I stumbled across an episode of the Writing Excuses podcast covering the M.I.C.E. Quotient that really got me thinking. The topic was interesting enough to have me taking notes and thought I’d share those notes with you.
Since the podcast episodes are only 15-20 minutes long, the hosts are covering the M.I.C.E. Quotient in a series of episodes over a few weeks. The episode entitled What is the M.I.C.E. Quotient? (Season 16, Episode 35) introduces the concept.
The M.I.C.E. Quotient is an organizational tool which categorizes story elements of Milieu, Inquiry, Character, and Event to help authors know which elements are in play and how to work with them effectively.
The four elements are defined as such:
- Driven by place; (environment, setting, atmosphere)
- Begins when a character ENTERS a place and ends when they EXIT the place (not necessarily where they entered).
- Example: Heist stories, Gulliver’s Travels, The Labyrinth
- Conflicts occur when the character tries to exit.
- Driven by questions; (a question or mystery)
- Begin when a character has a questions and ends when they answer it.
- Example: Mystery stories are classic inquiry stories (i.e., Sherlock Holmes, Agatha Christie) or stories where someone’s trying to figure something out (i.e., Andromeda Strain)
- Conflicts occur when the character is unable to answer the question (lied to, red herring, etc.).
- Driven by angst; (their internal problems, goals)
- Begins when a character asks “Who am I?” and ends when they say “Oh, this is who I am.” They begin with a shift in identity and end when the character solidifies their self-definition.
- Example: Love stories, coming of age stories, Catcher in the Rye
- Conflicts keep the character from changing… self-doubt, change backfires, etc.
- Driven by action; (external problems, catastrophes)
- Begins when the status quo is disrupted and end when the new status quo is reached.
- Example: Disaster stories, Godzilla
- Conflicts keep the character from restoring order and setting the new status quo.
Character versus Event
It is easy to confuse Character stories with Event stories. Keep in mind that character stories are about internal conflict where event stories are about external conflict.
Obstacles versus Complications
Obstacles are the things that are keeping the character from their goals.
Complications are new problems that results from the character trying to overcome each obstacle.
Stories are a combination of these elements, each nested within each other. You must deal with each beginning and ending before the end of the book.
You nest these threads in a first in, last out manner. You close off each thread in the opposite order of when they are introduced (similar to HTML code!).
Here’s an example to understand what she is talking about:
This approach makes it easier to keep track of what threads are still open and where you need to close them as you approach the climax of your story.
If you close off the threads out of order, you mess up the tension of the story. If you end the outer thread before you close off the inner threads, you’ve solved the bigger problem first, but there’s still a story to tell. Think about when you watch a movie and you think it’s over, but the story is still going on… it usually feels wrong because they’ve closed the threads in the wrong order.
The MICE quotient helps you to understand how to end your story in a way that is satisfying.
Also, the order in which you place your elements—where you put your emphasis—can dramatically shift the direction your story goes. How heavily you weight each one determines how much each one drives the story.
Pairing Element types
Something that works well is to pair disparate MICE elements. Typically, when you pair the same MICE element types (event + event) together, one has lesser stakes than the other, and it’s dissatisfying when you move from one to the other (the tension drops). When you pair disparate types (event + character), the differences in stakes don’t stand out as much.
A good analogy is to think of each element as a strand in a braid, and each braid affects and interacts with the other(s).
Here are the episode links if you’d like to listen further:
- What is the M.I.C.E. Quotient?
- Deep Dive into “Milieu”
- Deep Dive into “Inquiry”
- Deep Dive into “Character”
- Deep Dive into “Event”
- Nesting Threads in the M.I.C.E. Quotient
If the idea of nesting these different elements within your story appeals to you, check out this article by Shalon Sims on the Learning to Grow website. She also provides a very nice template to fold the MICE Quotient elements into the Three Act Structure.
What do you think? Does this give you some direction on how to structure your story and the different threads that are running through it? Drop a comment below and let me know.