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Writing Excuses 6.10: Orson Scott Card's M.I.C.E. Quotient

Writing Excuses 6.10: Orson Scott Card's M.I.C.E. Quotient


Key points: MICE: milieu, idea, character, and event. Milieu: where the story takes place, starts when you enter the space, ends when you exit it. Stories about setting. Idea: start with a question, end when you answer the question. Character: start with a dissatisfied character, end with satisfaction or at least reconciliation. Event: something is wrong with the status quo, and ends with a solution. The MICE framework can be used at multiple levels, story, chapter, scene. Make promises and fulfill them. These can be nested, but close them in the order you open them. (Actually, reverse order -- MI ... IM).

[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses Season Six, Episode 10, Orson Scott Card's M.I.C.E. Quotient.
[Howard] 15 minutes long.
[Mary] Because you're in a hurry.
[Dan] And we're not that smart.
[Brandon] I'm Brandon.
[Dan] I'm Dan.
[Mary] I'm Mary.
[Howard] I'm Howard.

[Brandon] All right. So, MICE quotient. Mary, explain to us what this is.
[Mary] All right. This is a theory that Orson Scott Card talks about in two of his books, Characters & Viewpoint and How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy. The idea is... MICE stands for milieu, idea, character, and event. The idea is that every story is made up of those four elements. And that at any given point, one of those elements may dominate. In short stories, you may choose only one of those elements. In novels, you usually have all four playing against each other. So...
[Howard] Does that mean a novelette only gets two and a half?
[Mary] That's right. The more of those plot threads you add, the longer you...
[Dan] A novelette gets two, novella gets three, novel gets four. That's how they're defined, actually, according to Hugo rules.
[Mary] Exactly.
[Brandon] Yep. Exactly. Dan just made that up, so don't look so confused.
[Howard] No, no, no. I was looking confused because I didn't have a punchline. Mary, I'm sorry to have interrupted. That will never happen again.
[Mary] There's the punchline. Thank you for that.

[Mary] So. Milieu is basically where the story takes place. The idea with each of these is that the type of story that you are telling... Where you start and where you end mirror each other. So a milieu story starts when you enter the space and ends when you exit it. A classic example of this would be like Alice in Wonderland. Starts when she goes into Wonderland, ends when she comes out. Gulliver's Travels. Classic examples.
[Dan] Stories in those cases are all very much about the setting.
[Mary] Exactly. Lord of the Rings can be viewed as a milieu story because it starts when they leave the Shire and ends when they come back.
[Brandon] Probably the Hobbit is a little bit better as an example of that.

[Mary] Yes. Even more so. Idea stories are stories in which you start with a question. Mystery stories are classic examples. Why is this body on the floor?
[Dan] Because Howard was hungry.
[Brandon] So, why is the body still there? We knew Howard was hungry.
[Mary] Shouldn't we be making a John Cleaver joke about something?
[Dan] No. We make Howard jokes on this podcast.
[Brandon] Yeah, because John would have stuffed it somewhere. It wouldn't be on the floor.
[Dan] John does not leave his bodies... Although that would be a good mystery in and of itself.
[Howard] You guys badly underestimate my ability to hide your bodies when you're gone.
[Mary] What am I sitting on?
[Brandon] Jordo! Oh, hi.
[Howard] So idea...
[Mary] Idea. Character stories start...
[Dan] Well, to finish your idea with idea. The story that starts with a question, I assume ends with the answer.
[Mary] Ends when you answer the question. You know why the body is on the floor.

[Mary] Character stories start with a character who is dissatisfied with their lot in life or some aspect of their life, and ends when they either become satisfied or become reconciled to the fact that they're just stuck with this. Event stories are things in which something goes horribly, horribly wrong with the status quo. That can be anything from there's a black hole in the middle of the Earth to...
[Dan] So we start with a problem and end with the solution?
[Mary] Either end with the solution or when everybody dies.
[Dan] That's a solution.
[Mary] Yeah. Exactly.
[Brandon] No one would be worried about the black hole in the Earth if they're not alive to worry about it, so...
[Mary] So true.

[Brandon] Does anyone else think that Scott Card cheated a little bit by using milieu, just because setting would have made, say SICE, and that just doesn't work.
[Howard] Oh, yeah.
[Mary] Totally.
[Brandon] He had ICE and he's like, "Hum, how can I make this? ICES? No, no. SICE?... MICE! Yes!" It makes it easy to remember. These are really good advice. I mean, we talked about... we had one person on the twitter Q and A who asked us something to use other than three act. Well, this is something you could use. Granted, you can mix this with three act pretty easily.
[Mary] Absolutely.

[Brandon] But learning to look at your story and... It's actually one of the big questions I get all the time is, "How do I know when I have a scene or a chapter? How do I know how to write... What is a chapter, where you end?" Well, if you look at this concept, it can be very helpful in helping you begin a chapter and end a chapter. If you say this is an idea chapter, a character walks on stage wanting an answer to this question, that is part of the overarching pot... Overarching plot. Therefore we will end the chapter when the answer is either given or there is no answer to be found. One of those two things is going to happen.
[Howard] Fundamentally, one thing to bear in mind is that you as the author like having structure because it makes it easier to hang ideas on the structure rather than just stream of consciousness writing it all out. Readers love to have structure as well. Even if the reader can't... Even if you never as a reader realized that The Hobbit is a milieu story because of the book ending in the Shire... Or Lord of the Rings book ending in the Shire. Even if you've never figured that out before, there is something in your subconscious, there is something that resonates with you and allows you to better understand, better comprehend the story by virtue of that containment.
[Mary] The Hobbit is not only a milieu story, it's also a character story and an event story as well.
[Howard] Exactly.
[Brandon] Right. Because it's a novel, and you've got time to approach all of these ways.
[Howard] What if people came into my house and broke all my plates and made me a burglar?
[Mary] Yes.

[Dan] Now, as we're thinking about this, for some reason, the movie Avatar lept into my mind. You can find creative use of all four of these in the full plot of Avatar. It starts and ends with the character. It is a character story, I think, overall because it's him starting in a position of weakness. He's crippled, he doesn't have direction in his life. It ends literally with him gaining a new life... That's the last shot of the movie. Within that, you have the milieu story of arriving on this new planet... Although he kind of tweaks the formula because then at the end, the solution is I'm going to stay here rather than leave.
[Brandon] Right. But the last scene is them marching all the people off, and they're getting on the ship.
[Dan] Exactly. It starts with people arriving and ends with them leaving. You've got the idea, which I think... As a subplot in the middle, you have the save the planet kind of idea that shows up. It starts about a quarter of the way in, and ends about three quarters of the way out. Then you've got various events sprinkled all through it that they have to deal with.
[Howard] I thought the idea was what if the company was too stupid to think of a name besides unobtanium.
[Mary] Let's hope... That's a sidetrack. One of the... Sorry. I was stopping myself from tangenting. I'm so proud. One of the things...
[Brandon] Wow. We never manage to do that. How do you do it? Oh, we're doing it right now.
[Howard] We're really not helping her with this goal.

[Mary] So, one of the things that Scott Card talks about in his book is that you're basically making a compact with your reader at the beginning of the book about what sort of story to expect. The example that he uses is that if you start with an idea story... You walk in. Why is this dead body on the floor? Who killed this man? Through the course of the story, the detective who is investigating, working with the widow of the man, gradually falls in love, and they get married and live happily ever after. You never find out what happened about the body. You will hate that author so much.
[Dan] That's our writing prompt.
[Brandon] No, you're exactly right. The whole concept here is the fulfilling of promises. Expectations play so much of a role in entertainment. I don't think I understood until I started being a writer and started paying attention to this, how much my expectations change my experience. A book that I could love... If my expectations are wrong and I'm wanting something, and I read a great book that I would love in other circumstances, I can come out hating.
[Howard] So... The whole idea that we're making a contract with the reader... Promises to the readers... We've got a body on the floor. If the book begins, "There was a body on the floor and it was my job to figure out who put it there," then we know we've got a detective story. If the book begins, "There was a beautiful woman in the room, and she was distracting me from the fact that there was also a body on the floor," then we might be able to actually come to grips with that story being a romance in which the body isn't the problem and the woman is.
[Brandon] Let's just say it's more than one line though.
[Howard] Exactly.
[Mary] The way I think about it is as nesting tags in programming. So like if you want to have a bold italic word... I'm such a geek... Then you have to... You start with the bracket B... Or bracket strong now... But bracket B bracket I. Then you have to go bracket I bracket B. You have to close out both of them and you close them out in the order in which you opened them.
[Brandon] Yep. If you do it backwards, you've got a bunch of messed up code.
[Mary] I find that the same kind of concept generally works when I'm using MICE elements in fiction. If I start with the idea, then I have to end with the idea. I can do character in the middle of that, but that I have to end where I started.

[Howard] Usually at this point in the episode, we plug a book. We're talking about MICE, which is straight out of Scott Card's [clicking noises... Probably snapping fingers?]
[Dan] Characters & Viewpoint.
[Brandon] How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy or Characters & Viewpoint.
[Howard] Both available.
[Brandon] But we thought we would promo one of his books, one of his fiction novels. The one we picked is Enchantment by Orson Scott Card. Enchantment is one of my favorite books that Scott wrote. It is a fairytale retelling. For the second part of this podcast, we're actually going to take a fairytale and we're going to retell it through various elements of the MICE quotient. Enchantment is Sleeping Beauty done in a different way, done basically as a character story. Which is very interesting. I really like it. They have it on audible, you can go there, download it, and give it a listen.
[Howard], 14 day free trial, and go check out Enchantment by Orson Scott Card.

[Brandon] Okay. So we are going to... Now, let's take a fairy tale. We're going to do Billy.
[Howard] Yup.
[Dan] Sweet.
[Brandon] Let's take Billy Goats Gruff and retell it as four different types of stories, each of these... The short sequence. What is Billy Goats Gruff? What's the story?
[Dan] Yeah. Mary, give us the 10 second ground rules here.
[Mary] So basically what we're talking is... First, we look at the plot elements. The plot elements are there are three goats. They cross a bridge. There is a troll. He scares off the goats one at a time. Then they all finally wind up in the meadow. So what you want to look at with the MICE quotient is where do you start the story and where do you end it? That will also tell you probably who your point of view character is.
[Brandon] Okay. So Billy Goats Gruff. Where do you start your story? You have three different goats, and they each approach the troll one at a time.
[Mary] So let's start with a milieu. Let's start with a milieu story, which is...
[Dan] Which in that case would be the bridge. Arriving at the bridge and then leaving the bridge at the end. So...
[Howard] Did we do that right? Or do we need to replace the bridge with something else?
[Mary] You could do the bridge, or you could also do leaving home and deciding to go to the meadow. Although to do that, you either have to return back to where they were at the end or have them be very strongly resolved that they like the meadow.
[Brandon] I mean, you could do the Billy Goats Gruff as a milieu story by saying we're at the place where the goats live... The goat village. The three brother goats want to go experience this thing far-off. What, they can't...
[Mary] No. Starting with they want to go experience a thing far-off makes it a character story.
[Brandon] Makes it a character story?
[Dan] Well, how about though... What if we start with the historical fact that all goats used to live in the meadow, and are now trying to return to it? Does that make a milieu story?
[Brandon] What you really have to have, though...
[Howard] It also makes it historical fiction.
[Brandon] A lot of the milieu stories that we've mentioned are almost kind of accidental. That it's milieu. It's not the character wants to, it's that that the character is forced to enter this space. So the Billy... The troll shows up and kidnaps the three goats and takes them somewhere can make it... That sounds more like an event story. How do we make this actually a milieu story?
[Mary] I think that Dan might have been onto...
[Dan] The bridge.
[Mary] Yeah, with the bridge. That it becomes then a... Much more intimate story about the experience on the bridge.
[Brandon] Okay. So we come to the bridge and leave the bridge is our milieu story. What about an idea story, then?

[Mary] An idea story... Does anyone else want to dive in? An idea story is a question raised.
[Brandon] Right. The question could be what's on the other side of the bridge?
[Dan] Or what's under the bridge?
[Howard] Yeah. I was going to say what's under the bridge.
[Mary] Or what is on top of the bridge?
[Brandon] Or what is the thing...
[Dan] Oh, that's true. If our character is the troll, and he keeps wondering what keeps making noise on his roof...
[Mary] Who's that trip trap tripping across my bridge?
[Brandon] Yeah, it could be.
[Howard] Or who built the bridge?
[Brandon] Who built the bridge goes into, I think, more scope than we can deal with.
[Dan] That's a cool story, though.
[Howard] It's an epic fantasy. Come on.
[Dan] That's true. Who built the bridge?
[Mary] The troll built it. The end.
[Howard] Well, that's actually a good world building question to add flavor to it mid story.
[Dan] Well, see, that actually, I think, is a great question to start with because if the troll built the bridge, and the goats are wondering who built it, and they find out in the end that the troll built it as a trap to catch stupid goats who try to cross it...
[Mary] Yeah. That's an idea story.
[Dan] There you go. There's your idea story.
[Howard] Quick addition. It's a toll bridge, and the toll is one goat per goat.

[Mary] So, character story.
[Brandon] Event. Event story.
[Dan] Character's next.
[Brandon] Oh, character story. We skipped character. So a character story would be the one I was talking about earlier than. Is I want to go find out what is beyond... I want...
[Dan] I want to leave the meadow.
[Brandon] I want to leave the meadow.
[Dan] I am the eternal apprentice goat.
[Brandon] I am the eternal apprentice goat who has never been outside the meadow.
[Howard] Or, alternatively. It is my brothers have wanderlust, and I wish they would just stay put. Darn it, I have to follow them across this bridge. Our POV character becomes the controlling, pseudo-parental, elder brother goat who eventually changes and realizes, "Oh, I have wanderlust too" or succeeds in bringing his brothers back across the bridge, and flooring the goat.
[Mary] Absolutely. Any of those would work.
[Howard] See, I can play this game.

[Brandon] Okay. Event story, Howard.
[Mary] This is where something is horribly wrong with the status quo, and then returns to either okay or everybody dies.
[Dan] Well, there's people making noise... There's goats on my stupid bridge.
[Brandon] The troll is hungry. And the troll has dinner.
[Howard] There is a flood. The field where the goats live has been washed out. They realize they need to go someplace else. They get to the bridge. One of the things that has happened as a result of the flood is something has washed up under the bridge, and it's alive. There's an event.
[Mary] That is definitely...
[Howard] See, I can play this game.
[Brandon] Two goats leave the goat village and have never returned.
[Dan] One goat enters, two goats leave.
[Brandon] And first goat... One goat alone in... He's got to go recover his brothers. You can frame it as that. The event is my brothers have been kidnapped by the troll, and I have to talk my way into getting them back so that they don't end up cooked.
[Dan] Or to be completely different, there's a flood under the bridge and the troll has to leave, and now the goats are lonely.

[Howard] Now, in terms of driving this home for our listeners, the whole point, I think, of this exercise is to recognize that you take a story as simple as the Billy Goats Gruff, and as we brainstormed this and looked at these story elements, you can now anonymize all of these pieces... Replace the goats, replace the bridge, replace the troll, replace the flood, replace the meadow... And you have the elements for a solid story that nobody will recognize as you having stolen from...
[Brandon] Billy Goats Gruff.
[Howard] Yeah, but who wrote... Was that the...
[Dan] Who wrote Billy Goats Gruff? History did.
[Howard] Oh, it's history.
[Dan] The racial collective conscience of the world.
[Howard] Oh, that's right. Because the goat thing was historical fiction. Got that.

[Brandon] All right, then. So, writing prompt. I should probably make myself do it, because I haven't done it in a while. So, writing prompt is do this with a different fairytale. Let's pick one.
[Dan] MICE quotient for Red Riding Hood?
[Mary] Red Riding Hood's a good one.
[Brandon] Red Riding Hood. That's a great one. MICE quotient for Red Riding Hood. Try and write a page of each story of the different things for MICE. Okay.
[Dan] Sweet.
[Brandon] This has been Writing Excuses. You're out of excuses, now go write.
Tags: character, contract, event, idea, mice, milieu, nesting, promises
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