Writing Excuses 15.25: Using the MICE Quotient for Conflict
Key Points: MICE (milieu, inquiry, character, and event) affect where your story starts, stops, and the kinds of conflicts it has. Milieu stories start when a character enters a place and ends when they exit. The conflicts are things that prevent them from exiting the place. Inquiry is driven by questions, starting with a question, and ending when it is answered. In between, things keep the character from answering the question. Combining plot threads makes a story more interesting, but can also cause story bloat. Character stories are about character transformation, character change. The conflicts are things that get in the way of that change, interior conflicts. Is the character driving the change, or are they resisting the change? Event stories start when the normal status quo gets broken in some way, and the character tries to fix it. They revolve around external conflict, and are often what people think of as plot. The event changes many things, introducing many conflicts that need to be resolved, so you have conflicts throughout your story.
[Mary Robinette] Season 15, Episode 25.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Using the MICE Quotient for Conflict.
[Mary Robinette] 15 minutes long.
[Dan] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Howard] And we’re not that smart.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Mary Robinette] I’m Mary Robinette.
[Dan] I’m Dan.
[Howard] And I’m Howard.
[Brandon] We are going to be talking about the MICE quotient again. Mary Robinette, can you give us a quick overview again of what it is?
[Mary Robinette] Great. So the MICE quotient is an organizational theory that says that every story contains four elements, milieu, inquiry, character, and event. Kind of which one of those is the major driver affects where your story starts and stops and the kinds of conflicts that go in the middle. You can have more than one, and then you can treat it kind of like nesting boxes.
[Brandon] In the past, we have talked about using this to kind of frame and organize your story. One of your students suggested that we talk about how the MICE quotient can lead to conflict in a story, which is a really good idea. So we’re going to use that.
[Mary Robinette] It’s something that I get very excited about, because we do talk about it mostly as framing, but what you’re framing is the conflict in the middle. So if we know where a story starts, so, for instance, let’s talk about milieu to begin with. Milieu begins when a character enters a place and it ends when they exit. Which means that every conflict that your character is running into has to be something that prevents them from exiting the place, because the moment they do, the story is over. So that then makes it really easy to identify the kinds of conflicts that you need to put in the middle because everything is an impediment to getting out. The example that I often use for a milieu conflict, like, just a milieu stream, is in Star Wars, the retrieving the princess sequence. Because you get in, you retrieve the princess, you get back out. When they’re running through the halls and they’re being chased by storm troopers, you’ve got a series of things that happen. So, are they able to escape? That’s your basic question. It’s like, are they able to escape? Then you apply a series of yes-no, no-and’s. But what happens there is the first thing that they try in their try-fail cycles, they tried jumping down a chute. Does that work? No. And they wind up in a garbage chute. So they’re still trapped. Are they able to get out of the garbage chute by firing a blaster at the wall? No. And they wake up something. So, are they able to get away from that? Yes, but it’s because the garbage… It turns out it’s a trash compactor and the walls are coming further in. So it… But every single one of those is all about preventing them from getting out of that place. When they finally do, everything… When they get out of the trash compactor, that’s… That part of the story is closed. When they get off the ship, that part of the story is closed. But everything else is a conflict, it’s something that is a barrier between them and exiting.
[Brandon] Okay. So that seems to make a lot of sense for milieu. What about inquiry?
[Mary Robinette] Okay. So. This is one of those episodes where I’m just talking a lot.
[Mary Robinette] So, on inquiry story is driven by questions, right? Murder mysteries are classic examples. So your character has a question at the beginning. The story is over when your character answers the question. So what you’re looking for in the middle of the story are the things that keep him from answering the questions. Howard, you just made a face.
[Howard] I just made… The classic inquiry story try-fail bit is the act two body in a police procedural. We have a suspect, we have a theory, we are confident in this. Our suspect turns out to be a victim, is now dead. So that’s a beautiful example of that.
[Brandon] What I’m hearing, kind of understanding this time around, both with milieu in here, is, I kind of always imagined milieu simply being you’re in a place and you have to get out. But there are complications along the way. You mentioned Star Wars. They can’t just get out. They have to get out with this person. And I’m thinking of these inquiry stories. There’s a lot of times where the audience, and even the detective, sometimes, know who did it. But the question is bigger than just who did it. It is can we convict them, or do I have the right person, or how do I prove it? Rather than just, who did it.
[Howard] In which case, often the act two body is the person who had the key evidence that you needed in order to convict.
[Mary Robinette] Yeah. Again, these are things that are standing in the way of answering that question. A lot of times, what happens, like with a mystery or a thriller, is that answering one question opens up a much bigger can of worms. That is again, the character is like, I thought I had an answer, but that answer is actually like I’m… It’s so much… Like, what is making that weird sound? Is it… What is making that weird sound? Then you’re like…
[Mary Robinette] Then you’re like, “Oh. Well, the thing that’s making that weird sound is that my front door is open.” Why is my front door open? Like, that thing where it just keeps unpacking. But the thing is that as long as it’s staying on that line of questioning… It’s still on inquiry story. Where you run into danger is when you introduce a conflict that is not related to that initial story question, that isn’t preventing your character from escaping… Or answering a question.
[Brandon] So, would you call this a problem with the story or does it simply require some different skills to achieve, or what?
[Mary Robinette] So, I say it’s a problem, it is one of the things that causes story bloat. When you interrupt… When you prevent your character from finding an answer by having a plot thread come in from the side. But it’s also something that if you’re doing it deliberately, on purpose, where you have multiple threads going through, that it can make the story more interesting. Because a single thread story is just straight ahead, it’s fairly boring. We know what the conflicts are going to look like. But, like, one of the things that is also going on in that Star Wars sequence that I’m talking about is that there is all this character stuff that’s going on. Like, Luke is trying to prove that he’s worthwhile.
[Brandon] And Han just wants money.
[Mary Robinette] Han just wants money. All of that interpersonal conflict is also happening, interfering with the escape. That’s part of what causes the blaster fire, right? That’s part of what causes the delay in talking to C-3PO, because they’re just yelling.
[Howard] Coming back to the idea of the police procedural, super common in your police procedurals is the A plot, B plot structure. Often, the B plot is the one where we are doing a character story, or we’re doing a milieu thing. So you will have those conflicts. I see it as problematic when the only conflict in the story is the thing that was introduced in the B plot. So it’s something to watch out for. But some of the most elegantly constructed police procedurals are places where the A and the B, the conflicts weave back and forth and it all feels very organic. But when you pick it apart using this tool, you realize, man, you guys nested your parentheses and everything. It’s just…
[Howard] I wish I wrote that.
[Brandon] Let’s stop for our book of the week, which is Escaping Exodus.
[Dan] Escaping Exodus by Nicky Drayden. This is a far future science fiction novel that I read in January. It’s about a future of Earth when we’ve kind of ruined the planet, each is a common trope. In reaching out for the stars, we were unable to find any other habitable planets, but we apparently did find giant vacuum survivable creatures that just fly through space that we can live inside of.
[Dan] So, the author creates this incredibly interesting culture about these people who just move from beast to beast, living inside of them. They’ve been doing this for generations, to the point that they can barely remember this kind of dark past when they lived on a dead planet instead of inside this live, vibrant beast. The main character is going to soon inherit, like, the high priestess role, kind of the leader of the clan, the matriarch. It’s a really cool story that’s centered around a really fascinating premise, and I love it.
[Brandon] Awesome. Escaping Exodus by Nicky Drayden.
[Brandon] All right. So we’ve got two more letters left.
[Mary Robinette] Yeah.
[Mary Robinette] So we’ve got character. So character stories… I joke that character stories are driven by angst.
[Mary Robinette] Because character stories are about your character going through a rediscovery of self, their transformation. It’s usually begun because they’re unhappy. So the other way that I’ll joke about it sometimes is that it starts when your character’s unhappy, and it ends when they’re happy. That’s in a happy ending. The books that Dan writes, that end when your character is more unhappy. An unhappy different…
[Dan] About half-and-half.
[Mary Robinette] Okay.
[Brandon] So, when they thought they were happy for a little while, and then they get to be more unhappy because they lose that happiness.
[Mary Robinette] Yes.
[Howard] It starts when you’re unhappy, and it ends when you realize, no, that was actually better.
[Mary Robinette] But this is the thing, that it is… So what’s happening in a character story is that your character’s trying to change. When… Or they’re resisting change. But when that change happens, once that change has occurred, the story is over. That arc is over. So all of the things that are happening in the story are things that get in the way of that self transformation. It’s… You’re filling them with self loathing, doubt, they try to make a change, it backfires, all of these things. You see it a lot in coming-of-ages, in romances, and things like that. But it’s basically the character getting in the way of themselves. Character stories are very much an interior conflict. A lot of times, when you’re pairing them with something else like a milieu or inquiry or event, which we’ll talk about in a moment, what you’re doing is that the character goal is something that often they have to sacrifice in order to achieve another goal. I find that putting the character conflict kind of in direct opposition to whatever goal that they need is very useful. Like, the classic epic fantasy version is I can’t help with this, I’m an orphan farmboy.
[Mary Robinette] Then you get a little bit further along. Well, I’ll come along, but I’m not really going to be able to do anything, because I’m an orphan farmboy. Oh, okay, I’ve picked up a sword. I stabbed something. Hey. I guess I can do something, even though I’m an orphan farmboy. Then, eventually, the orphan farmboy becomes the king. It’s like, “Hey, look at me, orphan farmboy. I’m the king. I guess being an orphan farmboy isn’t so bad after all.” It’s this thing.
[Dan] I like how mercilessly you’re mocking 50% of our listeners.
[Dan] Including Brandon.
[Brandon] 50% of our listeners are orphans?
[Dan] And farmboys. 25% of our cast are orphans.
[Gasp… Okay… That…]
[Howard] That’s true. It’s true.
[Dan] That shut everyone up real fast. Let’s talk about event stories.
[Howard] I tried to play that… I tried to play that card to keep the conversation going.
[Mary Robinette] Dan, Dan. If you can find a way to bring the mood down…
[Howard] One of the things that I like about character…
[Dan] He was happy and I needed to make him unhappy.
[Howard] One of the things that I like about character stories is that… And character conflicts. One of the things that we, as human beings, most love, even if we don’t admit it, is the approval of, the friendship of, the comradery with other people. When you are trying to change, the people around you probably don’t want you to, if they’re people who like you. Because you might change into something they don’t like.
[Mary Robinette] Yeah.
[Howard] There are so many thousands of ways to explore that principle. It’s so incredibly relatable, because, to some extent or another, we’ve all been there. We’ve all done that.
[Mary Robinette] Yeah. One of the things about that is that when you’re thinking about a character story, I think that… We often talk about a character has to undergo change, but one of the things for me is, is the character driving the change themselves or are they resisting the change? Is the change being… Something that they don’t want to do? Like, the character who does not want to discover that they’re actually a jerk. That they insist that they’re not a jerk, and, by the end, they realize that they are and they mend their ways. But if you come into it and you’ve got a character who’s like, “Hey, I have actually had anger management issues my entire life, and I’m going to work really hard to not do that.” Or the one who’s like, “All right. So it’s time to be a parent. I’m going to buckle up, even though this doesn’t come naturally to me. But let me… What are the things that I can do?” Those are two different things. So the one whose resisting the change, when they go through their try-fail cycles, they’re trying to hold onto that initial definition. Right? So the failure to hold onto it is the thing that propels them onto the next stage in their evolution. Whereas someone who’s trying to change, they’re going to be failing to change, and when they succeed, that’s what the thing… That propels them onto the next thing. I think it’s important to know kind of where your character is on that journey, and that it’s going to shift, too, over the course of their arc, sometimes. But the conflicts are all the things that prevent them from making that change.
[Brandon] Event stories.
[Mary Robinette] All right. So, event stories are the status quo, the normal, the outside world, something breaks it. Your character tries to put it… Set it right. So where event stories are internal conflict… Er, sorry, character stories are internal conflict, event stories are external conflict. These are the things that most people think about as the plot. It’s the things that are happening. Even though all of the other ones are also plot. But it’s… Those are the conflicts, it’s like, “Someone with a gun. Oh, no.”
[Dan] So, I’ve been thinking about this the whole time. I haven’t been saying much because I’ve been trying to look at my own book, Zero G, in terms of this. MICE quotient isn’t something that I use a lot when I’m outlining. But I’m fascinated by this idea of how it can create conflict, and how it can flavor the conflicts in certain directions. So, Zero G is Home Alone in space. A little boy is on a colony ship going to another planet. Pirates hijack it. He has to fight them off, because he’s the only one awake. If that were a milieu story, then the conflicts would be around, well, he gets on the ship, and then the story ends when he gets off the ship, and all the conflicts would be there in the middle, the things that are stopping him from getting off the ship. That would be a very different book than what I have now, which is more of an event story. Pirates show up and he needs to get rid of them.
[Mary Robinette] Right.
[Dan] So we… So you can tell the same story… I could have told it as a milieu story…
[Mary Robinette] You absolutely could.
[Dan] Where all of the conflicts are centered around the ship itself and things that go wrong with it. But choosing one will give you a really good idea of what kinds of conflicts to include.
[Mary Robinette] Exactly. This is… There are milieu elements in Zero G.
[Mary Robinette] One of the things about it is he has to navigate. You do open with him getting on the ship.
[Dan] And close with him getting to a new planet.
[Mary Robinette] And close with him arriving… But you’re right, the major driver is the event, the arrival of the pirates. And the failure of his pod. So there’s a disruption of his status quo. If that pod hadn’t failed…
[Dan] Then the story would be very different.
[Mary Robinette] Very, very different. But it… That catalyst exists. It’s that bouncing back and forth a lot of times that can make the story richer and more interesting. But it does help you focus it. One of the things that I use as an example sometimes is Goldilocks and the Three Bears. So if we begin, if we do a straight ahead milieu story with Goldilocks, Goldilocks… Without any of the other elements, it’s like Goldilocks decides to go for an adventure. She explores a meadow and then she comes home. She has problems in the meadow, her shoe comes untied. Like, there’s no bears. Whereas if I wanted to tell it as a character story, I could be like no one thinks that Goldilocks is old enough to do the things on her own. So she goes off on an adventure, discovers she’s way out of her depth when she encounters bears, comes home, being a child is not so bad. Or, Mama Bear could be like, “I want to be a great porridge chef.”
[Mary Robinette] “My family does not appreciate my porridge. They want sandwiches.” Then finally discovers that it is in fact her chosen audience of little blonde girls…
[Mary Robinette] But these are the things that… Knowing what they do, it can help you focus it.
[Howard] I think that with event stories, one of the challenges, circling back to conflict, is that event… It often feels like, well, I drop in an event, there’s my conflict. I’m done. Well, you can’t be done, because you have to have conflict throughout the story. What are the things that drove it? The event changed the status quo. There are elements throughout the story that you’ve built that our characters will continue to discover have changed as a result of the initial event. It’s not just a single conflict that needs to be resolved.
[Mary Robinette] Correct.
[Brandon] Well, the event of this episode is coming to an end.
[Brandon] But there’s one last thing to do. You have some homework for us, Mary Robinette.
[Mary Robinette] That’s right. So, what I want you to do is… I don’t want you to think about the frame of the story. I want you to actually just free write something. A character is doing something. Free write… Give yourself a page, two pages. Then, I want you to look at it and identify the MICE elements that are inherently in the conflicts there. So, look at it and ask yourself, is my character trying to navigate or escape a place? If they are, you’ve got a milieu going on in there. If they’re not, eh. Are they trying to answer a question? You’ve got an inquiry. Are they trying to change themselves? Are they unhappy with themself? That’s a character story. Are they trying to change the outside world, the status quo? That’s an event story. Look at which one is kind of the dominant one. You might have two in there. Pick the one that you’re most interested in. Maybe two. I’ll give you two, if you’re really feeling ambitious and want to write a lot. Build additional conflicts that follow those.
[Brandon] All right. This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses. Now go write.