16.35: What is the M.I.C.E. Quotient?

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

The next eight episodes are a deep dive into the M.I.C.E. Quotient, so we’ll begin with a definition. M.I.C.E. is an organizational tool which categorizes story elements as Milieu, Inquiry, Character, or Event. It helps authors know which elements are in play, and how to work with these elements effectively.

Obviously there’s a lot more to M.I.C.E. than that, and in this episode we’ll lay it out in a way that makes the subsequent seven M.I.C.E.-related episodes much easier to navigate.

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


Seriously… watch The Wizard of Oz, and take notes. Track the M.I.C.E. elements, and how they nest in the story at every scale.

The Wizard of Oz (the 1939 film)

24 thoughts on “16.35: What is the M.I.C.E. Quotient?”

  1. Yes!! I love the MICE quotient and am stoked for this next series. Though also the play button is not appearing yet.

  2. Except… Mary Robinette’s theory about nesting code is misleading. Yes, with Wizard of Oz, it’s all neatly nested. But a story can have a child element spawn, its parent close, and the spawned element carry the next beat.

    Take, for example, the aside of being trapped in a room and getting the call about being late for the wedding. Being late for the wedding is unresolvable in the moment, so get out of the room, close that parent, then pick up the spawned thread and race to the wedding. (There are coding analogies to match, but they are more complex than HTML.)

    1. This comment comes off pendantic and borderline misogynist. MRK is a brilliant woman, I’m sure she knows it’s not a perfect analogy.

    2. This is one piece of advice I have never understood the logic of. I am sure we will get there. I mean why not open character first, then, say, inquiry, then close character, because only the new character could resolve the inquiry, which closes second. Not that I have a WIP with this structure or anything.

    3. Good point! Check out the next podcast out and see if it helps. Mary Robinette mentions there that sometimes stories don’t following the nesting pattern, but it’s a good way to analyze why a story might feel “off” by its wnd.

  3. I’m curious how the “nesting code” theory applies to subplots. I’ve heard that you want to start a new subplot before ending a previous one both to (1) keep up tension and (2) keep the story from feeling too coincidental. So your code would look like A B A B rather than A B B A (or A A B B). Maybe that is bad advice though? I’m interested to hear others’ thoughts.

  4. Was it necessary for Mary Robinette to specifically say she didn’t see eye to eye with Orson Scott Card politically? Anyone who’s listened to more than half a dozen episodes probably can guess it. (Indeed, I have vague recollection of some episode in the last ~four years I’ve listened where she mentioned MICE and that she learned it from his workshop, without throat-clearing.)

    And it doesn’t really have anything to do with the discussion at hand. People who are “bad” can have good ideas. We should be able to work with them in polite society. And the mere act of even passing association with someone “bad”, should not reasonably imply anyone who associates with them is themselves somehow “bad”. Least of all in a professional context! We work with people because we want to achieve something — not because we’re implicitly adopting any disliked component of their ethics.

    And I worry that this sort of preemptive distancing and apology, feeds into exactly the wrong sort of views about whether it’s appropriate to draw implications from professional (or for that matter, even general societal) association.

    1. I think the mention was fine, considering there is always a chance someone new listening. I also think it is fair mention considering Card has never been shy about what groups he funds so I see no reason why she can’t state her own opinions. Not only fair but prudent, whether you think so or not passing associations or working with certain people with such shadows _can_ affect careers. If she wants to make it clear to listeners or her own readers that she doesn’t agree with certain ideals, especially when a direct correlation can be made that might imply it, that is her decision.

      Regardless, as in all businesses and careers, no one is required to work with anyone with “bad” people as you put it; even if it would be “polite”.

      1. Even if someone new is listening, it’s still unnecessary. Just as we can infer it was unnecessary the previous time, by it not having been mentioned. To reiterate, it’s unreasonable to draw inferences from the onetime existence of a teacher-student relationship.

        And certainly no one is required to work with them. But taking a class from someone doesn’t rise even to that level.

        At risk of being somewhat fine-grained with language — but isn’t that what writers do? — “polite society” doesn’t refer to politeness per se. It refers to a system, tradition, custom of etiquette and manners: a manner and standard of interaction. I’m not sure that bringing up a buyer’s (or seller’s!) political opinions, that are not relevant to the transaction being conducted, fully accords with that. Modern society would be impossible if each of us had to interrogate the politics of everyone we interact with in anything like a commercial context (and even in many social contexts, e.g. the parents of the other kids on one’s child’s soccer team).

        1. Honestly I find it perplexing that you seem to be forgetting how much perception has been talked about here. Not only is perception important in various ways in how a story is written but equally in how an author is perceived by others in the business.

          I also find it ironic, and a bit hypocritical even, that you’ve spent several paragraphs talking about your opinion on her singular sentence opinion (in which she also mentions he was a good teacher despite the disagreement over ideals). The strange argument over wether it’s correct etiquette/standard/etc or not to mention it in the first place is poor considering other creators and companies such as Chris Sprouse and Lionsgate have also made a point to distance themselves publicly.

          Either way if you don’t have the energy to come up with better arguments than the wet paper points you’ve provided, then I won’t spend more energy poking holes in them.

          I hope you have a good day.

          (I also feel like an apology is warranted towards the Writing Excuses team and other listeners for this argument that is completely derailed from the actual topic of the episode, I shoved a stick in the beehive and I apologize)

          1. And what I’m saying — briefly — is that perception on this front really does not matter in the way you think it does. And whether or not other authors think it does. To think it does is Mean Girls nonsense.

            I suppose we have agreed to disagree, at this point. But neither of us is going to like where a divided society heads the more we ratify your opinion.

            1. The worst thing is that people just assume you’re alligned with someone’s political views just because you mentioned his or her work. We sadly descended to that level…

              1. Yup! We shouldn’t assume others beliefs. At first I was confused why Mary Robinette mentioned the political element — it’s true that she leans “left” and Card leans “right” — but I don’t mind it now, after thinking a bit. I’d like to think that Mary Robinette’s intention was actually to help C.L. feel comfortable and valued as one of the ‘cast’s guest presenters, because of their life’s interesting lens. (Yes, speculation on my part, but MR is always a kind co-host.) I also think Card writes wonderful spec. fic and educational writing books and I’m excited to dive into MICE — just like Mary Robinette is. Thanks, ‘cast!

  5. This week, Dan, C. L., Charlotte, and Mary Robinette kicked off another eight episode master class, this time exploring the M.I.C.E. Quotient. Milieu, inquiry, character, and event. How do you use them in writing, where does each one start and end, and more gets explained. You can read all about it in the transcript now available in the archives.

  6. I’ve often heard advice for subplots that runs contrary to the “nested coding” idea. I heard to keep up tension, you want open subplot A, run with it a bit, and then open subplot B before closing A, to avoid having a gap of tension in your story. And then run with subplot B for a while before closing it. (ABAB rather than ABBA) I also heard that serves to make your story feel less curated and more natural.
    I’m curious to hear the podcasters’ view on this, and I hope it gets addressed in a future episode.

    (Also, I hope this comment goes through. I made a similar comment a few days ago, but it must have been marked as spam, because it never was published. That’s happened to me in the past, too. I wish I knew what I was saying that tags my comments as spam so I could stop saying it, lol.)

  7. How does the MICE Quotient correspond to 3 Act Structure? If the theory of nesting code holds, the main plot of the story should be the first one to open, but often the main plot / problem of the book isn’t revealed until the end of act 1. So what is act 1 populated with? Usually some conflicts arise during the first act. Perhaps I’m missing the point here…

    1. I was thinking about this as well. I have been starting to map it out myself
      I will be glad to share it when I’m done, but I am rather hoping it will be covered in upcoming sessions.

    2. The short answer is that it doesn’t have to. These are just ways to visualize story. If your story doesn’t fit every structure, that’s okay, as long as the story itself works.

      Plot and character threads don’t have to be closed in the reverse order of when they were opened. It often makes sense to do so, but not always. It depends on your story and what works best for it.

      In Game of Thrones (TV show), they opened the White Walkers plot arc first, then the battle for the throne second. They closed the White Walkers first and the battle for the throne second. IMO, that is the biggest reason why season 8 didn’t work. Not because it’s wrong to do it that way, but because the fight against the White Walkers was always billed as the bigger issue. If they had reversed the timing on those resolutions, I think it would have worked much better.

      On the other hand, I’m working on a 3 book series where the first book includes 2 major plot arcs. This first one introduced is a plot to kidnap the MC and the second involves a curse that the MC inherits. The curse plot arc spans the entire series, so the kidnap plot gets resolved in the climax and there is a payoff on the curse plot arc in the denouement. Nesting them wouldn’t be possible without introducing the curse plot first, but that isn’t possible, as the curse plot arc comes about as a direct result of the kidnap plot arc.

      The bottom line is, do what works for your story.

  8. I can vouch that this method works well for an intuitive writer like myself. I’ve talked a lot (in other places) about how I’m at the far end of the spectrum and don’t pre-plot at all (because I can’t) and that I’m more of a gardener. So most structural approaches fall flat for me. But I find the MICE approach very helpful. Not necessarily in figuring out how to get out of a situation as MRK suggests (though I can see how that would be useful), but as a way of analyzing what I’m doing as I’m doing it, and using that understanding to refine the structure. To extend the analogy, MICE helps me identify what plants are coming up and blooming, so that I can nurture and weed accordingly.

  9. I love C.L.’s “I have written four books”…. That won the World Fantasy Award for best novel and have multiple finalists for Hugos, Nebulas, Canada Reads, and who knows what else among them. Charmingly modest as always.

    Also, really looking forward to this. I have never quite wrapped my head around these concepts and already They’re making a little more sense.

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