Writing About Writing: The MICE Quotient
Updated: May 4, 2022
In the book Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction: How to Create Out-of-this-World Novels and Short Stories, Orson Scott Card expounds on the MICE Quotient for determining narrative structure. MICE is an acronym describing four elements of narrative fiction: milieu, idea, character, event. The balance of the four elements of the MICE Quotient in narrative fiction engages readers and carries forward a story succinctly and cohesively. Card writes, "While each is present in every story, there is generally one that dominates the others." So let's pull apart each of these elements and further examine them.
Perhaps you have read (or are writing) a story in which the main character travels to a strange land, sees all the interesting things, is transformed by the peculiar world, and comes back a new person. In a milieu story, the world creation is what the writer cares about the most. The Wizard of Oz movie is a rather famous example of the milieu domination of the story, for it is the world of Oz that draws us in as it draws in Dorothy, the stranger in the new world.
In an idea story, the work centers around the process of learning new information. The story begins with a question (What was that?) and answers it at the end (A vicious, slathering, cave-dwelling beast!). Think of a murder mystery, a classic whodunit. The story begins with, "Who committed the murder and why?" The mystery concludes only when the reader can identify the killer and the motive.
A character story centers around a character and their role transformation within the community, focusing on who the character is rather than what the character does. The reader needs to care about the character to care about their successful transformation. Consider Kafka's Metamorphosis, a story in which Gregor, the protagonist, wakes up to find himself transformed into a giant insect and struggles to adjust until the end when he perishes of starvation. The story revolves around Gregor, certainly, but in focusing on Gregor's changes, the family with which Gregor lives must also change.
A specific event or series of events drives the narrative forward in an event story. The story generally begins when the world has been disrupted/disordered and ends when the world is restored or re-ordered. The hero's plight typically follows an event structure, wherein the hero must figure out how to resolve the world's disorder through the heroic act. An event story often involves defeating the bad guy and putting everything back in its rightful place. However, readers must care about the hero first, or they will not be around to see the resolution.
Writing a fictional story is a feat, but choosing the right structure for the story is an enormous one that requires deep consideration. Consider the question, "What do I want my readers to get from this story?" Can you identify the type of narrative structure you have employed? And is it the right structure for the story you are telling? If you are a writer who struggles with getting the story down on paper, or if you are stuck on a work in progress (writer's block, anyone?), you may be writing the wrong narrative structure for your story or beginning storytelling at the wrong place.
Most importantly, a cohesive and satisfying story requires completing the story you started to tell and leaving your readers with a sense of accomplishment and closure.