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.