A while ago on the Writing Excuses podcast I heard science fiction author Mary Robinette-Kowal discuss one of her personal favorite ways to structure stories, which is called the MICE Quotient. Mary didn’t come up with the idea, author Orson Scott-Card (another hyphenated writer) did, but Mary seems to be its primary evangelist, so I’ll give her credit for making me aware of it.
The MICE Quotient itself has a few parts, but the main part of it works like this – there are basically four different elements (Card calls them Factors) which make up stories, and those four elements can be used alone or in combination with each other. These four story elements are Milieu, Inquiry, Character, and Event based stories, which line up nicely to form the mnemonic “MICE.”
Milieu – a story about a world or setting, where that setting and how it functions and transforms is the focus of the story. These stories often start when the character enters this world or place, and they finish when the character leaves or comes to be a part of that place. Examples are epic fantasy (Tolkien wrote these kinds of stories), travelogues, dystopian and utopian fiction, and westerns.
Inquiry – a story about learning or acquiring information. These are detective stories, stories of exploration, or stories where new knowledge or skills are gained. They start when a character finds themselves in search of answers to a question (or questions) and they end when the answers are found. (Note, Card calls this one “Idea” and others sometimes call it “Information”, but I prefer Robinette-Kowal’s current use of “Inquiry” because it more elegantly sums up the key focus of these stories – seeking information. (she used to call it ask/answer for a while)
Character – a story where a character changes or transforms. These are stories about inner transformation which happen when some event occurs and then follows the paths that the character takes to reach a new state. The character usually starts unhappy with their current life or situation, and then through a series of experiences finds a new way to be at the end of the story. Romances are character stories, but many stories contain some kind of character transformation element.
Event – a story where an event happens and we follow the effects of that event. These stories are about external events happening around and to the characters. Often these are stories where the world has been made unbalanced, and the characters need to find a way to fix it or adapt to the new situation. It’s a little like someone throwing a rock into a pond, and then watching the ripples result. The story starts with an event and finishes when the effects of that event are done. Most action stories and superhero stories are event stories, as are disaster stories where we watch characters leap about trying to survive.
Each of these elements can be the basis for a whole scene, story, story arc, or novel, and usually most short stories are built around one of them, while most novels are built around many of them combined. (More on that in a bit.) However, their most basic function is to tell us not just what kind of story is being told, but how it begins and ends.
And, once we know where they start and finish, we can then focus on what happens in between. In most cases, this is going to be conflict based, as shown by this chart from Robinette-Kowal’s website:
However, this isn’t always the case. When that chart was created, it’s clear that Robinette-Kowal was thinking in terms of traditional western conflict-based narratives, however it would also work with stories of interaction like the Japanese tell. In these stories, two or more things interact in a way which produces change.
For example, let’s say we’re telling a story about a tree…
In a Milieu story the story could start with the MC’s (main character’s) family moving into a new home with a tree in the yard, and the story would end with the family moving away and a new family moving in. In between, the story could be about the family’s relationship with the tree and how it sheltered them, gave them fruit, made the clean up leaves, gave them a place to play, and more.
In an Inquiry story, the story would start with people noticing that a tree is sprouting purple fruit, and the story would end with the answer to the question why it was sprouting purple fruit. In between, we could learn that there is a meteor buried underneath the tree and the tree is absorbing weird radiation that causes the fruit to turn purple. Oh, and one in ten people who eat the fruit become immortals, while the other nine become horrible monsters that crave human brains.
In a Character story, the story starts with a man choosing to sit beneath a tree while he mourns the death of his wife, and the story ends with him accepting that death is part of the cycle of life, which he has learned watching the tree go through its seasonal routines. In between, he comes to sit beneath the tree each day to first escape his lonely house, and then later to enjoy being out in the world as his grief is slowly overcome. The character has gone from one internal emotional state to another through interaction with the tree.
In an Event story, an old tree is struck by lightning and left damaged but alive at the start, and then at the end the tree is cut down and turned into benches and tables for the local park. In between, the local people reminise about the place the tree has held in their lives as they discuss what to do about it, finally reaching a conclusion. The event has happened and we followed the results of that event until they settled.
So, as you can see, the MICE Quotient acts as a framework which tells us where a story element starts and finishes. This is useful in short stories or scenes because they often only have one dominant MICE element and so the story’s beginning and end is laid out clearly by what MICE element the story is built around. You just need to know what type of MICE element the story is built around, and you roughly know the shape of the story.
However, that’s only the tip of the iceberg, because in longer and larger stories, the MICE elements are used to structure and track storylines within larger works. And, in fact, most longer stories can have anywhere from a few to a few dozen MICE elements running inside them.
For example, let’s say you have a Romance novel.
At the start, in the introduction act, you set up the major threads of the story.
Milieu : The main character has been forced to move to a new apartment building.
Inquiry : The main character notices that the building manager is acting strangely – why?
Character : The main character is single and lonely.
Event : The main character has lost her job.
Thus logically, the end of the book MUST close those elements to feel satisfying to the reader.
/Milieu : The main character moves in with her new boyfriend in another apartment.
/Inquiry : The main character has learned the building manager was going to burn down the building and stopped him.
/Character : The main character has friends she made in the building, and most of all, found a new firefighter boyfriend by becoming an active member of the community.
/Event : The main character has found a new job as the new building manager.
Every story element in the beginning has been wrapped up by the end, making the odds that the story is satisfying more likely. Each element which is introduced has a counterpart ending, which the writer can plan out, and use to figure out where each piece of the story will start and finish. Leaving the writer to only need to worry about the dreaded middle, but even there the writer knows where they’re going and just needs to figure out how to connect those lines.
Also, while the major story elements should run through the long book or novel, there can also be shorter MICE elements inside the bigger story which start and finish in a particular scene, chapter, or story arc inside the larger work. A single scene could easily be a scene where the character navigates a new environment (milieu), tries to get information (Inquiry), must change themselves (Character), or deal with some new circumstances that have popped up (Event). How far you want to take this, is up to you.
If this whole thing still takes a bit of getting use to, fear not! Mary Robinette-Kowal gave a whole lecture on using this recently as part of Brandon Sanderon’s BYU creative writing series at the start of 2020, and you can watch it below. It also goes into more detail and other ways to use the MICE Quotient in your writing, so give it a watch!
So, what do you think? Would the MICE Quotient be a useful writing tool? How could you use it in thinking about the planning of your stories? I like that she links it with computer code and logic puzzles, because in a very real sense stories are exercises in creating strings of logical events that work together to produce a whole emotional experience in the audience.