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

16.41: Middles and Conflicts with M.I.C.E. Structure

Your Hosts: Dan Wells, C.L. PolkCharlotte Forfieh, and Mary Robinette Kowal

With the M.I.C.E. elements (Milieu, Inquiry, Character, and Event) explained, and the concept of nesting, or braiding the M.I.C.E. threads, we’re ready to dive into that most difficult part of the story: the middle.

Enough of us dread (or at least struggle with) middle-of-story writing that the promise of a structural tool to make it easier is kind of glorious. Our seventh  installment in M.I.C.E. Quotient discussions talks about how to use M.I.C.E. elements to inform try-fail cycles, ask/answer sequences, and conflicts in general.

Credits: This episode was recorded by Marshall Carr, Jr., and mastered by Alex Jackson.

Homework: Examine the conflicts in the middle of your fairy-tale project (the same one you’ve used for the last six episodes of homework.) Ask yourself if those are the conflicts you want to engage with. If they are, add a try-fail cycle that fits the MICE elements you’ve employed so far.

Thing of the week: Rainbringer, by Adam Berg.

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As transcribed by Mike Barker

Key points: Try-fail cycles, and using the M.I.C.E. Quotient to decide which kinds of conflicts to impose on your characters. Multiple M.I.C.E. threads help introduce unpredictability into your story. Try-fail cycles start when the character tries something to solve a problem, and fails. Yes-but or no-and? Yes, they succeed, BUT there’s a problem, an obstacle. No, they fail, AND things get more complicated. Avoid the saggy middle, just treading water! Usually a result of knowing there are big set piece things to get to, but instead of conflicts with consequences, we’re just filling it with things. The M.I.C.E. Quotient helps you find interesting problems that tie in and move the story forward. If the beginning opens questions and sets up threads, while the end closes or answers the questions, then the middle is where we focus on the conflicts we care about and demonstrate why they matter.  

[Season 16, Episode 41]

[Dan] This is Writing Excuses, talking about middles and conflicts.

[C.L.] 15 minutes long.

[Charlotte] Because you’re in a hurry.

[Mary Robinette] And we’re not that smart.

[Dan] I’m Dan.

[C.L.] I’m C.L.

[Charlotte] I’m Charlotte.

[Mary Robinette] And I’m Mary Robinette.

[Dan] We are getting into the really fun stuff of this M.I.C.E. Quotient. We’re going to talk about the middles and the conflicts that the M.I.C.E. Quotient can help you to create.

[Mary Robinette] Right. So this is about looking at the try-fail cycles and how to use the M.I.C.E. Quotient to decide what kinds of conflicts to inflict upon your characters. So, you may have noticed that frequently the hard part of writing is actually figuring out what to leave out. Which is one of the things that the M.I.C.E. Quotient is really good at helping you with. But, for me, where… What I enjoy doing is the stuff that we started to get into in the last episode, which is the braiding that Chelsea was bringing up. So the thing that is joyous about having more than one M.I.C.E. Quotient is that it introduces an element of unpredictability to your story. When you do a single-strand story, the consequences of the try-fail cycles are pretty straightforward. Someone tries something, they either succeed or they fail. Then you have more of the same. So… If you know that if you start the story with someone saying, “I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to get out of here,” and the tone of the story is happy ending, is like “Oh, I get out of here,” you know that that’s where you’re headed. All of the conflicts are going to be similarly weighted. It’s like, oh, they’re going to try three times to get out of there, and then they’re going to succeed in getting out of there. What the M.I.C.E. Quotient does when you’re making these decisions is you come up on that decision point, and you can have, instead of introducing an obstacle, which is a conflict that is in the same thread, you can have one of the other threads intersect that and throw everything off. So this is where… It’s like the person thinks, “Ah, I’m going to go home, and I’ve been a terrible, terrible spouse and been extremely neglectful. I want to fix that about myself, and I’m going to go home and surprise my spouse and… Oh, no, I’ve caught them cheating.”


[Mary Robinette] Which is a disruptive event. That kicks off… That’s a status quo break. So that’s… I mean, granted, that is frequently a very predictable thing. Going home and saying, “Oh, no. Secretly, they’re an elf.” That would be slightly more surprising. Point being that you can push things off track. What it means is that when you come into a try-fail cycle, that there are several different places that the story can then move from that point. That gets into beginning to introduce some unpredictability to this. I find that the more times you kind of send a story off into another thread, that it can be… It can often end up being confusing to a reader, so you have to balance it a little bit. Which is where the fun decision-making process comes in for storytelling.


[Charlotte] Can I clarify something? When you’re talking about try-fail cycles, you’re talking about yes-but, no-and?

[Mary Robinette] Correct.

[Charlotte] Okay.

[Mary Robinette] So… Or as answers. So… This is… Thank you for making me clarify this.


[Mary Robinette] So a try-fail cycle is where a character tries something to solve their problem, which is the question that we introduced at the beginning. Then they fail. Leaving them to try again. So with yes-but, no-and, there’s a certain series of possible answers. If you’re looking at the yes-but of a… Of, say, a milieu thread, the central question is will they be able to get out of here. Then each thing they approach is the question is will this work. The answer will be yes. They managed to get the door open, but they discovered a room full of bees.


[Mary Robinette] So, this is still a problem with their environment. Right?

[C.L.] So, obstacle?

[Mary Robinette] So… Exactly. That’s an obstacle. But you can also have, yes, they managed to get the door open, but they discover a dead body on the floor. So the dead body is not about them trying to navigate the space. Now they have a murder that they need to solve.

[C.L.] Complication.

[Mary Robinette] So, that’s a complication. Exactly.

[C.L.] Thank you. I mean, try-fail cycles and the yes-but, no-and completely revolutionized, I would say, my writing, because I’d never heard of it before and I was always giving my characters something that would lead to a straight up yes or a straight up no. Then when there were no consequences, it just… It didn’t work. With this, on the other hand, it’s very, very easy.

[Mary Robinette] It’s pretty reliable.

[Dan] So, one thing that C mentioned in one of our early episodes on this class was the TV show Leverage. I feel like that’s a really wonderful example of using different M.I.C.E. elements to avoid predictability. Because on the one hand… I’ve been going through Leverage recently with my daughter, introducing her to it, and in almost every episode, even the ones that I never remember watching, you can almost immediately say, “Oh, okay. They’re going to do this and this and this and this.” Like, it’s a fairly predictable show in a lot of ways. I love it, but I can usually tell where it’s going. The thing I often can’t predict about that show is the types of solutions that they will come up with. I know exactly how they’re going to go about solving this problem in exactly which problems will arise, but then they do find some other thing that crops up, and I go, “Oh. I was not expecting them to solve the problem that way.” Usually, it is an extra M.I.C.E. Quotient thing popping up. So I… I don’t have an example off the top of my head, but they do a good job of using those specifically as a way of avoiding predictability.

[Mary Robinette] Yeah. Like, one of the things that is… I mean, it’s a thing that happens quite often, you’ll see this. Once I flag it for you, it becomes very, very obvious. Characters are having… There’s a character conflict, and there having a discussion to try to resolve it, and then there’s an earthquake. Or the power goes out. Or something interrupts that conversation. So what’s happening in that case is that… The answer to the… Is, like, no, this conversation is not going to fix the problem between them. And a landslide is going to sweep them away. It is… Once you start to see how many times important conversations are disrupted by events, it’s…


[Mary Robinette] Like, this important conversation begins and you’re like, “Well, something is about to go terribly wrong.”


[Mary Robinette] But the reason it happens is that you can’t let them resolve that, and your other options are things in the character line, which would be we tried to have this important conversation and there’s a further misunderstanding. That is another pattern that you frequently see. So this is… This reintroduces tension, a different kind of tension into the scene because you don’t know the kind of thing that is about to go wrong.

[Dan] Yes.

[Mary Robinette] In addition to the… To everything else.

[C.L.] This kind of reminds me of that advice where if you’re writing a story and you’re like, basically, like treading water or going in circles, send in a man with a gun.


[C.L.] Do something.


[Dan] Have something happen.

[Dan] I’m going to pause now for our book of the week, which is actually I get to talk about this time. It is a book called Rain Bringer by Adam Berg, who’s an indie author. Rain Bringer is a fantasy novel that begins with what seems like a very much an inquiry story. A young woman has been made the new rain bringer for her village. Which means that she basically will ritually starve to death in order to save everyone as part of this ritual. She’s trying to figure out why that is, and has reason to believe that there is something deeply flawed with the magic outside of the deep flaw of sacrificing people in the first place. Really interesting, really compelling story. The kind of story that I haven’t seen in fantasy before, that is basically like a locked room mystery, but at the same time, about half the book follows the woman’s best friend as she goes exploring other things. It turns into several other types of story, all braided together, exactly the way that we’re talking about it. Really fresh, really well-written. Rain Bringer by Adam Berg.

[Mary Robinette] Cool. This actually, while we’re talking about this, one of the things that I want to talk about when we’re talk… When we’re thinking about try-fail cycles, is we frequently hear people talk about the saggy middle, the point where you’re just treading water. What I find with myself is that when I’m doing that, it’s because I want… Like, there’s some big set piece that is supposed to happen that is… That I know that we need to get to, but there’s several things that we have to go through in order to get to that point, and we have to set them up, and that when that happens, it’s because I’m not putting in conflicts that come with consequences. That I’m just kind of putting in things, because I need to put in something, because we can’t get there yet, and that my reason… Like, all of… That they are very artificial barriers between me and the solution. So when I look… When I use the M.I.C.E. Quotient, what I’m usually able to do is find more interesting problems to intro… To put in there. And I’m able to avoid the story bloat, which is the other thing that will often happen in the middle. Where I will have the man enter the room with the gun, but now I have to solve that. It’s not really connected to everything else. So if I look at the kinds of conflicts I’ve already been introducing, then I can usually find something on one of the threads that I have active and moving forward that will carry it through. That’s been very useful for me, is to look and say, Okay. Right now, what’s going on is that I have a milieu. Rather than having a man enter the room with a gun, is there something that I can have go wrong with the place? With their navigation in the place? Or I’ve been having a lot of things go wrong with the place, and I have this character thread that is active, what can I do… What about the place can cause my character to have a moment of self revelation or a moment of self crisis and kick one back over onto that character thread. That I find helpful sometimes as a way to keep that middle from sagging quite so much. C, did… It looked like you had a thought?

[C.L.] So I was just thinking about how you absolutely nailed the problem that I’ve been having writing my book for the last month. I’m kind of mad.


[Mary Robinette] You have stumbled onto why I enjoy doing Writing Excuses. The number of times that I have been listening to someone else and suddenly stopped paying attention to the episode as I rewrote a scene in my head…


[C.L.] Oh, my goodness. Okay.


[C.L.] Yeah, that’s exactly what I was doing.

[Mary Robinette] Yeah. Yeah. It’s a… I do it all the time.

[C.L.] I like… I really see the middle is the opportunity to like make everything kind of like… I don’t know how to put this. Because a lot of my frustration when I was starting to write books was when I was looking at structures. I would get to the middle and it would be like an endless field of nothing. It would be like, I’m reading, Save the Cat! It would be like, this section is called fun and games. It’s like, that’s wonderful. What does that mean?

[Mary Robinette] Yeah.

[C.L.] So what I figured out was what you do in the beginning part of the story, like, say the first quarter of the story, is you’re setting up all of the elements that you’re going to visit and develop in the middle of the story. So, yeah, you need to like figure out how you hit this inevitably big failure. After you like finally decide what it is you want to do with your life. Finding ways to, like, include people, or, like, say, characters or story threads into that failure kind of thickens the broth, so to say.

[Mary Robinette] Yeah. Yeah.

[Charlotte] So, if the beginning of the novel or the piece of work that you’re working on is about opening up questions and setting up your threads, your yes-but’s and your no-and’s, and the end is kind of like closing down those questions or answering those story questions, the middle is…?

[Mary Robinette] The middle is… That’s a great way to frame that. Huh. That’s a really good way to frame it. The middle, for me, is these are the conflicts I care about and repeated demonstrations of why it matters. Which I was not able to articulate until you asked me that question.


[Mary Robinette] But one of the things that I…

[Charlotte] That’s why I’m here.


[Mary Robinette] You do ask the best questions. So, sometimes I think about it as tent posts. I will often tell people to look at the middle of the story and to think about the kinds of conflicts that you’re interested in. Then to go back and figure out the frame that goes around it. Because, like, we spend a lot of time talking about middles and ends. In fact, with this master class, because it’s the M.I.C.E. Quotient, which is really about figuring out the frame and then what goes inside that frame. But it’s not actually about how to draw the picture in the middle. It’s just about what are the ingredients. The thing for me is that I think it’s good for figuring out, okay, these are the ingredients that I really enjoy playing with. This is the kind of conflict that I find interesting. Then putting… Then, knowing that, you’re going to put a frame around it that makes sense. But so often when we sit down to write, it’s like, I’m going to start… We start at the beginning and we progress through the story in ways that… Are often linear. So, we get into the middle and often… I have personally found that I’ve gotten into a middle that I’m not actually interested in.


[Mary Robinette] Like…

[Charlotte] Oow. That sounds challenging. That sounds difficult.

[Mary Robinette] It’s the thing, it’s like, oh, I have just written a thing… An inquiry story that is all about having like lawyers argue things, and I really, I’m just… The kind of conflict I’m just not interested in. So, it’s, like, well, how… What are the other… What am I interested in? What aspect of this problem should I have been focusing on? If not the legal inquiry, maybe the thing I’m actually more interested in is the restoration of status quo. So that then tells me that if I’m looking at that, then sometimes it means I need a different main character, sometimes it means this main character is fine, I just need to set the problem up in a different way. But, yeah…


[Mary Robinette] I don’t know. Does that make sense to anyone else? Since I just made that up on the spot of the [garbled] middles are about reiterating what’s important and why.

[C.L.] Yeah. I mean, like, this is why I like the middle, because the middle is where I get to have those big tentpole events that I’ve been kind of daydreaming about since before I actually started writing the novel. So that’s kind of the thing that keeps me going.

[Mary Robinette] Yeah.

[Charlotte] Good stuff.

[Mary Robinette] All right. So. I believe that we have arrived at homework time. You guessed it. It is time to grab your fairytale again. I want you to look at the conflicts that are in the middle, and think about whether or not those are the conflicts you actually want to engage with. If they are, see if you can add an appropriate try-fail cycle that does not leave the rail. So, see if you can add, if you got something that is character and event, see if you can add a try-fail cycle that is pure event. See if you can have one that is pure character. Then see if you can add one that kicks someone to the other. In a perfect world, if you’re being extremely excited, see if you can kick it back the other way. You don’t have to do them in sequence. But try playing with those and see what that does for your middles. This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses, now go write.