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

Orson Scott Card’s M.I.C.E. quotient is a concept from his books Character and Viewpoint and How to Write Science Fiction. M.I.C.E. stands for Milieu, Idea, Character, and Event, and can serve as a way to identify what kind of story you’re telling, and which elements you might need to spend more time fleshing out.

Mary walks us through each of the M.I.C.E. elements, and then we discuss ways in which writers can apply the quotient for improving their writing.

Then we try to take the Billy Goats Gruff tale and spin it as four different stories, one each for the M.I.C.E. elements, but that proves to be a pretty ambitious undertaking for us. Oh, the stumbling.

Audiobook Pick-of-the-Week: Enchantment, by Orson Scott Card, narrated by Stefan Rudnicki.

Writing Prompt: Apply the M.I.C.E. quotient to Red Riding Hood, and write at least one page of story per element. Wow, this sounds a lot like homework.

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53 thoughts on “Writing Excuses 6.10: Scott Card’s M.I.C.E. Quotient”

  1. Great episode! Definitely going to pick up OSC’s book Character and Viewpoint. The MICE concept seems like an excellent way to add/keep the book structured. Do you think this is vital to the outlining process or more useful as a check and balance during the revising process?

  2. Perfect timing, I am halfway through reading that exact part of How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy but had to put the book down for dinner. Are you going to be spoiling the end of that chapter?
    I bought the book this past week at Borders cause I figured it would be a smart idea to buy a book on how to write from a bookstore closing down so there are less places to physically go for people to buy something I may eventually write. (I never win awards for great timing)

  3. I understand a lot more about why I do like some stories and I don’t like others now. The notion that expectation can rule a story so much is a powerful idea.

    I’ve been struggling with why I disliked a recent read and I think this podcast helped me assess that idea much better. I know also how to avoid making mistakes in setup with my writing now, especially if I try to write something that involves a murder mystery.

  4. Hah! A MICE podcast! Fantastic!

    Love it. All exactly right.

    Who built this bridge, eh?
    Who built this bridge, eh?

  5. This WAS a particularly good ‘cast! Back to those practical nuts and bolts that make WE so invaluable.

    Also, Howard’s “one goat, per goat” joke almost made him an accessory to my death-by-chip-snorting.

  6. I haven’t read Card’s book so I don’t know if this applies particularly to the M.I.C.E. quotient or not, but to be entirely fair, I think the word “milieu” implies mood as well as setting.

  7. @Raethe/Silk: How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy is an excellent text full of great ideas and direct examples of how Card’s ideas work. It’s really worth checking out because the advice inside is exceptional. I think it’s probably one of the five bests texts out there discussing how to write.

  8. Thanks for the recommendation, Len. :)

    To clarify the context of my earlier comment (my bad!) I brought it up because someone–I think it was Brandon–joked that Scott Card cheated by using the word “milieu” instead of “setting,” for the purposes of having a nice acronym. So perhaps Scott Card wanted a somewhat broader term, to give credit where I don’t know if it’s due. ;)

  9. Just FWIW: “The milieu is the world — the planet, the society, the weather, the family, all the elements that came up during the world creation phase.” (p. 76, How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy, Orson Scott Card). Also, “The characters must have a place in which to perform the acts that make up the story — the setting, the milieu of the tale. The milieu includes all the physical locations that are used… The milieu also includes the culture — the customs, laws, social roles, and public expectations that limit and illuminate all the the character thinks and feels and says and does.” (page 49, Characters & Viewpoint, Orson Scott Card)

    And it makes a nicer acronym :-)

  10. That said, Mike, I don’t see anything there that doesn’t fall under setting using more anglocentric terminology. Both milieu and setting refer to “where the story takes place” in intimate detail (I use a broad sense of where to be answered not by “a city” but “a city of this technological level, ruled by X, Y important to the nation it’s a part of, Z type of culture….”)

  11. Good podcast! I think this is a useful tool for those writers that have problems fulfilling promises made to the reader. It will definitely help them identify where those promises are and they can go from there. Personally, my writing style is a little more organic and less conscious as far as structure goes. As the cast alluded to in an earlier podcast, you can break down most stories into multiple structures. Great job :-)

  12. This isn’t quite on topic but once again you guys talk about promises to the reader and this time something occurred to me. If you’ve read the blurb the promises begin before you’ve opened the book. Rightly or wrongly it is going to give you an idea of what type of story you’re going to read. When you start running short on ideas I would like to hear your take this.
    I’ve read blurbs that have actually given all the story away which hints that the author should probably be the one to write it or at least have some say in the matter. In-store a good picture or an interesting title will make me pick up a book but a bad blurb will make me put it down.

    By the way – did you guys ever get around to doing an episode on the Hero with a Thousand Faces? I think it was promised in the very first year?

  13. Great fun – I’d heard the MICE Quotient before, but it was most enjoyable hearing you define it and apply it (I’ve commented before that my favorite ‘casts are the ones where you guys just riff, though I have to be careful not spew tea over my keyboard – Brandon almost got me with “Jordo!”)

    As for Red Riding Hood MICE’d:

    Milieu – It was just an ordinary day, until Red went into The Woods.

    Idea – What happened to Grandma? And who’s that hairy guy in her nightie?

    Character – “Go straight to Grandma’s,” her mother had said, but Red couldn’t wait to stray off the path.

    Event – Miss Hood lived a life of upmost propriety and respectability. But then she met the Wolf.

    (At least you guys didn’t pick The Goose Girl, just about the strangest Grimm’s tale out there.)

  14. Great podcast. I’ve been thinking a lot about MICE quotient recently, ever since Mary mentioned it a few episodes ago.

    I have a question I’d love to hear your thoughts on. How does this change when you’re writing a series (specifically a closed-ended series, say a trilogy)? In particular, is it (possible, preferred) to have book one be a mileu story that opens with character because the whole trilogy is character? Do you run the risk of upsetting readers by leaving the character opening unresolved so that it can be closed in book 3? If not, how does the certain knowledge that there’s more to the story set in when the first book ends fit into the MICE quotient framework?


  15. @Sean

    LOCK quotient? I just tried googling that, couldn’t find anything. Care to elaborate?

  16. Aaaand right after I post, I think to google “LOCK +writing” rather than “LOCK quotient”. Found something.

    Lead, Objective, Conflict, Knockout? Interesting.

  17. Can someone explain to me how the horror movie genre fits in MICE quotient, when either A) The villain is not dead and people continue to die or B) In the case of Zombie movies the people do not escape from the zombies when they think they will at the end. It feels like promises are unfulfilled left and right.

  18. @Kedomat: Easy!

    In both cases, the genre is more important than the M.I.C.E. elements in terms of making promises to the reader. Horror often horrifies us by breaking promises. We don’t escape the zombies. We don’t make it back out of the haunted house. The killer is never caught.

    It’s one reason I don’t like Horror, but it’s also one of the reasons other people love it.

  19. I have long felt the M in MICE didn’t belong. I think it weakens the quotient.

    Milieu stories offer the reader a promise of wonderful or fascinating or thrilling (or sometimes terrible) DISCOVERY. You’re going to a new place and will experience wonders and dangers or fascinating things you find there. It’s filling the longing many of us have of going to new places and seeing new things and people.

    If you take it to the extreme, you end up with a travelogue. That’s what that genre is. But I don’t think most of us are in the business of writing fictional travelogues.

    In fact, I think the vast majority of readers would tire if our characters just went from thing to thing unless an I, C, or E drove it. Would you have followed Frodo, for example, if there was no ring, no Ring Wraiths, no Gollum or Sauraman trying to steal the wring, no reason to leave the Shire except that there were cool things in the woods? You could write it episodically, but how long would you last if you didn’t encounter episodes that provided an I, C, or E?

    Milieu in fiction cannot stand on its own. You can have an idea story without any character (hardship and lack and opportunity) or event (external threat and danger) elements and vice versa. That’s because what Card is describing with ICE are all types of story problems.

    But Milieu is not a story problem. It’s a different thing altogether, a main story element like problem and character and plot and humor or style. As such it’s not optional. You have to set the events somewhere, even if you do it in a bare bones fashion. What sets a milieu story apart from others is that one of the chief draws of a milieu story is the setting itself. And so you give it more stage time.

    You may start the story when the main character enters the world and end it when she leaves. But that’s only relevant if the main character is a visitor or going on some quest. Your story may indeed be about a traveler. But there are many stories with huge milieu draws that aren’t about travelers.

    In the end, I think what structures a story is an I, C, or E. Even if it’s minimal and really only serves the purpose of getting us from place to place.

  20. A few examples while I wait for a meeting.

    Let me take Pride & Prejudice. The milieu is one of its main draws. So are the characters. But what structures the story?

    The story problem of love and marriage. It starts when that possibility is raised and ends when the characters we love find it or don’t.

    Cranford is the same way. Lots of stage time on various episodes. But each is structured around an ICE. And all of the episodes are touched by the bigger E.

    Let’s look at Gulliver. What structures each episode?

    His problems–oppressed by little people, threatened by an opposing navy (yea, giant bladders), oppressed by large ladies–it’s all external threat.

    I really think that problem–mystery (idea), opportunity or lack (character), and danger (event) is what generates plot and structure.

  21. Card definitely cheated by using milieu, which is sad because it could have been E.P.I.C.


    I will hence-forth refer to it as the EPIC quotient.

  22. Re: LOCK

    Yes, Plot and Structure! That is where I must have read it…

    I thought it was OSC, but now I am 90 percent sure I am wrong about that.

    I have a bad memory, sorry… but anyway…

    Yes, Plot and Structure! That is where I must have read it…

    I thought it was OSC, but now I am 90 percent sure I am wrong about that.

  23. I just saw the film Super 8 (which is almost, but not quite, entirely unlike it’s description on IMDB) and noticed that all four elements of MICE can be easily picked out on the large scale.

  24. To Howard:

    Backstory to Avatar –

    Engineers are analyzing this new element they just found from a planet. They are being watched by the company. While testing the properties of the element, the substance jumps into the air! One of the engineers shouts, “Look at that, we’ve discovered unobtanium!” The inspector from the company writes down “onobtanium” into his notebook under “substance name”.

    Yeah, they should have hung a lantern on that one ;)

  25. @ John Brown

    I like to look at Milieu based stories as “fish out of water” stories. The main “problems” come from the tension between the cultures and the main character reflecting on their own culture in light of the new one.
    Card uses Shogun as an example. This is one of the best examples IMO (though he is wrong about it ending when Blackthorn leaves – SPOILER – he never does leave in either the book or miniseries. It ends with the revelation to the reader that no matter how many times he tries to rebuild his ship, the Shogun will never allow him to leave. This still fulfills Milieu in my opinion).
    One of Blackthorn’s first problems comes when his life and the lives of his crew are threatened by the bloodthirsty rulers of the setting he has been stranded in (the Samurai have every right to cut off his head at the least provocation).
    He finds the customs of the Japanese to be abhorrent (such as taking a bath)
    He finds that the Jesuits – the mortal enemies of his home setting and their alleys – have a strong presence in the land and are trying to use the Japanese in the fight against the English and Dutch (his original mission was to plunder the ships of the enemy).
    He must also deal with the husband of the woman he loves (she is only married to him because of her family’s honor (honor being the most important aspect of the society) and the Shogun will not grant a divorce because it will dishonor one of his most trusted Samurai and demands that they reconcile – again brought about by the setting).
    The entire story has Blackthorn trying to reclaim his ship and get the surviving crew back home. But during the story he also comes to respect and embrace the Japanese culture to some degree. However, once his closest ties are severed, he focuses totally on returning home once again.
    While there is plenty of I.C.E. throughout the story, the Milieu is the underlying bridge of the overall plot. The whole point of the MICE quotient, to me anyway, is how to begin and end the story, and how to decide on the main thread that holds the other aspects together. Everything in Shogun revolves around the strangeness of late 16th century Japan to Blackthorn (and the audience), how he deals with that strangeness, and how – and if – he can get back out of it.

  26. I find it somewhere between wonderful and deeply depressing that people who aren’t published authors purport to give writing advice and/or literary criticism. One cheer for the democratising effect of the social web meeting the American democratic idea that nobody is better than anyone else.

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