Fifteen minutes long, because you're in a hurry, and we're not that smart.

12.32: Structuring a Short Piece

Your Hosts: Brandon, Mary, Dan, and Howard

We begin our exploration of short story structure with a re-cap of the MACE quotient (Milieu, Ask/Answer, Character, Event). Then we apply that tool to how we structure the pieces we write—specifically the short ones.

Liner Notes: Here’s “Evil Robot Monkey” by Mary Robinette Kowal

And here’s a handy MICE quotient chart!

Credits: this episode was recorded in Cosmere House Studios by Dan Dan the Audioman Thompson, and mastered by Alex Jackson.

Homework: Instructions.

  1. Pick one of the MACE elements (Milieu, Ask/Answer, Character, or Event)
  2. Describe, in three sentences, how your story’s primary plot will use that element.
  3. Pick a second element.
  4. Describe, in three sentences, how your story’s sub-plot will use that element.
  5. Nest these sentences, creating a six-sentence outline for your story.
  6. Nest the sentences in a different order, outlining your story with the sub-plot’s element now functioning as the primary plot

Thing of the week: The 2017 Hugo nominees for Best Short Story.

¹ Available in the Hugo Voter packet.

Powered by RedCircle


As transcribed by Mike Barker

Key Points: Flash fiction and short stories. Short fiction is usually just two MACE elements. Flash fiction is usually a single MACE element, often one problem to solve. Introduce the problem, a couple try-fail cycles, and solution. Often MACE elements get nested, or form frames. Also, changing POV often changes MACE elements, because they are all about affecting the primary character. MACE is often useful for pruning — focus on what you really want to tell, and remove extra threads. Sometimes flash fiction, short fiction, implies questions or endings for the reader, instead of explicitly describing them. This is good for issue stories (elemental genre).

MACE: Milieu, Ask/Answer, Character, Event.
Milieu: starts when a character enters a place and ends when they exit (often returning home); main conflict is getting out, returning, stopping the main character from getting out of the milieu; journey, quest, man against nature.
Ask/Answer: the character asks a question, ends when they find an answer; main conflict is stopping the character from getting the answer: mystery, puzzle, trying to solve or find an answer. Sometimes getting the answer introduces a bigger question.
Character: internal conflict, starting with dissatisfaction with self, end with new self-definition or acceptance of self; conflicts block the character from finding satisfying self-definition; love, romance, coming-of-age.
Event: external conflict, status quo has been disrupted, ends with new status quo or resolution of some kind; conflicts block character from achieving new status quo.; action, adventures. Often event story introduces character story, as the disrupted status quo causes the character to question their self-definition.
(For more details, see the liner notes!)

[Mary] Season 12, Episode 32.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Structuring a Short Piece.
[Mary] 15 minutes long.
[Dan] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Howard] And we’re not that smart.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Mary] I’m Mary.
[Dan] I’m Dan.
[Howard] I’m Howard.

[Brandon] So, for the next few months on Writing Excuses, we’re going to take each length group of a story and we’re going to talk about structural issues specifically focusing on that. But we might stray two things that will be applicable to different lengths as well. This month, we’ll be talking about flash fiction and short stories, specifically. Then we’ll go to mid-length work. So, novelettes and novellas. Then novels. Then we’ll talk about sequels. Not just series, but sequels in general, and whatnot. So today,  short fiction, and I want to lead with what we’ve been promising you for a while. Mary is going to explain MACE quotient… Not MICE quotient, MACE quotient to you again. We did this a few years ago on the podcast, but…
[Howard] A is the new I.
[Mary] A is the new I.
[Mary] Yeah.
[Howard] I’m so sorry.
[Mary] That’s okay. So this was… This originated as Orson Scott Card’s MICE quotient. I have taken it and run with it, and renamed it slightly. So this is an organizing principle. The idea of which is that every story is made up of four components: milieu, question/asks-and-answers, characters, and events. One of these is probably going to be your primary driver. Where this comes in handy with short fiction in particular, although it’s handy with the longer form as well, is that often short fiction is made up of just two of these. One of the things that people will go wrong with is that they will attempt to have multiple threads going on. Which will add length and complexity to your story. So, a milieu story begins when your character enters a place and it ends when they exit. These are journey stories, quests, man against nature, Gulliver’s travels…
[Brandon] So the enter a place can be entering the quest?
[Mary] Entering the quest. Yes. Quest state can be the point of entry.
[Brandon] But I’ve also seen ones where it’s like we enter the room and we get out, that’s when the story ends.
[Mary] It does not have to be returning to your home. Although they are very classically… A character is trying to get home. Wizard of Oz has a very strong MACE element… It has a very strong milieu element with Dorothy entering Oz and then coming back out of it.

[Brandon] Would you call Emperor’s Soul a milieu story? It starts with a woman who gets locked in a prison cell, but escapes it at the end of the story.
[Mary] Yeah. It is very driven… For me… So one of the things that is confusing about the MACE quotient when you’re looking at it is that although it tells you a lot about where the story begins and ends, it also tells you about the conflicts that are in it. So, for me, the big driver is what is the primary driving conflict? Is the primary driving conflict about getting out?
[Dan] In Emperor’s Soul, I would say no.
[Howard] So, for me, Emperor’s Soul is an A, it’s an ask-and-answer, because there’s a puzzle that is being explored.
[Mary] That’s what I would say as well. Is that it’s an ask/answer, with a milieu frame.
[Brandon] Right. The milieu is how we’re signaling our progression, but it is not what the story’s actually about. This is where this sort of discussion gets really confusing sometimes, when you’ve got these frames and things like this. But I’ll let you go on.
[Mary] Okay. But that is one of the things that is tricky is that depending on the kind of story you’re telling, sometimes the thing… That frame on the outside is your big burning question, and sometimes it’s not. A lot of it has to do with how much weight you’re giving to it at the beginning. By weight, I mean how many words you’re allotting it. So that’s milieu. Milieu conflicts are all about stopping your point of view character from getting out of the milieu state.
[Dan] Before we totally leave the idea of these kind of nested stories, I think what’s… One of the things going on with Emperor’s Soul is that the burning question, like you say, is that ask and answer what’s going on, whatever blah blah, but the milieu is what is working for that particular character. You could have told the same story with a different character, but because it was this woman who did not want to be there, you had to trap her. And so therefore, that’s where the milieu element comes in.
[Brandon] That’s a very good point.

[Mary] Yeah. That’s also one of the other interesting things, is that when you switch point of view character, often your framing… And which of these elements is driving, is going to shift. Because they’re all about affecting the primary character. Your point of view character. So an ask/answer is about a question that the character has. A lot of people will confuse it and think that an ask/answer story is about a question that the reader has, and although you can do that, and treat the reader like a character in some ways, it’s usually dealing with a question that the character has. So these are mystery stories, puzzle stories, anywhere the character is trying to solve or find an answer. Detective stories, Sherlock Holmes is very… Usually, the old school Conan Doyle are usually pure ask/answer. There is really no character arc, there’s really nothing else going on there.
[Brandon] A lot of Asimov stories, as well.
[Mary] Yeah. So the conflicts in an ask/answer story are all about stopping your character from getting the answer. Because the moment they have the answer, the story is over. You’ve closed that thread. Then… And again, this is where a lot of people will get confused. You can have a story that will keep going, an ask/answer, if a character gets an answer to the question that they think they were asking, but they realize that, “Oh, no, I was…”
[Howard] It’s actually a bigger question.
[Mary] Bigger question. So conspiracy stories are usually this kind of thing, where it keeps getting… The question just keeps getting bigger.
[Brandon] One of the classic film structures says every story should have a point where the character realizes that their question was too small.
[Howard] That is very often the end of act one in the three act format, is when we got the answer, and the answer was we asked the wrong question.

[Mary] All right. So then, we’ve got character stories. Character stories are about an internal conflict. This is on internal conflict with the main character. There is some aspect of themselves that they are not happy with. There is a dissatisfaction. This can be personal appearance, it can be that their ambition is being thwarted, it can be love, romance stories, coming-of-age… These are classic character stories. So all of your conflicts are about stopping the character from achieving a self-definition that they are satisfied with. Your story ends when the character is either satisfied with their self-definition or recognizes that this is… In a tragedy, they’re like, “No, I’m doomed. This is who I am.” Then, event stories are about an external conflict. So this is where your character’s status quo has been disrupted, and it ends when they have achieved a new status quo or come to some resolution. By status quo, I mean asteroid coming at the Earth, they’ve been fired…
[Howard] All of your action/adventure stuff is event.
[Mary] A lot of action/adventure is… Yes. Frequently because the event disrupts the character’s status quo, it will introduce a character element quite naturally. Like, if you get fired, that’s going to mess with your self-definition. So all of your conflicts are going to be about stopping the character from achieving a new status quo.

[Brandon] Now, I notice in a lot of these, we kind of… You have the kind of begin and end element. Do you actually look at the story… Do you try to actively mirror beginning and end of your stories? Dan, I know this is a thing that you’ve actually talked about before. Mirroring your beginning and your ending.
[Dan] Yes. I find that… What that does is it helps me to make sure that I am headed in the right place, and it gives the entire plot an arc. I’m sorry, I was looking something up because I wanted to make a comment about a different thing. So I’m trying to get back into…
[Howard] I wanted to say something. As Mary explains the MACE quotient, it’s… I know a lot of new writers will struggle with, “Oh, my gosh, I have to know all of this stuff in order to start a short story.” What I found is that MACE quotient is a super useful tool when I feel like my story is bloating. Because I can then ask myself, “Wait. What are the pieces that I really wanted to tell? What are the pieces that I can prune away?” Oh, I wanted… What I really want to tell is the character story of this little boy whose world is turned upside down because an asteroid is hitting the Earth. It’s about his character. The asteroid becomes the bracketing, and he’s the character, and I need to leave out the ask and answers, and the milieu, and a bunch of this other stuff, and start pulling things away. So for me, once I get into MACE quotient, it’s usually because I’m pruning. Typically, when I’m writing something long, I don’t need to remind myself, “Oh, be sure to include the milieu. Be sure to include the ask/answer.” Those… I have no trouble loading all that stuff in.
[Mary] Yeah. It is use… The biggest reason that I find it useful is exactly what you’re talking about. With short fiction. It’s like…
[Howard] With short fiction.
[Mary] I’ll use it… I mean, I do use it with long fiction. But with long fiction, you can have multiple threads, and you’re opening and closing them all the time. With short fiction, if you’re trying to write an honest-to-goodness short story that’s 7000 words or less, two… You can handle two MACE threads, two major ones. You can… Sometimes you can throw in a third, if you don’t have a lot of characters, as a minor subplot. But if you try to do all three… If you try to do all four of them as full on, fully fleshed things, it’s very difficult to do. Part of it is that it splits your reader’s focus, so the proportional amount of time that they have to spend and to invest in anything means that they don’t wind up investing fully in any of these problems.

[Dan] Okay. So here’s the thing that I was looking up earlier. There is an original series Star Trek episode called The Something Seven. I never was able to figure out what it was. It on the surface looks like it is a milieu story. It… Spock takes a little group in a shuttle down to a planet, things go horribly wrong…
[Mary] Oh, yes.
[Dan] And they need to get off the planet.
[Mary] [inaudible] watched that.
[Dan] It becomes obvious as you go along that one of the things keeping them stuck on the planet is Spock. Because he is doing it wrong. He is being a bad leader. The episode begins, I think literally the very first scene is this kind of good-natured Vulcan ribbing. Logic, blah blah, racism, whatever. And they do that mirroring at the end, because about halfway through the story, you realize this is actually a character story. This is when Spock has to learn that sometimes you have to put logic aside, and you have to trust your gut, and all of that. It adds, all of a sudden, this incredible depth to it. It still is a milieu story…
[Mary] Yep.
[Dan] You go to the planet, you come back. But there’s also Spock has to go through this personal journey. That’s what enables them to get off. It mirrors that at the end. They’re back on the bridge, they have that same conversation again about logic and instinct, and it works so perfectly.
[Howard] 16th episode of season one, it’s called The Galileo Seven.
[Dan] The Galileo Seven! Thank you.
[Mary] There you go. One of the things that I’m also going to point out about that one is that there is… There’s an event story that’s going on as well with that. But the event story is actually happening to Kirk on the bridge. Which is that his status quo has been disrupted because he’s missing crew. While their status quo has not been disrupted, because their status quo was we’re going out to look at this phenomenon, and going out to look at the phenomenon has unintended consequences, but it was part of their plan.
[Howard] This discussion of Star Trek is kind of critically important to the discussion of structuring short, because writing for television is all about this kind of short structure. If you break too many of the rules… I say rules. You play with the form too much, your TV episode just doesn’t work. Flat out just doesn’t work. Because the structure is so very important.

[Brandon] Let’s stop for our book of the week, which is actually not a book again.
[Brandon] But this time it is a bunch of stories.
[Dan] Yes. Okay. So our book of the week is actually the Hugo nominated short stories. At the point where we’re recording this, we don’t know who’s going to win, we don’t even know who’s been nominated yet. But whoever it is, they’re going to end up being worth your time. Some of them are going to be awesome, some of them you might hate. But I think without exception, you can learn a lot by reading them. So…
[Howard] The best thing about short stories, and short fiction in general, is that your commitment to consuming something that you don’t like is much less.

[Brandon] So. Let’s talk a little bit more about how we structure, let’s say, flash fiction. Mary?
[Mary] Okay.
[Brandon] Structuring flash fiction.
[Mary] Am I… Well, you write flash fiction, Howard.
[Howard] I write flash.
[Mary] But am I the only other one?
[Brandon] I have never written flash fiction.
[Mary] I’m not surprised.
[Brandon] Never officially.
[Mary] Okay. So flash fiction is generally a single MACE element. There is one problem that your character’s trying to solve and you do some… And it will vary. I mean, you see some flash pieces that are just kind of almost tone poems of let me explore this place. But generally speaking, a flash fiction piece begins right when the problem is introduced. You have a couple of try-fail cycles. Then your character solves it. But there is just one problem, and you just work right through it. There’s not a lot of space for anything else. The other threads are usually present, but they’re not heavily driving. So I have a story called Evil Robot Monkey which is 975 words.
[Brandon] Congratulations.
[Mary] Thank you. And it was nominated for the Hugo. I wrote it in an hour and a half. This is the story that I trot out when I want to make other writers hate me.
[Dan] Done.
[Mary] Done. The thing about it… The reason I’m bringing it up is that if you grab it, it’s available for free on my website. We’ll link to it from the liner notes. If you grab it, you will very quickly see the structure that’s in it, because it is very clearly a character story. My character is dissatisfied with his role, he’s a research chimp, and while there is an event that happens, it’s a very small event, it’s over in just a couple of lines. You can see my yes-but/no-and all the way through that story. I challenge you to go mark that sucker.
[Mary] Then I aimed for… I’m going to end with a positive state because I wanted a happy ending. So I gave him a solution.
[Brandon] Where can people find this story?
[Mary] They can find it on my website,
[Howard] I’ll link to it in the liner notes.
[Mary] If you look under fiction, there’s free fiction. It’s there. But we’ll also link to it.

[Brandon] Structuring very short pieces.
[Howard] When I write very short, often what I am doing is composing a very short story on Twitter. Sometimes it’s built in three posts, sometimes it’s just built into one. I do not have any super examples right now in front of me. I’ve been looking for one of my favorites by somebody else. I’m going to paraphrase it badly. “Take you to our leader? No. Just here for pictures of Earth kittens. When everything is terrible, kittens make it better.” That’s the whole story. I love it because unspoken is the fact that the alien has come here because everything is terrible.
[Mary] Is terrible.
[Howard] That’s one of the things that flash fiction, at that size… Flash is not the right word, I think. At that point, it’s micro fiction. Twitter fiction. The structure is what is… I have to ask myself, “What is the thought I want to leave them thinking that I did not actually ask?” The story doesn’t ask the question, the story forces you to ask the question as you move on.
[Mary] I’m glad you brought that up, because that is actually one of the things that you can do with flash fiction that will often be unsatisfying in another length, which is to not actually give the answer. You take the reader up to the point where they have all of the pieces, and you imply the ending. You don’t do this all the time, but that is, frequently, what you do, that you allow them to finish it.
[Howard] When we talked about the issue elemental genre, and the idea that in a good issue story, typically you are presenting all of the possible sides and asking all of the questions and providing multiple answers, but never saying… Laying down anything concrete. Short fiction, flash fiction, micro fiction is perfect for these issue stories, because it works so well at framing a question in a way that leaves the reader dissatisfied and puzzling over…
[Howard] What the answer could be, which is kind of in many cases your goal.
[Dan] So, I know that we’re supposed to talk about short fiction in this one, but I kind of want the novel length version of that kitten story, where Earth is the only planet that has cute mammals on it…
[Dan] So it becomes our primary intergalactic export.
[Brandon] Kittens. Cat pictures.
[Dan] Yeah, cat pictures to make people happy.

[Brandon] We’re out of time. Mary, you’re going to give us some homework to help us practice the MACE quotient?
[Mary] Yes. Now, ironically, this is probably the longest description…
[Mary] For a homework assignment. What I want you to do is, I want you to take either a new idea or something that you’re working on that you’d like to be a short story. I want you to write… Pick one of the MACE elements. Whichever one you want to pick. Whichever one you feel like is your major driver. I want you to describe that in three sentences. So the first sentence is where the story opens. The second sentences what your major conflicts are. What your major conflict is, or the type of conflict. Your third sentence is where that winds up. All three of those things should match. Then, I want you to pick a second MACE element and do the same thing. So you’ve got two things. Say you’ve got one that’s character and one that is ask/answer. So that’s part one and part two of your homework. Part three of your homework is to nest them. So that you start with the ask, then you introduce the character, then you close out your character tag, and then you close out your ask tag, so it’s nested. Part four of your homework is to flip it, so that the character is on the outside… It doesn’t have to be character, whichever of these you picked. Character is on the outside, ask/answer is on the inside. I have this written out in full detail, you’ll be happy to know. It is in the liner notes. So that you don’t have to remember all of the things that I’ve just told you. And all of the description of the MACE elements is also in this.
[Brandon] You get a worksheet this time!
[Mary] You get a worksheet.
[Mary] This is the benefit of the fact that I teach classes sometimes.
[Brandon] Excellent. That actually sounds like a lot of fun. You guys should all totally do that. But for right now… This has been Writing Excuses, and you’re out of excuses, now go write.