Four Essential Stories to Make Your Writing Stronger

While there are an infinite number of possible stories, the vast majority of them fall into one of four categories. These four “essential” stories are the most basic forms of the stories that humans tell, and by understanding and using them you can quickly put your story into a simple framework that lets you know where your story starts, goes, and finishes. Not only that, knowing these four essential stories lets you weave together more complex stories than just a character doing something and getting a result, and turn it into a story which is layered and satisfying for readers.

So, what are these four essential stories?

They are stories about Milieu, Inquiry, Character, and Event, which you might notice form into the very handy mnemonic of MICE. This is why you’ll often see them referred to as the “MICE Quotient” online as different writing teachers discuss and explain them. The “quotient” part refers to their use in helping new writers understand how to use them to add layers and plot threads to stories, but before you learn about that, you have to understand what each of them is.

Milieu

In a milieu story, a character enters a setting and then either changes that setting or is changed by that setting. Usually, setting refers to a place, but it can also cover things that are part of a setting like plants, animals, peoples, cultures, technology, or anything else. The story starts when the character arrives at the setting, and it ends when either the character leaves or decides to stay in that setting. Often these types of stories are told as a way of exploring a setting with the main character as a window to that setting for the audience.

The Three Acts of a Milieu Story

Act 1 (Setup): The lead character’s environment changes to a new one. Usually, the character goes to a new place, or something is added to a familiar place which changes it into something new to the main character.

Act 2 (Action): The main character adapts themselves to the new environment and faces situations where the character, environment, or both change in some way.

Act 3 (Result): The lead character reaches a point where they can no longer change the world, or it can no longer change them. They must then make a decision whether to stay and be part of the setting or leave based on their own needs or situation.

Sample Milieu Stories:

  • A wandering ronin comes into a small farming town where he offers to help with the harvest in trade for a place to stay for the winter until the local lord recruits soldiers the following spring. Through working alongside the farmers, he finds a new purpose in life, and as the winter drags on, he slowly becomes part of the community and finds love with the farmer’s daughter. When spring comes, men from the local lord come into town recruiting soldiers for the lord’s army, but he decides to keep his new life as part of the community and stays to become a farmer. (The soldier entered the milieu, was transformed by it, and chose to stay as part of the community.)
  • A student comes to work one day to discover they now have a new teacher. The teacher has a strange an eccentric style of teaching where everything involves acting and creativity. The very practical student doesn’t like this change, but their classmates do, and slowly the practical student comes to appreciate the new classroom environment as they see how the others respond to it. In the end, the practical student is given a chance to transfer to a new school, but decides to stay and explore new sides of themselves. (The student’s milieu was transformed, they adapted to it, and chose to stay part of it.)
  • A young office worker is hit by a truck and killed, waking up in a world that resembles a fantasy role-playing game. The world they have entered into is chaotic and filled with demons and monsters. They don’t know why they are there or how to get home and must turn themselves into an adventurer to survive. Through adventuring and making allies, they discover that they were summoned to replace the guardian of a magical tree which is the source of magic energy in the setting. They choose to become the new guardian and take their place with the tree, restoring the dying tree to life and banishing the corrupting influence. (The office worker entered the milieu, saw it was in chaos, adapted to it, and stayed in the new land they became a part of.)

Notes:

  • Change to a character through exploring a milieu can be as simple as learning or understanding something that wasn’t understood before. It doesn’t have to be serious and significant character change, but it should feel consequential to the reader.
  • Milieu stories can be internal or external. In an internal milieu story the character’s perceptions of the world around them changes and they must adjust to experiencing the world in a new way (“Well, I can see ghosts now. This is new.”). On the other hand, in an external milieu story, the character’s environment changes and they must deal with this new setting (“Where am I? How did I get here?”).
  • See the chapter on Exploratory Manga for more details on one type of Milieu story.

Examples of Milieu manga and anime: One Piece, Bakuman, Overlord, Kurosagi, Lone Wolf and Cub, Pokémon, One-Punch Man, Fruits Basket, Ouran Koukou Host Club, Hikaru no Go, Assassination Classroom, That Time I Got Reincarnated as a Slime, So I’m a Spider, So What?, Ascendance of a Bookworm, The Devil is a Part-Timer, Konosuba, Boys Over Flowers, etc.

Inquiry

In a story about inquiry, a character is faced with a question that must be answered and tries to find the answer to that question. The main character may be a detective trying to solve a mystery, or a scientist trying to cure a disease. They might be an athlete who needs to find out if they still have what it takes, or they might be a chef trying to find the perfect soufflé recipe. However it goes, they start the story by being presented with a problem, and at the end of the story the problem will either be solved or they will be forced to give up trying to solve it. Everything that happens in between is linked to their efforts to solve that central problem that drives the story.

The Three Acts of an Inquiry Story

Act 1 (Setup): The main character has a question that for whatever reason (job, curiosity, survival, etc.) must be solved.

Act 2 (Action): Often facing setbacks and challenges along the way, the main character follows the steps they need to answer the question. Everything that happens in the story is somehow linked to the solving of the question or the understanding of the answer to the question.

Act 3 (Result): The main character answers the question or gives up trying to solve it.

Sample Inquiry Stories:

  • A man is found dead and a police detective is put on the case. The detective learns that the man was a low-level city clerk who lived along and had no family, so he interviews the clerk’s co-workers and discovers that the clerk had noticed missing money in a bank account and reported it to his boss. Using that information, the detective soon arrests the clerk’s boss for murdering the clerk to try and cover up his theft of the money. (The detective was given a puzzle of who killed the clerk and why, worked through the possibilities, and solved the problem.)
  • A mysterious disease is turning people into zombies and a team of researchers race to find a cure for it. While collecting samples, they learn that a village exists where nobody was turned into a zombie despite exposure and race there to find the reason why. Eventually they learn that the zombie virus is cured by an element in the town’s well water and they use that knowledge to cure the zombies and turn them back into humans.  (Scientists are faced with a zombie plague, they try to learn how this happened and how to stop it, and eventually find the answer in a small town’s well water.)
  • A young office worker is hit by a truck and killed, waking up in a world that resembles a fantasy role-playing game. They learn that the tree of life which powers the world’s magic is dying and nobody can stop it, so they go on a quest to find a solution and save the magic because it’s the only thing that can send them home. In the end, they learn the tree was poisoned by demons and find a way to break the spell so the guardian of the restored tree can send them home. (The young office worker was given the problem of how to save the magical tree of life, searched for a solution, and eventually found it so they were able to return home.)

Notes:

  • If the story is a Detective story, usually the problem to be solved is one of three types: why something happened, how something happened, or who was responsible for what happened. (Or some combination of the three.)
  • Most stories have Inquiry story threads inside them somewhere, since there are always dramatic questions to be introduced and answered, but a real “mystery” story is only about the question and the hunt for the solution. 
  • Horror stories are very often Inquiry stories, where the main characters are the victims trying to solve the mystery behind the “monster” before they all die. Usually the “monster” is the result of a “sin” which has left the world unbalanced and the main character(s) need to learn that sin and set it right in order to stop the killings.
  • Inquiry stories can be internal or external. An internal Inquiry story means the character is trying to answer a question that has come from within themselves (“Why do I feel this way?”) whereas an external inquiry story is about them trying to answer a question from outside themselves (“Why is my brother acting this way?).

Examples of Inquiry manga and anime: Detective Conan,Dr. Stone, The Promised Neverland, Uzumaki, Ghost Hunt, Liar Game, Steins Gate, Monkey Peak, etc.

Character

In a story about Character, a character struggles with personal change. In this type of story, some inner part of a character changes from what it was before to something different. This change can be as small as deciding they now like vanilla ice cream to completely becoming a totally new person. The key is that they are somehow different than they were before at the end of the story. This change can be good or bad, and may even go between positive and negative before it reaches some final position.

The Three Acts of a Character Story

Act 1 (Setup): An event happens which begins a character’s transformation as a person.

Act 2 (Action): The character faces one or more situations that cause them to confront parts of themselves which prevent them from reaching their goals or becoming their best self.

Act 3 (Result): The character has finally transformed into a different version of themselves.

Sample Character Stories:

  • A troubled student is forced to start a new high school when they get kicked out of their old one for fighting all the time. At the new school, they meet a student council president who they clash with right away and the two hate each other. Through a series of events, the two are forced into being together in different situations and slowly come to understand each other. The troubled student slowly comes to realize they need the student council president in their life and must face their own insecurities that make them reject other people. They open up to the president, who returns their affections, and the two start a new relationship together. (The troubled student meets a person who forces them to confront their inner demons if they want to live a better life and changes into a new person so they can be together.)
  • A poor young student is hired to become the driver for a rich man. Working as a driver, the student carefully observes how the rich man acts and operates and realizes they have habits which are holding them back in their life. Soon, the student has changed their ways and started an online business and begun to make money they use to pay off their family debts. Eventually, their online business becomes so big they’re able to sell it to the rich man they drove for, and become a rich businessperson themselves who invests in smaller businesses to help others. (The student wants to be rich but doesn’t know how, so they study and learn from the more successful businessman, and then change themselves to be more like their model to succeed.)
  • A young office worker is hit by a truck and killed, waking up in a world that resembles a fantasy role-playing game. The office worker was a shy introvert who never stood up for themselves and just tried to get through each day with as little human interaction as possible. However, they find a baby dragon which needs their help and so to help keep the dragon alive they must learn how to interact with the local people. Over a series of adventures with the growing dragon, they become a confident leader who helps the local people overcome a tyrannical lord. In the end, they become the new lord and mentor a new generation of dragon riders.  (The shy office worker must find the confidence they need to protect their new dragon partner and ends up becoming a great leader through standing up to the local “boss”.)

Notes:

  • In these stories the main character usually starts unhappy with some part of themselves or their life and then a catalyst appears which offers them a chance to change.
  • The most common version of this story (when used as the main storyline) is one where the main character knows they need to change in some way but refuses to change and instead does everything they can to avoid changing. Then, when they hit rock bottom at the end of Act 2 (Action), they are forced to change in order to fix the problems their poor choices have created.
  • Character change stories usually have a main character and a “guide” who is the one who forces them to face their need to change or who acts as a reason they need to change (or both). This guide doesn’t even need to be a person, just someone or something that acts like a speck of dust in the character’s emotional eye that they can’t get rid of unless they change.
  • Romance stories are mostly Character stories where the main character must change themselves or their love interest (or both) to achieve happiness.
  • Character stories can also be internal and external. In an internal character story the motivation for change comes from within the character (“I’m unhappy. How do I not be unhappy?”) and in an external character story the motivation for change comes from outside the character (“My boss says unless I learn to be a better salesperson, I’m fired.”).

Examples of Character manga and anime: Naruto, Magu-chan: God of Destruction, Skip Beat, Blue Flag, Anonymous Noise, etc.

Event

In an Event story, external things happen that throw the character’s life out of balance and the main character spends the rest of the story dealing with the repercussions of those events. This event can be as simple as discovering they’re out of food and need to shop, or as complex as trying to survive an alien invasion. The event could be the unexpected result of something the character did or something totally unexpected that was outside the character’s control. Either way, the character now has to deal with the consequences of that event and find a way to adapt and overcome the problem.

The Three Acts of an Event Story

Act 1 (Setup): Something happens to the character which can’t be ignored without consequences.

Act 2 (Action): The character reacts to what happened and tries to find a way to deal with the situation.

Act 3 (Result): The character solves the problem created by the event or finds a new balance in the changed situation.

Sample Event Stories:

  • A dying martial artist gives the youngest of his three students the secret techniques that made his martial arts invincible. The two older students attack and try to kill the youngest student who barely manages to escape alive. The youngest student wanders the land while mastering the secret techniques and meeting friends along the way who help him understand the meaning behind martial arts. When the youngest is forced to face the elder students in a tournament, he shows them he has taken the secret techniques to a new level and defeats them. He founds a new school to teach his refined techniques to the next generation.
  • A nerdy high school student’s father re-marries and now they’re living with the captain of the school volleyball team. The volleyball star keeps getting into weird situations and the nerdy student keeps being forced to rescue them because of their new family ties. Eventually, the volleyball star and the nerdy student come to an understanding, and accept they’re now family.  (The nerdy student is forced into a new family situation, must deal with the events that come with that new family situation, and they find a way to live peacefully in this new situation.)
  • A young office worker is hit by a truck and killed, waking up in a world that resembles a fantasy role-playing game. They make friends, discover they have magical powers, and build an alliance of kingdoms based on freedom and justice. With their new allies, they defeat a great demon lord and then settle down with their beautiful love interest in a peaceful and happy land.

Notes:

  • Event stories are the “catch-all” story category when the story’s focus isn’t about setting change or character change.
  • Even stories can be internal or external. In an internal Event story, the event which causes them to act comes from inside the main character (“I’m hungry, time to find food.”) whereas in an external Event story the driving force for acting comes from outside (“Godzilla is attacking the city!”).

Examples of Event manga and anime: Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba,Naruto: Shippuden, Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure, Kaiju No.8, Attack on Titan, Dragonball, BLEACH, Glass Mask, NANA, Fist of the North Star, Tokyo Ghoul, Berserk, Slam Dunk, Death Note, Hunter X Hunter, My Hero Academia, Sakamoto Days, Chainsaw Man, etc.

Now, some of you might have noticed that technically, all four are “event” stories in the sense that they all tend to start with some occurrence (usually called the “inciting incident” by writers) which sets of the chain of events that follow. However, the difference is where each type of story goes after that initial event launches the story into action. In Milieu stories, the inciting incident changes the main character’s environment and makes them adjust to a new situation. In Inquiry stories, the inciting incident presents the character with a question, and that question needs to be answered in some form by the end of the story. In Character stories, the inciting incident triggers a path to character change which the main character will accept or reject in the end. Finally, in actual Event stories, the inciting incident will lead to other events, which will lead to other events, and finally result in a new status quo.

Also, these are meant to be very broad categories, and many stories could in theory fit into multiple categories. However, the trick to finding which type of story is really being told is to look at the Spine of Action for a particular story and what is really happening in the story as a whole. If the story is about conflicting with the world, it’s a Milieu story. If the story is about seeking knowledge, it’s an Inquiry story. If the story is about personal transformation, it’s a Character story. And finally, if the story is about reacting to what’s thrown at the main character, it’s an Event story.

Since most manga are continuing serials, they usually try to avoid stories built around character change since they don’t want the lead character to change much except over long periods of time. Thus, they avoid Character stories when possible and usually stick with Event stories where the main character is thrust into a difficult situation and spends the rest of the series dealing with the ramifications of those initial events. Sometimes, they also tell Milieu stories where the main character enters a strange new world or life situation and the real stars are the people and setting around the main character so the main character doesn’t need to change much. And rarely, they tell Inquiry stories where the main character’s overall goal is to solve some greater problem through solving a bunch of smaller mysteries.

Using the Four Essential Stories in Your Writing

The first thing to understand is that these essential stories are not plots that tell you what happens inside a story, they’re frameworks to help you understand the very rough shape of the story. A good comparison might be the way we think of buildings – instead of Milieu, Inquiry, Character and Event we have Houses, Apartment Buildings, Factories and Stores. Calling something a Milieu story is like calling something a House, it tells us the purpose of the building and the rough shape it will take, but it doesn’t tell us the details. It’s the same with these essential stories, which tell us the very rough shape a story will take but doesn’t tell us any details about it.

To continue the house metaphor – the builder (author) decides they want to make a house (Milieu story) and then they decide whether they want to use pre-planned designs that have worked for other builders (story plots) or make up their own design. Then they will put up the framework (write a story outline) and begin planning out the details of how it will all come together. When they have all their materials (ideas and characters) in place, they will start building (writing) the house and putting it all together.

So, the usual order when using these essential stories is as follows:

Essential Story > Story Structure (Three Act/KSTK) > Story Plot > Details

You figure out your essential story, and that gives you the story structure, which helps you decide what kind of plot you’re going to tell, and then you start to figure out all the plot details.

For example, what if you want to tell a story about a young boy trying to get his younger sister to a shelter in a city that’s just had a major earthquake? Well then, that’s clearly an Event story, so you automatically know that Act One will start before, after, or during the (Event) Earthquake. Act Two will be them trying to get across the disaster zone and the challenges they face. And Act Three will have them arrive at a safe place of some kind.

Now you just have to figure out if you want to use a plot from some other source, or make up your own to help you fill in the details. This story could become a tragedy where the boy is dying and trying to get his sister to safety before he dies. It could be an action story where the boy and girl are being hunted by a group of robbers because they witnessed something they shouldn’t have seen. It could be a comedy where the boy turns the trip into a fun adventure to keep the scared girl calm.

Those are all different plots, and while the MICE story they’re built on helps determine where the story will start and end, it doesn’t tell the writer the details of what happens in between, just helps keep everything organized and on track.

In fact, another good use of the essential stories is to use them to help you figure out what your main story is going to be. You can do this by taking your story idea and trying it out with different MICE stories to see which one is the most appealing to you to write.

For example, let’s use the story idea above about the boy and girl trying to reach safety after a major earthquake.

Milieu Story: The story could be about them adapting to the changed world and figuring out how to survive in the post-earthquake environment. Or maybe they will be viewpoint characters and it’ll be a story about how the different people they meet deal with a disaster situation where society’s rules are out the window.

Inquiry Story: The story could be about them trying to find out why their mother isn’t answering her phone, and so they go on a quest across the city to find their mother and learn if she’s alive or dead.

Character Story: The story could be about the boy having to take responsibility for the first time in his life and learn to use his head instead of fooling around. Or maybe he’s always been jealous of his younger sister and all the attention she gets, but now he comes to realize how precious she is in his life as they journey together.

Event Story: As above, the children could become witnesses to a crime of opportunity being committed which is using the earthquake for cover and become the targets of the criminals trying to eliminate any witnesses.  

Each of these could easily become a separate and very different story, and by laying them out like this the writer can see the different story possibilities these characters have and decide which one is the best overall story they want to tell. You can only use one of the four as your main story framework, so choose the one which produces the most exciting and interesting ideas.

Of course, that doesn’t mean the other ideas will go to waste. They can become storylines that still get used inside the bigger story the writer wants to tell…

Why is it also called “the MICE Quotient?”

As mentioned previously, you will usually see these referred to as the MICE Quotient and not as “the four essential stories” in other sources.

Writer Orson Scott-Card, originator of the MICE Quotient, pointed out that long stories are often made of a whole bunch of shorter, smaller stories, and each plot thread or storyline inside a bigger story is also one of these four essential stories. In fact, it’s rare to have a story that’s longer than a few pages that doesn’t have more than one of these essential stories running inside it at the same time. So, a certain percentage (or “quotient”) of a story is actually made-up other smaller storylines that the writer must keep track of and make sure to pay them off in the end.

Let’s look at a generic Isekai story where a person is transported to a fantasy world. In this case, the Character story about the shy introvert who finds a baby dragon after they arrive in a new world.

The main overall story is a Character story where the hero learns to be brave and fight for what they believe in, however, there will be a number of other storylines running inside that overall story. Here are just a few of the possible other stories layered inside the main one at the start of the story.

  • A Milieu story about the main character learning to survive in the forest where they wake up at the start.
  • An Event story about the character finding a baby dragon and freeing it from a trap set by hunters without being attacked by the scared and angry young dragon.
  • A Character story where the baby dragon learns to trust the main character.
  • An Inquiry story where the main character needs to figure out what baby dragons eat.
  • An Event story where the hero has to venture out to find something for himself and the dragon to eat.
  • A Milieu story about the main character trying to interact with the townsfolk from the nearby village and figure out how to trade with them.

Each of these can be their own small chapter of the story, or they can be intermixed with each other and happening across many chapters and scenes at the same time. Everything the character does is either a reaction to something (Event), someone struggling with personal change (Character), them getting used to the setting (Milieu), or them trying to find the answer to a question (Inquiry). And these can be long stories that run throughout the whole greater story, or something so small and short it’s over in a few sentences.

For most writers, trying to keep track of all the different MICE stories inside a novel or long work would be too much and require a lot of book-keeping. However, you don’t need to keep track of all of them, just the important ones that make up the major threads of your story. Such as the different Character plotlines for the main character and any supporting characters, Inquiry stories for the mysteries that pop up during the story, and the major Event stories that come from what happens in the overall story to the main characters and others.

If you want to know more about the MICE Quotient, look up Mary Robinette Kowal’s website, as she’s one of its strongest proponents and has videos and examples there about how she uses it and others can as well.

The Onion Method: Building Better Stories by Talking to Yourself

Reimena Yee’s Onion Method For Outlining Graphic Novels is one of the more interesting approaches I’ve seen to planning a story in a while. At first I thought it was going to be another take on the Snowflake Method, but I quickly discovered her approach is something very different. Not only that, it’s a more character-centered approach to planning a story than most of what you see online.

In essence, she explains this method as follows:

The Onion Method is a outline method that consists of two major elements (Character-Driven Plot, and Thematic Thesis) riffing off each other. One informs the other, vice versa, creating multiple alternating layers in conversation.

Image copyright Reimena Yee.

Now you see where the onion metaphor came from.

These two elements together will create an Onion Story – a character-based story that when cut open, reveals layers upon layers of character motivation and story themes, ideas, topics, messages in conversation with each other.

In actual practice, as she lays out in her long post about this method, this is basically a method where plot/theme stuff happens and then character responds to it. You could almost call it the Call and Response Method or the Socractic Dialogue method, since basically the idea is that the plot and theme become characters who talk to each other. Through this “conversation” the writer figures out the story and how plot/character and theme are going to interact with each other.

As I understand it, it would would work a little like this:

Plot/Character (P/C): A weapons engineer from our world wakes up one morning to find he’s in the body of a prince in a magical fantasy setting.

Theme: Cool idea. Is he going to use his skills to change that world? This story is about taking responsibility for your actions.

P/C: Heck no! He’s going to use them to make himself richer by building and selling modern-ish weapons to the lords of the kingdom.

Theme: Whoa there! That might make him rich, but won’t that destabilize the kingdom? He’s basically setting things up for a civil war.

P/C: Yeah. When they start using those weapons, a lot of people will die. He’s going to feel really scared.

Theme: So he’ll try to clean up the mess he’s made?

P/C: LOL. No, he’ll move to a new kingdom using all the gold he’s made and live a high life as a rich merchant while letting the old kingdom fall apart. He’s not a responsible type of guy.

Theme: But, he needs to take responsibility.

P/C: Well, when the old kingdom falls apart, a warlord rises up and takes over using the weapons the main character made. After that, the warlord sets his sights on the new kingdom the MC is living in.

Theme: So, he’ll have to decide whether to run again or arm the new kingdom to fight the Warlord.

P/C: Exactly, in the new kingdom he found people he really cares about, and they’ll all die if he doesn’t man up and fix his mistakes. They’re willing to run away with him, but he realizes that eventually the warlord will keep coming and destroying his newfound happiness unless he gets serious and takes a stand.

Theme: Sounds like he’s maturing and learning a hard truth.

P/C: Pretty much. But is isn’t so simple. He doesn’t want the new kingdom to suffer the fate of the old one, and he’s afraid that will happen if he just arms the local lords with machine guns.

Theme: So what does he do to avoid problems?

P/C: He creates a special mercenary force just loyal to him and turns them into a special forces commando unit. Introducing big changes is bad, but small surgical changes won’t be as harmful. Then he uses them to attack the weapons factories of the warlords and stop the production of weapons. Then they capture the Warlord and stop the war.

Theme: But what about the old country? Won’t the new one invade it? Isn’t it a mess? That’s his fault too.

P/C: Well, about that… (and the dialogue continues)

The best way to think of this is that the Plot/Character is trying to tell their story, but their “friend” the Theme is constantly asking questions and making comments related to that theme or idea. It’s job is to drag the story back to being about that theme and keep the theme front and center as the story plays out.

If you put the focus on plot, like I did above, it becomes a dance between the plot/character and theme as they negotiate with each other. If you did it with a character and theme, it would come out a little different as the focus would be more about how the character develops related to the theme. You end up with a story about how the character’s flaws are brought into the light by having to confront the elements of the theme.

Character: The MC is a shy 15 year old Canadian girl with no friends.

Theme: But making friends brings out the best in people, she needs to learn to overcome her shyness and make friends.

Character: But she has no social skills and crippling anxiety.

Theme: Then she’s going to need to do something that will require her to overcome that. What could make her face her problems head-on?

Character: She needs to work after her mom gets sick. She has to take on a part-time job to feed the family, and she NEEDS to make this job work.

Theme: What job would make her confront her flaws?

Character: A job in sales. Maybe jobs are hard to get, and that’s the only one available. Her mother’s friend gets it for her.

Theme: Sales as in corner store? Sounds boring. What would be the most extreme sales situation she could face?

Character: A high-end clothing store?

Theme: Sure! She has to work at a high-end clothing store, but she has no social skills, can’t deal with people, and of course no fashion skills. Who is going to help her with that? She needs a mentor to help her overcome her challenges.

Character: Well… (and the dialogue continues)

I think it was manga creator Tetsuo Hara who said that “manga is created in the conversation” (although I might be mis-attributing this to Hara-sensei) and one of the ways to interpret this statement is that manga creation is the result of two creative people (the creator and editor in the Japanese manga system) throwing ideas back and forth. The creator has wild ideas, and the editor keeps them on track and focused.

In a real sense, that’s what’s happening here in the Onion Method. The writer is simulating a conversation between a creator and editor about the story they’re trying to develop, using their own imagination to play both parts. By doing this, a story is produced which has a theme built into it without having to laboriously think through every part of the story from a thematic perspective.

If you struggle with theme sometimes (like I often do), but are good at writing dialog, this could be a good hack to solving that problem.

Also, as Reimena says in her original post, you can then take this dialogue and develop it however you like. Whether it’s just jumping into writing the full story, turning around and breaking it down into your story structure of choice, or digging deeper into different parts of it by having separate conversations about those parts with the same theme.

There’s a lot of potential here for some writers, and it might be worth playing with and exploring the Onion Method to find out if it works for you.

Have fun!

Rob

Mary Robinette Kowal’s Short Story Building Process

I recently posted about how author and writing teacher Mary Robinette Kowal uses the M.I.C.E. Quotient to help focus her stories, but while going through her blog I found that she also has a very refined process she uses for story development that is quite impressive. Below is the question sheet she gives her students (and uses herself) to go through the story creation process.

  1. Write down gee-whiz idea.
  2. Where does it happen? – general scenic location.
    1. Place – New York
    2. Setting – Diner
    3. Stage – Kitchen
  3. Characters who would be there (general list).  (Look for characters that aren’t as obvious — look for people across the socio-economic spectrum, because any event affects people differently depending on the resources they have.)
  4. From the list, pick three you want to focus on.  (Important to trust yourself as an audience member, because the first person you need to please is yourself.)
  5. You’ve picked the three you want to spend time with. What do they want out of life?  Go for the deep wants (i.e. to look good, not to diet).  One technique: write down a want, then ask why the character wants that.  Repeat until you’ve reached a deep desire.
  6. Pick the deep want that is most compelling to you. That character who has it is your main character.
  7. List what MC character has at stake.  “Stake” is a word a lot of people misunderstand — it is what will happen to them if they fail at what they are trying to do.  For instance, Captain of sailing ship, every time he takes a risk is to get a fleet of ships, but what he has at stake is that if he takes a risky route to earn more money, his ship could sink and he could lose everything.  Can write down a couple of things down as you’re trying to sort this out.
  8. Choose the primary stake for your MC character.
  9. Go back to what the MC character wants.  What is stopping the character from achieving their desires?  Why can’t they have what they want? 
  10. What is the most interesting thing standing in the way of your POV character?
  11.  What is your MC’s plan to get what they want?
  12. Write up 1-3 sentences summing up the decision you have made for your POV character.
  13. Identify the MICE quotient element based on the conflict you’ve most connect with.
    Milieu – Environment-centered story (entering/leaving specific, often exotic, location). Examples: Gulliver’s Travels.  Parts of Hunger Games (enters capital, enters game grounds, leaves game grounds, leaves capital). Are they trying to escape?

Inquiry– Mystery-centered story (a question the MC & reader both try to discover).  Examples: Sherlock Holmes, Matlock. Are they trying to answer a question?

Character – Internally-driven story (character dissatisfied with themselves).  Examples: Most romance rom-com movies, Finn’s arc in Star Wars 7? Are they unhappy with themselves?

Event – Externally-driven story (something happened to disrupt status quo/cause chaos). Examples: Most sci-fi or action movies (Armageddon, Jurassic Park, Rey’s arc in Star Wars 7, etc.)  Are they trying to change the status quo?

  1. Looking at the MICE quotient, use that to determine where the story begins and ends and explicitly add both to the 1-3 sentence summary.

You can find a step by step post of her going through the process to build a story on her blog, which also includes a downloadable version of the above in a Google DOC that you can convert to any format. I highly recommend going the post above to see how it all fits together and then she takes the results to turn them into a full blown story.

How M.I.C.E. can help writers.

Cute Mouse

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:

MICE
this info-graphic is taken from here

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.

Rob

The REAL Writing Masterclass – Brandon Sanderson’s Lecture Series

So, as I’ve mentioned before, I’m currently working my way through the Masterclass courses on writing. I’ve gone through most of the writers of both books and film they have available, and so far have found two clear must-listen winners – R.L. Stine and David Mamet, both of whom are both informative and entertaining in equal measure. But, even with these two masters of their craft, the courses are more a collection of vague writing theories and tips than actual classes taught by people who are good at teaching their craft.

However, there is a Masterclass available for free to you right now that is as solid a writing course as you’ll find, and taught by someone who is as good at teaching their craft as they are entertaining.

Science Fiction and Fantasy writer Brandon Sanderson has for several years been teaching courses at Brigham-Young University on writing in his field, and his entire 2020 creative writing course taught earlier this year is available on YouTube for you to enjoy.

I have to confess, I’ve tried to read two of Sanderson’s novels and couldn’t finish them because they’re really not to my taste (I’m just not an Epic Fantasy guy), but as a writer and educator I respect the hell out of him and his teaching. This is a collection of solid theory and practice combined by a man who has written a small library by himself and has been refining and testing his craft and theory for years.

I went in with the intention of watching his lecture on plot (a favorite subject, as anyone who has read this blog knows) and ended up watching all 13 lectures because there isn’t a single one without a pile of great information and ideas packed into it.

Do yourself a favor and give them a watch, even if you’re not a science fiction or fantasy writer. They’re free, and probably the best master class on writing you’re going to find.

Rob

The 7 Minute Solution

Today, I was going through David Mamet’s Masterclass, and he came to a part I found fascinating during his discussion of his play American Buffalo.

He talked about how human beings have an “alertness” cycle built into them when they’re doing tasks that causes them to mentally take a moment to casually check their environment every seven minutes. Also, every twenty minutes into doing something, there’s a bigger mental break as humans fully stop what they’re doing to access their situation. These are holdovers from the times of our ancestors, when paying attention to our environment could mean life or death, and are hardwired into human beings.

As a teacher, I already knew about the twenty minute rule – humans seem to have a limit of about twenty minutes to pay attention to a topic or subject before they get restless unless they’re really stimulated or engaged. After twenty minutes (some say 18), getting a class to stay on topic can be like rolling a boulder uphill, and so I follow the best practice of trying not to stay on one topic more than twenty minutes when lecturing. Instead, I will try to turn the lecture into a series of smaller parts, and when possible have activities or videos to add a little variety to things.

But, what I didn’t know was that there’s a standard smaller “unit” of seven minutes before people’s attention does a lighter reset. Mamet himself, who spends a lot of time in theaters, gives the anecdote that if the play starts at 8:00 the audience will quiet down precisely at 8:06 as their attention shifts fully to the most interesting thing happening – the play. He claims you can set your watch by it. I haven’t been able to find many other references to it beyond many business sites claiming it’s true, although the website Medium found something similar. They did a study of their large readership’s reading habits for their blogs, and discovered that seven minutes of attention was where readers’ interest in content seemed to peak. After that it dropped off, and if articles took longer than seven minutes to read the readership was less inclined to keep reading.

So, as a writer always thinking about optimization, these numbers 7 and 20, made me wonder if there might be a hack here for writers as well. Should we as writers be calibrating our content to fit into these attention blocks as a way to achieve maximum readability and keep our audiences hooked?

Fascinating stuff!

So, to keep the reader reading, putting in a natural break paired with a dramatic question like a cliffhanger or a bit of suspense at the seven minute mark sounds like the perfect way to keep your reader on track. That way they can either stop for the moment at a good point to rest, or they can plunge on to another seven minute binge to find out what happens next.

But, how long is seven minutes of reading content?

Well, that depends on the reader and the difficulty/complexity of the content itself. However, according to Forbes.com your average American Adult reader reads roughly 300 words per minute. So, doing some simple math, seven minutes of reading means 2100 words.

So, to answer the question that endless numbers of new writers ask every day – “How long should my chapters be?The answer is 2100 words, or if you want to simplify it a bit, make it 2000 words (since it doesn’t hurt to wait for the slower readers).

Of course, shorter would be fine too, but with shorter chapters (or scenes, since this could also be done with scene length) you’d naturally run into the problem that the seven minute gap would come at a random place in your story instead of a controlled moment when you can give them something that grabs their attention to keep them going.

What about the twenty minute limit?

Well, similarly, 20 minutes of reading is roughly 6000 words. So, if you prefer long chapters, you might think about 6000 being your upper limit before you take a break or insert a dramatic pause. And, even if you’re doing 2000 word chapters, then putting a more major dramatic moment every three chapters might be something worth doing to be ready when the reader hits their major restless moment.

Of course, in the end, you can make your chapters whatever length you like, but there’s no harm in being a little scientific and using a little human psychology to make your writing even more addictive.

Rob

The (Classic Doyle) Whydunnit Formula

The Adventure of the Red-Headed League | Baker Street Wiki | Fandom

‘Is there any point to which you would wish to draw my attention?’

‘To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.’

‘The dog did nothing in the night-time.’

‘That was the curious incident,’ remarked Sherlock Holmes.’

― Arthur Conan Doyle, “Silver Blaze

Things might not always go as planned, but there is always a reason why things happen. A whydunnit is a search for causes in order to understand the effects. Doyle wasn’t very concerned with motivation (most his criminals act simply from greed or anger), but he was a master of the art of finding interesting ways of framing events so that even things which were normal parts of life could seem strange and mysterious until Holmes unravelled them for the audience.

Strange happenings, people acting weirdly, unusual requests – these were all common ways a Sherlock Holmes whydunnit started, and the audience was then carried on a quest to find the reasons for these bizarre events and the more sinister causes which often lay behind them. By following the trails of logic, and backed up with his encyclopedic memory, Holmes was able to match result with action and often bring criminals to justice despite their elaborate schemes. 

A typical whydunnit looks a little like this…

Introduction (15% or less of the story, 900 words in a 6000 word story)

  • The main detectives are introduced in an interesting way which shows off their personalities. Often the detective shows off their incredible abilities by doing something that amazes the audience and other characters.  
  • A new character with a problem (hereafter called the “innocent”) appears before them and the main detective character shows off their detective skills by guessing information about the Innocent.

The Situation (35%, 2100 words)

  • The Innocent tells the detective characters about their problem. The innocent tells them the details of what happened which lead them to coming to see (or calling for) the detectives.
  • Something strange has happened to the Innocent and the reasons for this strange event will be revealed to be linked with a crime as the detectives investigate. The strange events are usually the result of a) a crime being hidden as it occurs, b) a crime being covered up after the fact, c) the Innocent being tricked into being part of a crime without knowing it. The crime can be murder, but is usually robbery or theft of some kind.
  • Regardless, the Innocent will tell the detectives their story, which will include all suspects (although they may be under fake names), the important details of the events they’ve experienced, and a few important clues (which they might not realize are clues and just think are details). The detective will catch these clues, but probably won’t put them together or mention this to the audience. The clues should be worked into the story in such a way that they don’t stand out as being clues and fit in with the rest of the Innocent’s story unless the audience pays very careful attention.

The Investigation (20%, 1200 words)

  • The detectives will take action to help the Innocent, usually by going out and gathering more clues or information.
  • If there’s not a lot of information, then we might follow the main detective and their partner as they talk to various people involved in the case. They may interview witnesses, examine crime scenes, or collect the stories of the people involved.
  • If there’s a lot of information to be gathered from various sources, the main detective and their partner may split up and then meet again later to compare notes. This is to speed up the process of telling the story by having one or both of them summarize the information they learned for each other and the audience.
  • Often the case will get stranger, or there will be a twist, near the end of this phase (but not always). The most common twist is the elimination of the “red herring” cause where the most likely reason is thrown out the window by new evidence.
  • At the end of this phase, the main detective (and the audience, maybe) will have the key information they need to solve the case and will often say that they know to their partner. (But not tell the audience what they’ve figured out.)

The Reveal (30%, 1800 words)

  • The main detective will now take steps to catch the guilty party.
  • This type of story usually ends with the detective finding the criminals and forcing them to confess the real crime they were hiding behind the strange events the Innocent experienced. The end of this one can come in many flavors, but usually either a) the criminal is caught while doing the crime they were trying to cover up with the strange events, or b) the criminal tried to commit the crime but has already failed for other reasons by the time the detectives confront them. In either case, the detective reveals everything that they figured out, and the criminal fills in the missing details. Especially if the criminal has failed due to their own mistakes (or bad luck), the criminal is just so depressed they don’t care anymore, which is why they tell all.
  • With the crime laid out, the audience should be able to look back now and see clearly how everything fit together in a reasonable way. There should be no magic powers, acts of god, or huge co-incidences, and everything should make sense.
  • Usually, there is one last unanswered question, and in the final scene the detective’s partner or the Innocent asks it to the main detective, and the detective answers them in some interesting way. The final scene usually ends on either a final thought or (in later stories) on an amusing note to balance out any tragedy which the ending revealed with positive emotions.

While Doyle seems to have been fond of whydunnits, they are largely the least common type of mysteries and audiences don’t seem to be as attracted to them as the other two types. This might be because they usually have the least exciting endings- the detective is learning why something happened like a curious dog following a scent, and then having found the scent the story just ends. Often in Doyle’s whydunnits, the criminal has already lost by the time Holmes tracks them down, and Holmes is just there to witness their tragic fall, not bring them to justice.

This is why Doyle often combined his Whydunnits with the other two types of mysteries, using strange events to lead into a whodunnit or howdunnit. Often the whydunnits which lead many of his stories are the results of distractions from real crimes or a side-effect of people doing something criminal or immoral. Cases such as the Red Headed League or the Christmas Goose are good examples of these.

That doesn’t mean pure whydunnits can’t be interesting, they can be very interesting in the hands of a skillful writer, but they can be the hardest of the three types to write well. Answering the question of why something happened isn’t as naturally exciting as revealing a hidden villain or cracking an impossible puzzle, so the writer needs to come up with an ending that’s going to get a strong emotional reaction from the audience to make it memorable.

The (Classic Doyle) Howdunnit Formula

Sidney Paget - The Adventure of the Speckled Band | Adventures of ...

Solving “impossible crimes” was one of the things Holmes was most famous for, and Doyle was fond of coming up with puzzles to challenge his great creation. In fact, a good way to think of a howdunnit is as it being a puzzle.

“How did the killer get in and out of the locked safe with guards around it?”

“How did the thief cover the distance between a party and the crime scene faster than a car can travel?”

“How did the victim die without leaving any evidence behind?”

The answers to these puzzles will lead to solving the crime, and preventing the criminal from getting away with their immoral actions. Maybe it will stop them from killing again? Maybe it will prevent them from getting on a plane to freedom? Either way, the puzzle is the key.

In Doyle’s case, a howdunnit usually runs something like this…

Introduction (15% or less of the story, 900 words in a 6000 word story)

  • The main detectives are introduced in an interesting way which shows off their personalities.
  • A new character with a problem (hereafter called the “innocent”) appears before them and the main detective character shows off their detective skills by guessing information about the Innocent.

The Situation (35%, 2100 words)

  • The Innocent tells the detective characters about their problem. The innocent tells them the details of what happened which lead them to coming to see (or calling for) the detectives.
  • A crime has been committed, and usually there is only one main suspect, but there is no proof they did it and the detective must figure out how the crime was committed to stop them from committing another crime or getting away.
  • The Innocent will tell the detectives their story, which will include all suspects (although they may be under fake names), the important details of the events they’ve experienced, and a few important clues (which they might not realize are clues and just think are details). The detective will catch these clues, but probably won’t put them together or mention this to the audience. The clues should be worked into the story in such a way that they don’t stand out as being clues and fit in with the rest of the Innocent’s story unless the audience pays very careful attention.

The Investigation (20%, 1200 words)

  • The detectives will take action to help the Innocent, usually by going out and gathering more clues or information.
  • If there’s not a lot of information, then we might follow the main detective and their partner as they talk to various people involved in the case. They may interview witnesses, examine crime scenes, or collect the stories of the people involved.
  • If there’s a lot of information to be gathered from various sources, the main detective and their partner may split up and then meet again later to compare notes. This is to speed up the process of telling the story by having one or both of them summarize the information they learned for each other and the audience.
  • Often the case will get stranger, or there will be a twist, near the end of this phase (but not always). The most common twist is the elimination of the “red herring” where the most likely method of committing the crime is eliminated as the way it was done. 
  • At the end of this phase, the main detective (and the audience, maybe) will have the key information they need to solve the case and will often say that they know to their partner. (But not tell the audience what they’ve figured out.)

The Reveal (30%, 1800 words)

  • The main detective will now take steps to catch the guilty party.
  • The detectives will set a trap for the criminal, usually by getting one step ahead of them and laying in wait. If the criminal is using the same “secret method” again, the detectives will often replace the victim to catch them in the act and then reveal how the criminal made a mistake that let them get a step ahead and prove the criminal’s guilt. If the criminal had a perfect crime, the detective will trick them into thinking they made a mistake, and then catch them when they try to cover up the mistake or flee. Confronted with the truth, the criminal will confess all, or if they died as the “secret method” kills them instead of their intended victim, the detective or someone else will fill in the missing pieces.  
  • With the crime laid out, the audience should be able to look back now and see clearly how everything fit together in a reasonable way. There should be no magic powers, acts of god, or huge co-incidences, and everything should make sense.
  • Usually, there is one last unanswered question, and in the final scene the detective’s partner or the Innocent asks it to the main detective, and the detective answers them in some interesting way. The final scene usually ends on either a final thought or (in later stories) on an amusing note to balance out any tragedy which the ending revealed with positive emotions.

One interesting feature of a howdunnit is that they are sometimes played as a sort of duel between the detective(s) and the culprit. The culprit is often (but not always) an active character in the story who the detective is interacting with and the detective gets to know as the story goes on, and since howdunnits can more easily be victimless crimes, the culprit might even be sympathetic in their goals. Or, the criminal may be a very unlikeable person who taunts the detective with their lack of proof and angers the audience like a true villain until the detective finally outwits them in a final display of brilliance or skill at the end.

The challenge with writing howdunnits is to come up with a puzzle that isn’t too easy for the audience to figure out while giving them enough clues to make it possible to solve before the end. Even Doyle didn’t always play fair in this regard, and sometimes slightly cheated to make sure the audience couldn’t guess until the end. However, whenever possible you should avoid doing that if the puzzle is the main question you build your story around.

A suggestion for writing these stories is to come up with the method for doing the “impossible crime” first, and then figure out what kind of crime it’s best used with. However, whatever method you use to plan it, thinking through the crime before writing is a must!

The (Classic Doyle) Whodunnit Formula

The Adventure of the Abbey Grange - Wikipedia

Without a doubt, the whodunnit is the most popular type of mystery there is in modern culture, and if you read or watch a mystery story today, it’s probably a whodunnit. CSI? Whodunnit. The Mentalist? Whodunnit. Criminal Minds? Whodunnit. Detective Conan/Case Closed? Whodunnit. Murdoch Mysteries/Artful Detective? Whodunnit.  

People love figuring out whodunnit!

Which is why it might come as a shock to you that most Sherlock Holmes stories, the paragon of mystery crime solving, aren’t whodunnits. Doyle actually preferred howdunnits and whydunnits instead, at least based on the number of each he wrote.

Oh, the criminal is often unknown until later in the story, but the focus of the stories isn’t so much on who did it, but how or why it was done, and the criminal’s identity is often secondary to figuring that out. This is one of the things that may make reading Holmes a bit of an adjustment for modern readers, since Doyle seems to have found the simple question of who did it much less interesting to hang a story on than how or why it was done. Sometimes the criminals even turn themselves in “off camera” once their schemes are revealed because it just isn’t that important to the story.

However, he did write whodunnit stories from time to time for variety, and the formula he used isn’t much different from the others at heart…

Introduction (15% or less of the story, 900 words in a 6000 word short story)

  • The main detectives are introduced in an interesting way which shows off their personalities.
  • A new character with a problem (hereafter called the “innocent”) appears before them and the main detective character shows off their detective skills by guessing information about the Innocent.

The Situation (35%, 2100 words)

  • The Innocent tells the detective characters about their problem. The innocent tells them the details of what happened which lead them to coming to see (or calling for) the detectives.
  • A crime has been committed and there are two or three suspects who could have committed it. The mystery is built around figuring out which one of them did the crime.
  • The Innocent will tell the detectives their story, which will include all suspects (although they may be under fake names), the important details of the events they’ve experienced, and a few important clues (which they might not realize are clues and just think are details). The detective will catch these clues, but probably won’t put them together or mention this to the audience. The clues should be worked into the story in such a way that they don’t stand out as being clues and fit in with the rest of the Innocent’s story unless the audience pays very careful attention.

The Investigation (20%, 1200 words)

  • The detectives will take action to help the Innocent, usually by going out and gathering more clues or information.
  • If there’s not a lot of information, then we might follow the main detective and their partner as they talk to various people involved in the case. They may interview witnesses, examine crime scenes, or collect the stories of the people involved.
  • If there’s a lot of information to be gathered from various sources, the main detective and their partner may split up and then meet again later to compare notes. This is to speed up the process of telling the story by having one or both of them summarize the information they learned for each other and the audience.
  • Often the case will get stranger, or there will be a twist, near the end of this phase (but not always). The most common twist is the elimination of the “red herring” where the most likely suspect is proven to be innocent by dying or new evidence showing they’re innocent. (This is why there is usually three suspects – since one will be eliminated from the list at this point.)
  • At the end of this phase, the main detective (and the audience, maybe) will have the key information they need to solve the case and will often say that they know to their partner. (But not tell the audience what they’ve figured out.)

The Reveal (30%, 1800 words)

  • The main detective will now take steps to catch the guilty party.
  • The detective gathers the guilty people together and tells them what really happened, explaining how each of them is connected with the crime until they settle on the real criminal last. The real criminal reveals why they did it when confronted with the truth, answering any questions the audience might have like motives (usually hatred because of past events or greed).
  • With the crime laid out, the audience should be able to look back now and see clearly how everything fit together in a reasonable way. There should be no magic powers, acts of god, or huge co-incidences, and everything should make sense.
  • Usually, there is one last unanswered question, and in the final scene the detective’s partner or the Innocent asks it to the main detective, and the detective answers them in some interesting way. The final scene usually ends on either a final thought or (in later stories) on an amusing note to balance out any tragedy which the ending revealed with positive emotions.

The above formula can also be used for novels, but would require a bit of expansion and development to make it work. One of the advantages of whodunnits is their ability to be padded out as much as needed by simply spending more time exploring and learning about the backgrounds of the victims and suspects. Subplots about how the crime was done and motivations are also easily incorporated into a whodunnit story as needed.

Generally, the main clues that reveal a culprit in a whodunnit story are going to be verbal ones – they say the wrong thing while giving testimonies or answering questions. Occasionally, it might be something they are tricked into revealing by the detective, in which case it is often something simple and innocuous were it not connected with the current case. However, spoken mistake are rarely enough to convict a person of being the criminal, so there will need to be other physical evidence available to support it and finish the case.

The Three Mysteries of Arthur Conan Doyle

Sherlock Holmes | Description, Stories, & Facts | Britannica

While making my way through Stephen Fry’s astoundingly good Sherlock Holmes: The Definitive Collection on Audible, I began to notice a pattern in Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories. Story after story in the collection tended to follow one of three different patterns, and after I started taking notes, I began to realize that these three patterns didn’t just apply to Holmes’ stories, but mysteries in general.

Using the language of mystery fans, I classify these three patterns as “whodunnits,” “howdunnits,” and “whydunnits.” For those not familiar with the term “dunnit,” it’s a slang version of “done it” and traditionally connected with “whodunnit” (who has done it) mysteries. And, in this and the following posts, I’ll be discussing each of them as they relate to the Holmes stories and the rough story formulas each of them is used in classic Holmes stories. Of course, these formulas can be applied to any plot or subplot to get a mystery out of them.

Let’s look at each in order of their popularity.

Whodunnit: A mystery story built about the question of who committed a crime. When most people think of mysteries, or “murder mysteries,” they’re thinking of whodunnits. In these stories, there will be two or more possible suspects who may have committed the crime and by the end of the story the detective will have figured out which one did it. There might be questions about how a crime was done, or motives, but ultimately everything leads back to the central question of who the criminal was. A classic Holmes whodunnit is “The Adventure of the Abby Grange.”

Howdunnit: A mystery story built around the question of how a crime was accomplished. A classic example of the howdunnit is the “locked room mystery,” which is defined on Wikipedia as a crime being “committed in circumstances under which it was seemingly impossible for the perpetrator to commit the crime or evade detection in the course of getting in and out of the crime scene.” These are also called “impossible crime” mysteries, for obvious reasons. Of course, there are other kinds of howdunnits as well, like a crime where the criminal seems to have been in two places at once, but the focus of these stories will always be the central question of how a crime was committed. In fact, often the criminal is known to both the reader and the detective(s), but to lay the hands of the law on the criminal requires figuring out how the crime was even possible first. A classic Holmes howdunnit is “The Adventure of the Speckled Band.”

Whydunnit: A mystery story built around the question of why something has happened (or is happening). These stories usually come in two flavors – motives and events. A motive-based whydunnit is built around the question of why a character did something, usually a crime. An event-based whydunnit is usually built around the question of why something out of the ordinary happened. Doyle made use of both, but he especially loved to write event-based whydunnits because of their ability to shock and intrigue readers. In a Doyle story, the reason behind the event is usually a crime, but one which is seen from a strange angle (often that of someone affected by the crime indirectly) and then when the events are seen correctly everything becomes clear. The story may involve elements of whodunnits or howdunnits, but the central mystery will always be why something did or did not happen. A classic Holmes whydunnit is “The Adventure of the Red Headed League.”

Of course, these stories are often not “pure” and often contain elements of each other as plots and subplots, and you can even have a story that contains all three- a mysterious criminal who commits an impossible crime for unknown reasons. However, especially with short stories, there is usually one of these three which is the dominant mystery question to be solved. Which one it is can usually be discerned by it being the last question the story answers, since once it is done, the story is effectively over.

Making each of these the focus of a story can change the story quite a bit, since each of them has their own special rules and quirks that will be discussed in turn in each of the following posts. Just click on the links below to look at how Doyle writes each in more depth.

Lastly, some of you might be saying, “Wait a moment, Rob! What about Whatdunnits? Whendunnits? and Wheredunnits?” If we’re playing with question words, wouldn’t those be stories too?

And you, intelligent reader, would be right, but those three are rarely the focus of a mystery story for good reasons.

A “whatdunnit” would be in a weird space between a “whodunnit” and a “howdunnit”, but really covering neither of them well. If a non-living (or non sentient) thing committed a crime (or other act) then technically it’s a “whodunnit” with a non-living suspect. This has been done, usually in stories where the victim accidentally killed themselves with some weapon or object, and the twist is that all the suspects were innocent. On the other hand, if the “whatdunnit” is about what object/method was used to commit a crime, then the term “howdunnit” is better because it covers a lot more possibilities.

A “whendunnit” or “wheredunnit” would build a story about the time or place a “crime” (or other act) occurs, but in most stories those are just pieces of information that lead to answering other questions. In fact, time and place are usually parts of “howdunnits” when they’re the focus of the story, so that category also covers them already.

Now, on to the formulas!

The (Classic Doyle) Whodunnit Formula

The (Classic Doyle) Howdunnit Formula

The (Classic Doyle) Whydunnit Formula