Writing Excuses 16.40: Nesting Threads in the M.I.C.E. Quotient
Key points: Nesting threads, or first in, last out. Symmetry! When you close a thread, there is a tension drop. You need two or more threads to give most stories an interesting dynamic. You don’t have to use them all, and pay attention to how much weight you give each one. Pairing M.I.C.E. thread types can work well. Be careful about braiding too many, though.
[Season 16, Episode 40]
[Dan] This is Writing Excuses, talking about the M.I.C.E. Quotient, Nesting Threads.
[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, with Elsie, who is purring very loudly.
[Dan] Hello, Elsie.
[Dan] I am very excited for this episode. We have been circling the concept of nesting threads for five episodes now. Here we are in episode six. We get to dig into it in detail. So, what do we need to know that we haven’t already talked about with nesting threads?
[Mary Robinette] All right. So, nesting threads is basically first in, last out. It works because of the length of time that we have to invest emotional energy into a problem. So, there’s a couple of things to know about the way people are wired. I am going to say that this is specifically Western storytelling style. There’s many different traditions, but the way we are trained is that when a quest… When we ask a question, we want an answer to it. Right? We also want symmetry. Humans tend… And babies tend to respond really well to symmetry. We like recognizing patterns. So it is helpful to have this kind of mirroring thing happen in your story, by having, like, if you begin milieu and then you open an inquiry, to close the inquiry and then you close the milieu. People recognize patterns. The other piece, and this is the more important piece, I think, is the amount of emotional energy that you’ve invested into something. So going back to my idea of elastics, the longer you stretch an elastic, the more tension it’s going to be on it. So if you got something that you start to stretch on page 1 and you don’t release it until page 597 if you’re Brandon, then that’s going to have… There’s going to be a lot of tension remaining on that. Whereas if you have another thread that you start on page 100, you have 100 fewer pages to spread that over the span. So knowing that, what happens is if you release the tension on the one… That longest thread before… So, let’s say my longest one is milieu, and I release that before I release the one on inquiry, what happens is that there’s a tension drop. So when I get my… When I get that other answer, I haven’t had as much time to invest in it. Thinking about Wizard of Oz, which you have all watched now, hopefully, when you get to the end, we close things out in sequence. That Dorothy exits Oz… She gets the answer, ruby slippers will carry you home, she exits Oz, she gets back to Kansas, everything is fine, she didn’t have to live in a… Kansas farms are all yay and happy. If you remember in the witch’s castle when Dorothy is looking at the hourglass, and we see Aunt Em sitting on the porch… Or looking around frantically going, “Dorothy? Dorothy?” That exists to remind you that the status quo is still disrupted. If instead in that hourglass what we see is Aunt Em sitting on the porch, everything about the farm has been restored, status quo is reestablished, that closes that event thread early. So when Dorothy gets out of Oz and goes back to Kansas, it’s no big deal. You get a dramatic tension drop because the status quo… We already know that the status quo is restored. There’s no… There’s no doubt about that in the reader’s mind. So that’s why nesting threads are very… And thinking about this first in, last out concept is very useful for maintaining that tension through the story. I’m talking about the frame of the story, not the stuff that’s happening in the middle.
[Dan] Yeah. Let me use another example. I’m going to talk about my book, Ghost Station, again. So it begins with this… It’s about spies in Berlin in 1961. It begins with the message that comes in from a double agent that is gibberish nonsense. So the main thrust of the novel is figuring out what is actually going on. Why was this message weird? What does that mean? Etc. Then it hits a point where the main character and another one he’s working with cross over the wall into East Berlin. Then it becomes a milieu section, inside of the larger inquiry section. They are trying to survive in East Berlin and then escape back out again. While inside… Big spoilers for this book… The person that he is working with attacks him. It has this event of, “Oh, no. The person I thought I could trust, I no longer can trust.” There’s this event that takes place inside of there. Then we tie them off in reverse order. He learns that, “Oh, yes, that person actually I can trust. There were very good reasons for that attack.” Then he escapes out of East Berlin. Then he solves the overall problem of what’s going on and what this message means. Using what you were just saying, Mary Robinette, if we had resolved those in reverse order. If he had, for example, solved the entire problem of the message and gotten that taken care of while he was still in East Berlin, then it would feel very unsatisfying. Like, well, yes, you’ve solved this problem, you dope, but now you’re stuck on the wrong side. It would be this kind of dragged out ending of, well, the real story is over but he’s still in a pickle and he’s gotta get himself home and we have a few more obnoxious chapters of that. I had not thought of it in those terms, until you described it that way. But that makes perfect sense as to why you need to close the brackets in the same order you opened them.
[Mary Robinette] Yeah. We’ve… You’ve all seen films or things where you’re like, “Ah, it’s over. No, no, still going.” Usually that’s because they’re closing things out in the wrong order.
[Dan] Yeah. That is really interesting.
[C.L.] I was just going to say that there is something that I have been trying very hard to hold back while you’ve been going through the previous episodes. It’s this. I’m thinking maybe that calling a particular story simply a milieu story or an inquiry story, etc., can’t really accurately describe a story because you do need a second ingredient to give the story kind of like… An interesting dynamic?
[Mary Robinette] So, yes, C. It is exactly that. That you have all of these things going on all the time. With like my book, Ghost Talkers, which is coincidentally our book of the week, that has multiple things going on in it. It is an inquiry story. It’s a murder mystery, whodunit. But it’s also an event story. Because it’s a wartime novel. There’s constant status quo disruptions. And it is a character story, because the character is learning to… Learning things about themselves and how they move through the world. But it’s primarily event inquiry. Those are the major drivers. This helps me… The M.I.C.E. Quotient helps me understand what things, what elements to bring into that story and which ones to focus on. It helps me understand how to end it in a way that was going to be satisfying. While, at the same time, trying to do things that were fulfilling these promises, but hopefully in unexpected ways.
[Mary Robinette] But, Ghost Talkers, for people… Since it is book of the week. It is probably actually my favorite of my novels, and it is the one that the fewest people have read.
[Dan] It is actually my favorite of your novels.
[Mary Robinette] Thank you. It…
[C.L.] I love Ghost Talkers.
[Mary Robinette] I went on book tour… My book tour started on election day in 2016, and weirdly… Weirdly!
[Mary Robinette] There was just not a lot of interest in books at that point. I don’t know what was going on them. But it is a World War I spy novel in which mediums work as advertised. The soldiers are trained, conditioned, that when they die, they have to report in as ghosts. So you have the Spirit Corp. Then things go wrong. Someone gets killed, and they aren’t supposed to. Not that anyone is necessarily supposed to get killed, but… You know what I mean. But it kicks off this murder mystery. Then it’s a look for who the betrayal… The person who… That’s the spy and the saboteur is. So World War I spy novel with ghosts is basically it. Ghost Talkers.
[Mary Robinette] But when you listen to it or read it, one of the things that I think you’ll notice is that I could have weighted it differently. Because all of those elements are there, and I could have made different choices about where I was putting the emphasis in the story. That would have shifted dramatically the direction of the story and the way the ending plays out.
[Charlotte] That’s great. I mean, what I’m hearing is that you can have as many M.I.C.E. threads as you want, and actually maybe it’s a good idea to have more than one for a little bit of spice, a little bit of texture as C was talking about. I remember, when I was plotting my novel, I was like I’m going to… It starts with character, then it leads into event, and then it goes into milieu, and then it goes into inquiry. I remember talking it through with you, Mary Robinette, and you were like, “You don’t have to have them all.” I was like, “Oh. I don’t?” So maybe it’s a question of how many and also what weight you put on each quotient?
[Mary Robinette] Right. Yes, exactly. It’s… It is how heavily you weight them. Because you can… Like, all of these things will exist in the story. It’s just how much of them are you letting drive? That’s… That is the thing that is tricky to figure out. So what I have found when you’re doing this is that one of the things that works well is to pair disparate M.I.C.E. thread types. So one of the things that will happen, particularly in multiple POV books, you’ve got one major plot and then the other one feels extraneous. You’re annoyed every time you have to switch over to the B plot. What I find is that frequently when that is happening, it is because they are the same M.I.C.E. thread. So that they are… Or the same M.I.C.E. type. That they are, say, both events. But one of the events is lower stakes than the other. So it is difficult to care as much. So it always feels like a tension drop. Whereas, if you have one event and one character one, they can intersect each other in different ways. But the other thing that they can do is that they can have comparable stake levels. So that when you move from one to the other, you don’t have that same tension drop.
[Dan] Would you also suggest or recommend that when you are nesting them, not so much multiple POV’s, but nested inside of each other, that they be different types of elements as well? If you’ve got a milieu inside of a different milieu, it can start to feel repetitive. We have to escape from this place, and now we have to escape from this other place, with no variation in tone.
[Mary Robinette] So, the… Yes and no. Mostly what happens when you do that is that it just reads as an extension of the original problem. So in Star Wars, the rescuing the princess, they have to get in, they have to get the princess, they have to get back out. While they’re in there, Storm Troopers… Surprise! So they have to escape by jumping into a garbage… A chute. Does that work? Yes, it does. But it is a garbage chute. So now they have another milieu within the larger milieu that they have to escape. So that… That’s just a long series of obstacles… Consequences, obstacles, that’s just an extension of that original one.
[Mary Robinette] So that’s… Actually, blowing up the Death Star itself is, we have to get in, drop this package off… Which is this bomb, and then get back out without being killed. I mean, it’s still, that’s… It’s… There’s just a lot of milieu driving that. But that is not, I would say, the major driver. What are you thinking, C?
[C.L.] I was just thinking about like the idea of having like the two milieu stories in one. Because I was thinking about like the Lord of the Rings where it’s like basically they’re going on a journey to reverse heist a ring into a volcano. But, like, the first part of the story is about them leaving Hobbiton. It’s just like the segments of, like, we’re in a place, we’re going to leave a place. We’re traveling across a place in order to get to a place. I think it works. Generally. What I was thinking about was you want the variety of story type things going on in order to have some variety, but at the same time, I always try to think of my different plot threads as they have to be braidable. Like, they have to… Like, if I have an inquiry thread and I have a character thread, then each one has to affect the other one.
[Mary Robinette] Yes.
[C.L.] So it’s just like two strands twisted together, like a rope. But if I add a third one, then it has to… Then things get a little bit more complicated, because each one has to affect the other two. Then, if you add a fourth one…
[C.L.] Like, lots of people know how to do three strand braids, but not a lot of people know how to do four strand braids.
[Mary Robinette] Yup. Exactly. That’s a great analogy. We’re going to be talking about that when we get to the next one, which is the middles and conflicts. We’re going to be talking about how to braid the stuff in the middle. The nesting stuff is mostly like where do you start the thing and where do you end it. But, yeah, you’re exactly right, the more you layer in there, the harder it is to juggle all of those things.
[Mary Robinette] So. This brings us to our homework. Take your fairytale. What I want you to do is I want you to look at two M.I.C.E. threads. You’re going to… Now you get to do it with two of them. Okay? So maybe you decide that you’re going to do character and event, or you might decide that you’re going to do milieu and inquiry, or milieu and character. Whatever. So I want you to figure that out and nest it neatly, so that you begin with character, then… So, Goldilocks is tired of being treated like a child, then she enters the Bears’ house, does some investigating, and decides that actually maybe she should go home, so she goes home and then she’s like, “I am actually happy being a child and my home is much nicer than the place I explored.” So we have this very nice little nested thing. So you’re going to do a two strand thing like that. Then the thing that I want you to do is I want you to take those tags and I want you to invert them. So, in mine, Goldilocks would enter the Bears’ house, and while she’s in the Bears’ house, she would make a discovery about herself because of her exploration that would then cause her to go home. As opposed to the other way around. So, your job is to do a two strand version of whatever your fairytale is. Then, after you’ve written that out… You don’t have to write the entire story, you can just bullet point it. Flip that, flip the tags, and do it the other way. See what that does to where the conflicts land and how the beginning and end feel.
[Dan] And you are out of excuses. Now go write.