The M.I.C.E. quotient…ummm…what?
By Dawn G. Sparrow
There are many ways to tell a story. There may even be many ways to tell a good story. However, when you break down a great story, you find it is some variation of the M.I.C.E. quotient.
Well, okay, then, what is it?
Orson Scott Card created this useful way of dissecting a story.
I’m a horror writer, which, if you know me, makes no sense whatsoever. I am outgoing and fun, with bouts of sadness, yet horror and Dawn don’t seem to match up very well. The point of this tangent is to let you know, that I will be skewing the formula toward horror. I may not men it to, but it is who I am.
Anyway, back to the show!
Let’s start by breaking down what M.I.C.E. means.
M- Milieu – simply the world surrounding the characters, every part of the environment of the characters has a place here.
I- Idea – information that the reader is meant to learn or discover during the story.
C- Character – the nature of one or more of the people in the story, which generally arises from or leads to a conclusion on human nature.
E- Events – the events of the story are everything that happens and why.
So, what does this have to do with writing?
Well, each story contains different proportions of these four things.
In a MILIEU story, the story is about the setting and someone who moves through it. These are the Gulliver’s Travels and Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court stories. The thing of supreme importance is the setting, pure and simple. Time travel and space travel stories often fall more heavily in this group.
In an IDEA story, a question or problem is posed at the beginning of the work and answered at the end. Different levels of characterization are needed depending on the specific genre and book. Most murder mysteries, from Agatha Christie to Ross MacDonald fall into this category. Caper stories in particular need less characterization and are all about the idea.
In a CHARACTER story (my kind of story), the person attempts to change or is changed, usually by external forces forcing a re-evaluation of life. The protagonist MUST be changed in some way from the beginning of the story to the end.
As I said, this is my type of story so forgive me if I expound a little bit. The best thrillers and suspense novels are the ones where you fear for the protagonist and watch them change through the story. Horror simply can’t work without this. Some may try to argue that Lovecraft is not horror by this definition. Fine. Argue that. Look more closely and you will see that although the milieu is important, almost its own character in some stories, the descent into madness of the protagonist is the real focus. (Remember the protagonist may not be the narrator, and madness can also encompass the ‘strange disappearances’.) Take The Mist by Stephen King, the novella, NOT the movie which totally changed the ending and made it much less of a horror story. The story appears to be straightforward. A mist comes in and traps people in a supermarket after a big storm. The environment forms the story, right? No. The real story is about the interactions of the people in the market, not their encounters with the strange monsters in the mist. Look at other horror stories and think about why the scare you, or at least work as horror. You see? Character is the very essence of good horror.
Okay, enough of my celebration of horror, I will do more posts on that later, rest assured.
In an EVENT story, something happens and causes something else to happen. The world is thrown out of balance and the people in the story try to fix it. It ends when they succeed or fail. Oedipus Rex and The Count of Monte Cristo are great examples of this.
I think you can see how different stories use these four elements in different amounts to create a story of whole cloth. So, pick your story, try to figure out which one your story leans the most toward, and then decide if that is what you really want it to do.
I am indebted to Orson Scott Card’s writing books How to write Science Fiction & Fantasy and Characters and Viewpoint. Some of the examples used above come directly from those books, while others are my own.