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 S.P.I.N.E. of Good Comics

Previously, I’ve written about the characteristics that make up a good story, at least from the point of view of the audience, and how the writer has five key things they offer their audience in a story, which can be summed up by the acronym S.P.I.N.E..

  • Skills – the audience learns how to do something.
  • Perspective – the audience gains a new view of the world or has their current one confirmed.
  • Information – the audience gains information.
  • Novelty – the audience is presented with something they haven’t seen/known before.
  • Emotion – the audience is made to feel some emotion.

Today, I want to look at a more specific application- how these characteristics are what helps to make comic books interesting to read, and can make your comics or manga even better.

First, it’s important to understand that those five things apply on both the macro and micro level, so for example, a book might be a historical adventure set in Medieval England, and thus taken as a whole story (the macro level) it gives the reader Information (about the culture and history of England). However, even on the level of individual sentences (the micro level) each sentence in the book might be providing Information about people, dates, food, customs, events, clothing, or any other number of historical details. Taken as a whole, they inform the reader about the greater history and culture, but as usual, that information is actually presented in a bunch of tiny pieces that make up the whole.

So then, understanding that the S.P.I.N.E. covers everything big and small in a story, it should come as no surprise that they also cover the pages of a comic book- which is where I want to focus today.

In short, through the writing and art every single page of a comic book should offer at least one of those five key things to the reader. Preferably, it should offer more than one, but the minimum should be one thing if the writer/artist wants to keep the audience interested. In fact, the really skilled comic creators make almost every panel contain one of those elements.

Let’s look at some pages from the hit manga Dr. Stone by Inagaki Riichiro and BOICHI. (Remember that manga is read right to left, the opposite of American comics.)

(You can keep reading the story here to find out what happens next.)

As you can see, each of these pages (and panels) is packed full of the key five elements, as the writer and artist team make use of them to keep the reader interested and push the entertainment quality of the comic to new heights.

If you want to learn a lot about comic creation and writing, do what I did with the sample pages and analyze your favorite comics panel by panel and page by page. You’ll be surprised just how much information the best creators are packing in there in even the simplest looking of pages that take you seconds to read. (But filled with elements which your brain catches almost all of.)

Also, as you’re planning your next comic, or revising your current one, always be looking for the S.P.I.N.E. elements and chances to add them to your comic- in dialog, captions, panels, and pages.  It’s this focus on the reader, and these elements that have made manga a worldwide success, and which comic creators around the world (knowingly and unknowingly) have been using to produce works of comic art.

Rob

Write! Shonen Manga!

It’s finally here! Six months ago, I started a “small” project to write a short book on writing Shonen Manga style stories. Now, 310 pages and 90,000 words later it’s finished and available on AmazonKobo, iBooks, and most other retailers. It’s even available in print!

If you’ve ever wanted to know how the Japanese put together their amazing comics like Naruto, One Piece, and others, this book unpacks it all for you, and gives you the techniques you need to write your own manga and manga-like stories. Whether you’re a beginner or master wordsmith, this book will help you understand the power of the IDEA story structure and use it to make your stories shine.

Normally the book is $7.99, but until December 7th, the ebook’s only 99 cents! Get it now, and discover how to unleash your inner manga creator!

“Linguistics, Style and Writing in the 21st Century – with Steven Pinker”

A brilliant video which changed my thinking about style. All academics should watch it.

Emotional Emphasis 

So, I’m puzzling over this quote from Araki’s book on writing manga.

In Western comic storyboards, panels are laid out with the most importance placed on good drawing composition, and the sketches focus on the characters’ actions. Japanese mangaka, on the other hand, place emphasis on characters’ internal thoughts and emotional reactions. This focus on the internal is what sets Japanese mangaka apart.

First, I think this idea is brilliant. It’s a really interesting take on comic composition.

But, beyond that, because I’m a writer, I have to wonder if there’s a way to apply this to prose writing. Does this just mean putting in emphasis on the characters’ feelings and expressing emotion over describing the action is it happening? Or, would this mean doing something like being more poetic and emotional in your language, or trying to find a balance between the two?

Or, does it mean digging deeper into how your characters are reacting and dealing with the situation?

Still thinking about it.

Rob

How to Write a Good Story- Human Needs

All stories are ultimately about humans needs- specifically, a human (or human-like being) trying to meet those basic fundamental needs in some way. No matter what the story is about, or how complicated it is, on some level it’s about people trying to meet their needs.

So, what are the basic human needs?

The concept of human needs was first proposed by Abraham Maslow in his 1943 paper “A Theory of Human Motivation” in Psychological Review. Maslow believed that there are things we fundamentally seek out as human beings, and we need these things to live happy lives. The theory goes that if we don’t have these things, we will naturally try to seek them out and find ways to fill them because they really are fundamental to our lives.

Now, there has been arguments made about the hierarchy Maslow originally placed upon those needs, but that doesn’t really matter to us. The key here is that each of those basic needs you see there are so fundamental that if we’re missing them, and our lives are out of balance, we will naturally try to find some way to make them part of our lives again. (Even if we do it in dysfunctional ways, like staying in bad relationships because they still meet our needs in some way.)

Stories then, are also about characters trying to meet human needs, and you could even say that stories are actually teaching people how needs can be fulfilled through action (or inaction.) This is why characters almost always start stories in an unfulfilled state- one where they are missing one of their fundamental needs – and then the story itself is at it’s core about them trying to fill that missing need in their lives.

Very often, the main characters of stories don’t even know what’s missing in their lives, they are trying to fill those needs in an imperfect way or just limp along with those needs unfulfilled. The story, then, on a personal level becomes about them learning what it really is they need to be happy as a person, and then finding a solution to that need. An interesting point, however, is that often the Active Opponent of the story (the antagonist/villain) actually does know what they need (unlike the main character) and is actively trying to get it. The problem is that usually what the main character and their active opponent want is often the same thing, which naturally brings them into conflict.

Okay, enough theory. Let’s look at how some common genre plots match up with the humans needs that drive them.

Physiological

Stories built around physiological needs are going to be primal stories. You don’t get any more basic than this, because these are the essential things that we need to be alive as living things. These are often stories where man is acting on the same level as an animal, and often will be about the less pleasant sides of human nature. However, these can be stories about the triumph of human nature too, like Robinson Crusoe or The Martian, where a human being must pull the basic needs from a harsh environment.

Safety

Safety covers a lot more ground than you might think. Any story where the main character’s goal is to achieve personal safety for themselves, their family, their community, their nation, or something else they deem important, is a safety-based story. Most action movies and superhero movies are ultimately about safety, because the villain will blow up/harm whatever if the hero doesn’t stop them- so the hero must risk personal safety to fight for the greater good of safety for the community. Westerns are also safety-based, since the cowboy hero is fighting to “keep the peace” or “restore order”, which are also codewords for safety. Even Mystery stories are most commonly about safety, since a murderer/criminal is loose and threatening the safety of society and the balance must be restored for there to be social order. Finally, war movies are also about safety- fighting against an invading army or enemy foe for the sake of the safety of country and loved ones. (Mom and Apple Pie!)

Love/Belonging

Since humans are social animals, we generally desire companionship of some kind and want to feel we belong to a greater community. This human need is naturally the realm of Romance movies and other love stories, but it can also be the root of many type of Dramas and Comedies, usually ones built around interpersonal relationships. The main characters in these stories are almost always lonely or isolated in some way, and the story will be about them finding and connecting with others in a deep and meaningful way.

Esteem

This is another one that like Safety, covers a lot more ground than you might think at first. These are stories of achievement and gaining respect (both from others and within yourself), which is why Adventure stories are most often driven by Esteem. Young Adult stories are often Esteem driven too, since both YA and Middle Grade stories are meant for youth who are trying to find their place in the world and are often driven by gaining respect. Pretty much the whole of the Japanese boys comic industry is about Esteem stories as well- the weak and feeble youth who grows in power and stature personally and socially to become a great man.

 

Self Actualization

This kind of story is a little less common, in no small part because self actualization can be a pretty vague and personal concept. While an audience can easily understand the many variants of the previous four needs, and they can be easily represented on film, self actualization and being your best personal self is a harder thing to capture. You most often see it in novels where the character is trying to figure out their identity and goes on some sort of inward or outward journey to find the missing thing they need to be happy. In movies, you see it in stories like Seven Years in Tibet, Under the Tuscan Sun, and Eat Pray Love, where a character seems to have everything, but can’t find true happiness. Of course, these stories aren’t limited to introspective drama- Rocky is also a story of self actualization, as are many sports dramas which follow similar molds. (Oddly enough, a lot of Best Picture Oscars seem to go to Self Actualization driven movies.)

Now, when talking about a genre matching up with a human need, that’s based on how those genres generally play out. By shifting the human need the main character is seeking to fill, but using the tropes of another genre, you can create all sorts of combinations and situations. You could do a superhero story where the main character is drive by self actualization (One Punch Man), or a horror story which is about the main character finding the community they need during a zombie apocalypse. However, most commonly, you’ll see these human needs matched up with these genres because they’re good fits to motivate the characters in that genre.

And it’s all about motivation – conscious or unconscious – which is what’s driving the character to do what they do. We need main characters to be active, and nothing makes a character more active than trying to fill their needs.

One note- naturally, real people may be seeking to fill more than one of these needs at the same time, but this is a good time to remember that characters aren’t real people. A character having too many needs will usually muddy the story, and it’s best to focus on just one at a time in most stories. That isn’t to say that the character can’t have another need in a different story, but usually just one need, or maybe two conflicting needs, is enough to make a story interesting to the audience.

Also, if you don’t like Maslow’s list, or perhaps think it’s a bit short or unclear, then there are others who have attempted to quantify human needs in different ways. One of these is Professor Steven Reiss, who classified 16 “Desires” that each human being has. His list is meant for use by marketers (almost all modern marketing techniques are based on connecting human needs with products in the minds of consumers) but it can work for writers as well.

Reiss’ List:

  1. Acceptance – the need to be appreciated
  2. Curiosity – the need to gain knowledge
  3. Eating – the need for food
  4. Family – the need to take care of one’s offspring
  5. Honor – the need to be faithful to the customary values of an individual’s ethnic group, family or clan
  6. Idealism – the need for social justice
  7. Independence – the need to be distinct and self-reliant
  8. Order – the need for prepared, established, and conventional environments
  9. Physical activity – the need for work out of the body
  10. Power – the need for control of will
  11. Romance – the need for mating or sex
  12. Saving – the need to accumulate something
  13. Social contact – the need for relationship with others
  14. Social status – the need for social significance
  15. Tranquility – the need to be secure and protected
  16. Vengeance – the need to strike back against another person

The key is to remember that stories are about people acting to accomplish goals, and that action will most likely be driven by a human need. Matching the right need with the right character can really bring a character to life and help to make a story much more interesting and appealing than it might otherwise be. So know what your character’s needs are, and then make them work to fulfill them- because your reader needs a little adventure in their life.

 

 

 

Xiao Gou’s Blog

After reading online how helpful blogging in languages you’re learning can be, I’ve decided to start a separate blog in Chinese so I can practice my limited grammar and vocabulary and maybe learn a bit too. The blog, Xiao Gou’s Blog, will only be in Chinese, and contain my simple random posts each week. I will try to only blog with the vocabulary I actually know (rather that fill it with dictionary Chinese) and will write it in Traditional Characters because those are what I’m studying. I hope to update it a couple times a week.

If those who are better than I see mistakes, please feel free to correct me. -_-

謝謝,

小狗

Note- I called it Xiao Gou’s blog, but it has nothing to do with the character of Little Gou. It’s just me blogging, journaling and embarrassing myself. 😉

Review- Dragon Blade (Jackie Chan) (Mild Spoilers)

I just finished watching Dragon Blade, and I have to say I have really mixed feelings about it. It’s a giant pile of awesome ideas and potential wrapped in a badly directed and mismanaged package. The core idea is great- a team of Silk Road mediators in Han Dynasty China lead by Huo An (Jackie Chan) have to keep peace among the 36 different tribes that control parts of the Silk Road which runs between China and Rome. One day, a Roman army shows up on the Chinese border city of Wild Geese led by Commander Lucius (John Cusack) on the run from Rome because they’re fleeing with their lord’s youngest son to keep his elder brother from killing him. The Romans and the Chinese are the two ends of the Silk Road, but this is them meeting for the first time and lots of cultural conflicts and misunderstandings ensue.

Great stuff, and the first half of the movie is actually pretty good with a nice mix of comedy, action, and some cool scenes where each side gets to show off what they can do. It was made for Chinese audiences, but the Romans are played as strong and heroic, and Cusack and Chan are fun to watch together, regardless of how awkward the English dialog is. (And it’s REALLY awkward- this movie needed an English re-write badly, the lines sounding like they used Google Translate on a Chinese script.) I especially enjoyed the portrayal of the Romans as builders and engineers as well as warriors.

However, then the second half of the movie hits and it turns into a nonsensical mess that pretty much squanders everything the first half built up. Things and characters appear and disappear, and stuff happens that makes sense but was never really explained or built up to. You can kind of piece most of it together, but you’re left scratching your head as to what the writer/director was thinking. For example, the version I saw has a bizarre flash-forward to modern day at the end that comes out of nowhere and seems to be part of a whole storyline that was left out except for this final scene. Stuff like that.

I blame a lot of this on the director, Daniel Lee, as you can see in this a movie that in the hands of a good director like Ridley Scott could have been fricken amazing, but was instead reduced to a dog’s breakfast of a film.

I give the first half a B-, but thanks to a D- second half, I can only give the film a C- in the end. Which is sad, because I liked so many things in this film, just not the film itself. See it on Netflix, it’s definitely not worth a theatrical price to see, unfortunately.

Rob

The School of Greatness Podcast

The other day I mentioned The Art of Charm podcast, which is about social networking and personal psych-social development. Another great podcast in a similar vein is The School of Greatness podcast, which has a focus more on financial (as well as social) success.

The School of Greatness podcast is one of those shows that rose out of necessity. As Lewis Howe (the host) puts it, he was “broken, broke, and clueless on how to make money or get a career” after a football injury shattered his lifelong dream to be professional athlete. So, he started seeking out successful people and recording his sessions with them, and when he started to share these sessions online The School of Greatness was born.

Now over 100 episodes in, Lewis’s interviews with business and personal development leaders are fascinating as he has a very humble and curious approach to conversation. Since he doesn’t come from an academic background or a media background, he approaches every conversation with these people as a true layman. This makes him ask the questions that might sometimes seem simple, but which can really help to find the advice that average people need and can relate to better.

So, give it a listen! I’m not going to recommend any special episodes since they’re all pretty interesting, but I can promise whatever episode you choose you’ll learn something that can help you in 2015!

Rob

Amazon’s “Secret” Kindle Category Passwords

Being a self-published writer is never an easy thing, it requires you to be half-writer/half-marketer to succeed, and the ever changing self-publishing world is full of all sorts of little tricks and traps. The traps are mostly about people trying to take your money for “services” you may or may not need, and the tricks are all about getting your book seen by the largest number of people. (And thus improving your chances of people buying your books!)

It doesn’t help that Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing platform is itself a giant labyrinth filled with ever changing rules and channels. One recent change is to their “Refine By” sub-categories, which can make a big difference in how your books are shown and presented.

Normally, when you self-publish a book on KDP you get to pick two categories for that book to be in. Say, “Romance>Historical” and “Romance”, and your book would be cataloged under those two categories and subcategories. The problem is that each category already has a certain number of titles in it, arrayed by their ranking on the site as a whole and other factors Amazon doesn’t reveal. So, for example, Romance>Historical has 24,420 ebooks in it at the moment, and Romance itself has 194,408 ebooks.

Good luck getting anyone to notice your nice new book in those piles!

Now, to make things a bit easier on authors, you also get seven “keywords” (which can actually be more than one word) that you can pick to describe your book. Traditionally more keywords could be added later by readers as well, and Amazon would use your keywords and theirs to add your book to a few extra “Refined by” sub-categories that you could only get to by Amazon employees adding your book to them.

Say, for example- Romance>Military. It’s a sub-category that exists, but they had to manually add you to that list if they thought you belonged and you didn’t have any say about it. Being included in that list could also be huge, because instead of competing with 195,408 ebooks the Romance category, your book might now be one of 3,128 books moving up and down within Romance>Military group. This could really help up your odds of being noticed and your books being sold.

And now, Amazon has changed their system. Instead of them adding you, if you use certain keywords when you register your book they act as passwords that automatically get your books added to these select lists! For example, if I included any of the the words “military, navy, army, soldier” among my keywords when I added my book to the Romance category my book would automatically be added to the Romance>Military “Refined by” sub-category. You can find a complete list of the “passwords” and more details on the KDP Selecting Browse Categories page, which you can then use to more accurately get your books into the sub-categories you think they belong to.

These will get your books into the “Refine by” lists you can see under the main category lists when you’re Browsing on Amazon, and those are definitely places you want to be to reach the most eyeballs. I’ve seen “Refine by” lists that have as few as 1 or 2 books- I kid you not! Can you imagine what getting your book onto a list that small would do for your chances of being noticed?

Of course, this is all about gaming the system, and I feel a little guilty talking about it. But then again, Amazon isn’t really hiding this, so why not take advantage of it while it’s still an advantage?

Good luck!

Rob