Writing Excuses 16.35: What Is the M.I.C.E. Quotient?
Key Points: What Is the M.I.C.E. Quotient? Milieu, inquiry, character, and event. Milieu stories are driven by place, beginning when a character enters a place and end when they exit. The conflicts keep the character from leaving. Inquiry stories begin with a question and end when the character answers it. The conflicts keep the character from answering the question. Character stories start with “Who am I?” and end with recognition of self. The conflicts focus on blocking change. Event stories are action, starting with disruption, and ending with return to normal or establishing a new normal. The conflicts are all about blocking that restoration. Most stories have multiple threads, nested like Matryoshka dolls. The M.I.C.E. Quotient can help you decide what to include or remove, by identifying what kind of thread you are working on. The M.I.C.E. Quotient originated with Orson Scott Card, although his idea element has been renamed inquiry. Almost all stories, from short stories to novels, have multiple threads, involving several M.I.C.E. elements.
[Season 16, Episode 35]
[Dan] This is Writing Excuses, deep dive into the M.I.C.E. Quotient, episode one, What Is the M.I.C.E. Quotient?
[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 very excited to have you here. This is the start of another eight episode master class. We’re going to have Mary Robinette teaching us all about the M.I.C.E. Quotient. This is something she’s an absolute expert on. We’re very excited. Before we get into this, let’s get some quick introductions. We’ve got two incredible guest hosts with us this time around. C. L. Polk and Charlotte Forfieh. C. L.… C, can you introduce yourself?
[C. L.] Hi. I’m C. L. Polk. I write fantasy novels. I wrote a trilogy called the Kingston Cycle. I have a standalone book called The Midnight Bargain. I had a short story read on LeVar Burton Reads.
[Dan] [Oooo] That’s awesome.
[Mary Robinette] [garbled]
[Dan] Well, we’re excited to have you. Thank you very much for being on the show. Charlotte, how about you? Tell us about yourself.
[Charlotte] Hi. Hi, everyone. My name’s Charlotte Forfieh. I’m coming to you out of the UK. I’m an emerging writer. I’ve written a few short stories and had them published. I’m currently grappling with a novel.
[Mary Robinette] I invited both C. L. and Charlotte to join us for this for related reasons. We’ve all… All three of us have had long conversations about the M.I.C.E. Quotient. But C approaches writing in different ways than I do. It’s been interesting… I subscribe to their Patreon and it’s been interesting to watch the way they talk about writing. It’s really cool. Highly recommended. Charlotte is early career, but actually has formal education in writing, which I do not, and is one of my mentees and is actively working on her first novel using the M.I.C.E. Quotient. Some of the conversations that we were having around that also made me think, you know, this would be useful, I think, to a lot of the… You, listeners, because one of the things that happens with Dan and I is that we’ve been doing this for long enough that we forget sometimes about the things that are hard at the beginning. We also shorthand so much that frequently it’s like, well, obviously. Obviously you’re doing that. Everyone’s like, “Uh, excuse me. Um, that? What is that?”
[Mary Robinette] So, with all of that, here’s how this is going to go. We’re going to do an overview of the M.I.C.E. Quotient today. You’re going to hear a lot of me talking today. Then, in the subsequent weeks, we’re going to take each individual element of the M.I.C.E. Quotient and look at it, do a deep dive into it, and then we’ll look at how you can use these tools.
So, I should probably explain what the M.I.C.E. Quotient is. The M.I.C.E. Quotient is an organizational theory. It’s an acronym. It stands for milieu, inquiry, character, and event. Longtime listeners will have heard me talk about it is the MACE Quotient, because there was a time when I was experimenting with using Ask-Answer for the inquiry. But I realized that in podcast it frequently sounded like I was saying Ass Cancer, which was not helpful…
[Mary Robinette] As a descriptive phrase. So, inquiry. It turns out that you can pretty much explain every story, fiction and nonfiction, through this fairly simple organizational theory. I’m going to talk about this through the lens of fiction, but it is everywhere. So, stories are made of these four elements. They’re mixed in different proportions. Milieus, inquiries, characters, and events. These elements can help determine where a story starts and stops and the kinds of conflicts your characters face.
So, for instance, milieu stories are driven by place. These stories begin when a character enters a place and they end when they exit. So, things like Gulliver’s Travels, Around the World in 80 Days, are classic examples. The neat thing is that if you know where a milieu story ends, this also tells you what sort of conflicts go in the middle, because your job as an author is to figure out what your story needs to do and then systematically deny them the solution. So, milieu conflicts end when your character exits the place. That means that the conflicts are all about keeping the character from leaving. So these are things like struggling to exit, trying to survive, and attempting to navigate. That’s milieu.
Inquiry stories are driven by questions. They began when a character has a question and they end when they answer it. It’s a super complicated structure. So, mystery stories, classic inquiry stories. Like Sherlock Holmes, Poirot. For an inquiry conflict, your goal is to keep your character from answering the question. They’re lied to, they can’t understand the answer, the answers lead to dead ends, so many red herrings. These are inquiry conflicts.
Character stories are pretty much driven by angst. In the simplest form, they began when a character’s unhappy, they end when they are happy. But the real start of a character story is when a character says, “Who am I?” and it ends when they’re like, “Oh. This is who I am.” They begin with this shift in identity, the self identity, and they end when that character solidifies their self-definition. So, coming-of-age stories, romances. The big thing there with conflicts, your character’s trying to change, stop them. Don’t let them break out of their roles. Fill them with self loathing. Have the change backfire. I’m not really a writer. I mean, that’s a character story, right?
Event stories are driven by action. These began when the status quo is disrupted. So when normal breaks. They end when it’s restored or there’s a new status quo. Yes, everyone dies does count as a new status quo so this is disaster stories, like Inferno, Deep Impact. By this point, you probably understand the drill. You do not let your character restore the status quo. You get fight scenes, chase scenes, explosions. They try to set things right. It has unintended consequences. Just being mean. Like, that is your literal job as an author.
Now, it is easy to confuse character stories and event stories. Character stories are about internal conflicts. I’ll never be popular. Event stories are about external conflicts. Oh, no, an asteroid is coming at the Earth.
So that’s what the individual M.I.C.E. elements look like. We are going to do a deep dive into each one of those. But as we do that, I’m just going to go ahead and flag for you to think about, that you almost never see single thread stories. Most stories are made up of multiple threads. Because, honestly, the single thread stories tend to be really dull. So, how do you do it? Think about nesting code. For those of you who have ever done any HTML, if I just say nesting code, you understand what is happening. You’d have milieu, inquiry, inquiry, milieu. For those of you who’ve never done any HTML, think of it like unpacking a box from IKEA. You open the box… Or just a toy chest. You open the box, and you pull out all of your inquiry toys, and you’re going to play with those. Inside that box, there’s another smaller box that is made up of character. You pull that box out and open it and you pull out all of your character toys. You play with those toys. Then, at the end, you pack them back into the box. In order to get the boxes to nest neatly, you have to put the character toys back into their box, put it back inside the inquiry box, and then put those toys away. Otherwise you will never be able to return it to IKEA.
So, to use a concrete example, Wizard of Oz is a beautifully nested story. It begins with a character story. Dorothy is dissatisfied with her role as a Kansas farm girl. Then we open an event. Tornado! Then we open the milieu, Welcome to Oz. Then we get the inquiry. What do the ruby slippers do? We get to the end of the story, the movie, and then Glinda says, “Oh. The ruby slippers will carry you home. Oo…oo…oo.” Which, honestly, she could have said at the beginning. But that closes the inquiry. Dorothy leaves Oz, which closes the milieu. She returns to Kansas, where everything is fine, which closes the event. Then, Dorothy says, “I didn’t need to go looking any farther for adventure than my own backyard,” which closes character.
So when you have stories that feel like the endings fizzle out or the ones that feel like they end and then end again and end again. Two Towers, I’m looking at you. This is often because the nesting code is broken. So, what we’re going to be talking about is how to understand what each piece of the nesting code does so that you know which toys you’re pulling out, and which ones you’re going to use, and how to put them back.
So, there is my big overview. Now we’re going to talk a bit as a group, after I’ve just blathered for quite a while.
[Mary Robinette] Should we pause for book of the week before we talk as a group?
[Dan] Yes, we should. You’ve kind of already covered the book of the week. Why don’t you tell us about the Wizard of Oz?
[Mary Robinette] [laughter] Why? Why, yes, thank you, I will. I’m going to recommend the Wizard of Oz as my book of the week. This is the film version. One of the things… It’s a film that comes on frequently in the US. But in my childhood, with broadcast television, when you only had three channels, when it came on, you watched it because it was on. I have watched it as an adult. It is beautifully nested. It is fun. To my surprise, it’s actually quite funny when you watch it. There’s a lot of jokes in it. I got to see it broad… Broadcast. I got to see it screened on the big screen with a full auditorium [in the before times]. I was amazed that it is really very much a comedy. When you think about it, this makes sense because all of the… The scarecrow, the cowardly lion, and the tin man all came out of vaudeville and were noted comedians and song and dance people of their day. So, it’s good. It’s like worth watching again. Then, we’re going to give you homework about it. But that’s the thing I’m going to recommend watching this week.
[Dan] It is maybe beside your point of M.I.C.E. Quotient, but I will also say, the Wizard of Oz has entered English vocabulary to a Shakespearean degree. It gets quoted by people who don’t even realize they’re quoting it. Because it has so many incredible lines of dialogue that have just kind of become part of the fabric of how our brains communicate.
[Mary Robinette] Are you a good witch or a bad witch?
[Dan] So, I have a question for you to kick off this conversation. What do we do if we are not really a planner or an outliner? How can we still use M.I.C.E. Quotient stuff?
[Mary Robinette] I’m so glad you asked. Yeah, so this is one of the places where I actually think the M.I.C.E. Quotient shines. If you are writing instinctively, and you’re going along and you hit a point, you’re like, “Oh, no. I don’t know what happens next.” The thing that the M.I.C.E. Quotient is really good at is it’s not talking to you about pacing, it’s not talking to you about like how things… Like, the moment by moment structure. What it’s really good at is helping you make decisions about what to leave in and what to take out. So if you’re paralyzed by choice, what you can do is look at what you’ve already got happening. So if you’re sitting there and you’re thinking, okay, my character is trapped in this room and I need to get them out. Oh, I’m in a milieu. This is a milieu. Okay. What are the things that can go wrong related to trying to get out of the room? Then you can find your way out that way. Where you run into problems and you get story bloat, which is one of the things that can frequently happen to someone who is pantsing, is that you’re like, okay, my character’s trapped in a room and I need to ramp up the tension. So what I’m going to do is I’m going to have their sister call them and ask them why they aren’t at… Why they’re not at the wedding yet. Why they’re late to the wedding. Okay, but now you just introduced this whole wedding thing that you have to close down, and, that’s a character thread, because now they feel like a bad sister, and that’s terrible. So it can help you make that choice about what things you want to… What toys you want to play with in that moment.
[C. L.] Very nice.
[Charlotte] Choose your can of worms carefully.
[Charlotte] I have a couple of questions, actually. Where did the M.I.C.E. Quotient come from, because the first time I heard of it was on Writing Excuses and now I’m on Writing Excuses talking about it.
[Mary Robinette] Right. So, I learned it from Orson Scott Card, when I took his Literary Boot Camp. He and I do not see politically eye to eye at all. But he was a gifted teacher and he had a book called How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy, which included the M.I.C.E. Quotient in it. I have done some tweaking and expanding. In the original, inquiry was called idea, which was confusing. What he meant was that a character was trying to chase down an idea. But it began when you asked a question and you ended when it answered it. So I renamed it to ask-answer and then inquiry.
[Mary Robinette] I think the nesting code thing is me. I’m not sure about that, though.
[Charlotte] Okay. Thank you. My other question is there’s a rumor going around… I mean, you’ve already said that M.I.C.E. stories have more than one element, but there’s a rumor that I’ve seen in more than one place that a short story has one thread, a novella has more than one, maybe two, and a novel has two plus, maybe three or four. Is that right?
[Mary Robinette] So, no. I mean, yes and no. It is extremely rare to see something that only has one. You’ll see that in flash. But most of the time what you have is, you have what I call kind of a major and a minor, or a light frame with short stories. The thing is that all of those elements are present. What you’re looking at is which ones are pulling you all the way through the story. So if you think about the thread as a piece of elastic and you stretch that piece of elastic out. That, you’re putting tension on that. The reader is holding on until that elastic releases. When it releases, you get this cathartic burst. So the more pieces of elastic you pull on, kind of the more strength you need to stretch that, and the more cathartic bursts you’re going to get. But in a short story, you don’t necessarily have enough room to tie on each of those pieces of elastic. So what you have is… Like, this moment right now is an inquiry thread within a larger thing. Arguably, Writing Excuses is frequently all about inquiry. But you’ll… If a character is asking a question within a scene, and it’s not an inquiry story, then asking it and then getting the answer, that is a very tiny M.I.C.E. thread that’s happening within it. Whether or not you want to let it become a driver and be something that you maintain and sustain all the way through, that’s the thing that adds the length. So anything that you’re trying to sustain all the way through, those are the things that add length to the story. Which is why you almost never see more than one or two. I see, usually, that there’s… Most short stories have two.
Wait, wait. I think we’ve just been joined by a tiny cat. Yes, there is a tiny cat who’s just joined us.
[Inaudible little tiny cat]
[Mary Robinette] If you hear a small mrrp sound, that is Felix. So, anyway. So, that’s basically it. A novel can have 50 bajillion of them. But every time you add one, it kind of has the potential to make the thing half again as long, because you’re… Every scene that you’re sustaining it in, you’re having to spend words to sustain it.
[Charlotte] Right, thank you.
[Mary Robinette] All right. So, we should wrap this episode up. It was long this time and mostly me talking. The next… The rest of them will involve other people way more. But, as it happens, I’m going to talk just a tiny bit more to give you your homework. Which is to actually watch Wizard of Oz, but what I want you to do is I want you to watch it with a piece of paper and I want you to track the M.I.C.E. elements. So you’re going to be using M, I, C, E. What you’re going to be looking at when you’re watching it is when the elements open, when it closes, but you’re also going to look for the smaller elements within it. For instance, when Dorothy gets to the witch’s castle, she has to go into the castle and back out of it. So that is a milieu within the larger milieu of Oz. So, just track when she’s keeping them alive… When things are being kept alive. The initial disruption of reminding us that things have been disturbed. So track them through, and see what you learn from doing that.
[Dan] Awesome. Well, thank you very much. I know that we all have lots more things we want to say, but that’s what the other seven episodes are for. So join us again next week when we’re going to dig really deep into milieu. Until then, you are out of excuses. Now. Go. Write.