with work ranging across short stories, novels, web comics, traditional comics, audio books/plays, and RPGs, along with the specialties brought in by the guests.

What’s in an Episode?

  • Each episode is about 15 minutes. Occasionally it runs long when the hosts get excited about a topic. This relatively short length makes it easy to listen to an episode in a spare moment here or there.
  • The hosts and guests discuss a single topic. Sometimes it’s stand-alone, sometimes it’s part of an over-arching series that may stretch across as many as ten episodes. Recent multi-episode topics include poetry, writing for video games, and business considerations.
  • Each episode also includes a reading recommendation (or rarely some other media), and a little homework assignment related to the topic.

History

The pod has been around for a long time. It’s been running since 2008 and is currently in season 16. If you’re starting on it now, like I am, that’s a backlog of hundreds of episodes. Unless I really binge, that’ll take me ages to work my way through. As an added bonus, it means that when I’m looking for info on some random writing topic (like serialization or alternate history), there’s probably already an episode covering it.

(I did notice an oddity: on Apple Podcasts, there is a separate listing for seasons 1-6, and another for seasons 7-10. Seasons 11-14 and most of 15f are completely absent. However, all of the episodes seem to be available from the official podcast website.)

Links

The official website (with all episodes, transcripts, and additional stuff) is https://writingexcuses.com/.

There is also a discussion forum for the podcast on Brandon Sanderson’s website: https://www.17thshard.com/forum/forum/34-writing-excuses/.

17.25: Archetypes, Ensembles, and Expectations Writing Excuses

Your Hosts: Dan Wells, Zoraida Cordova, Kaela Rivera, and Howard Tayler We’ve talked about making every member of the ensemble meaningful. In this episode we’re discussing who, in archetype terms, everybody is. How can archetypes help us get started, how can they help us set reader expectations, and what are the archetype-related pitfalls we need to avoid? And … Continue reading 17.25: Archetypes, Ensembles, and Expectations →
  1. 17.25: Archetypes, Ensembles, and Expectations
  2. 17.24: Ensembles and Genre
  3. 17.23: Are We Stronger Together?
  4. 17.22: Establishing the Ensemble
  5. 17.21: Casting Your Story With Character Voice