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Taming MICE – The MICE Quotient and Storytelling

Tail Feathers Mouse by Brian ValezaFantasy is a genre of strange and diverse stories covering countless themes, concepts and ideas, in order to gain a better understanding of how our stories work and the nature of their structure, it can be useful to look at the ways they are categorised and study what traits make them what they are. The MICE quotient is a formula developed by Orsen Scott Card that deals with the four elements that determine structure, these are Milieu, Idea, Character, and Event. All stories will contain all elements, but there is usually one that dominates the others and determines the story structure. It is the element that the author cares for the most and spends the most effort on, shaping the whole narrative.

Milieu

Milieu is everything about the setting. It is the world, the people, the culture, the tall buildings and the strange flowers. Stories focused on the milieu are about the author showing off their imagination, pulling the reader through outlandish new places and exploring the world of the story. Most portal fantasies are milieu focused, with characters drawn from a world into another to see and experience all the wondrous sights and places, think stories like The Wizard of Oz and Alice in Wonderland. While there will be a plot arc to follow like defeating the Wicked Witch or Queen of Hearts, it largely serves as a vehicle for the character to travel the world and see the sights.

wonderland by jermilexObviously this is the type of story that will work best if you have a strange setting, something to excite and wow the reader as the character travels through the story arc and across the world. The plot of the story will involve some kind of travel as in a quest arc in order to justify all the sightseeing the author wants the character(s) to do. Typically the viewpoint character will be a stranger to the land as well, affording the author the opportunity to explain things to the reader and character simultaneously within the story without seeming forced. The nature of discovery and exploration is a key aspect of the story, with most arcs showing the character changed by the experience and returning home transformed. The story itself will largely be contained within the strange world, with little build-up or character information before protagonist enters. With the focus of the story on the milieu, authors will commonly show only a brief establishment of a viewpoint character before they get to the interesting parts.

The milieu story syncs up well with the fantasy and sci-fi genres, playing on the tradition of showing the reader something strange and new. It encourages the author to use their imagination to the fullest and lets them really delve into the world they’ve created. The potential downside of this is that if the reader doesn’t find the world that interesting or finds flaws in it then they may struggle to find anything else of substance to carry them through the novel.

Idea

Idea stories are about answering questions and finding things out, they introduce a mystery or problem, follow the process of finding out the information then reveal it in the climax. They are the tales of explorers dispatched to abandoned outposts, of heroes sent to the forest to discover why the village sheep are disappearing, and of detectives who have to stand in the mandatory parlour and figure out why somebody has a candlestick in their skull.

Blue Rings by Fred GambinoIdea stories are all about the process of finding out the information, which will make up the bulk of the narrative. Most begin immediately before or just after a situation has changed that prompts a question. Earth has lost contact with a research station – why? A blue comet flies over the city, does it mean the prophecy is nigh? The old dowager is dead and the butler’s missing, what could have happened?

Once the question is established the story takes off. There are theory’s, explorations, deductions and random guesses, all becoming more refined and detailed as the story progresses and aspects are proved right or wrong and more information is revealed. The author will string out any pertinent information, throwing up roadblocks and red herrings to lead the characters off track, working to make sure the reader is just as clueless and eager to find out as the protagonists.

The drama and tension of the story can come from the consequences if they fail to find an answer, as in some time-limited inheritance detective stories, the potential for a bad situation to continue/escalate, or even physical threat as the protagonist encounters something deadly. The story might be led by a single character or group, unless it is a detective story the nature of the characters isn’t always that vital so long as they have a vested interest in answering the question of the story. The story itself will end with the resolution of the mystery and possible its consequences depending on the greater plot.

Idea stories draw on the reader’s curiosity to succeed, pulling them in and deepening the mystery in a slow burn balanced with some thrills. The detective/mystery sub-genre is entirely composed of this type of story, but they are also particularly common in the sci-fi genre to the point where the abandoned space station has virtually become a trope and is the basis for a number of games like System Shock and Prey. The weakness of such stories is the chance for the author to divulge too much and the reader to figure out the answer before the reveal and ruin the ending.

Character

Character stories are all about the protagonist and their development, both personally and within the context of the world. They are very tightly focused on an individual who is dissatisfied with something in their lives and makes an effort to change it. For a simple formula, character stories can cover a wide range of differing story arcs like redemption quests, a search for treasure, or hectic romance.

RESCUING THE WITCH by Sam CarrThese can be some of the hardest stories to pull off effectively and will naturally require a lot of work on characterisation to make them believable and engaging to the reader. The story focuses on the process of development and the ultimate result of the protagonist’s effort to enact change in their lives, whether or not the end result is good or bad. It can be a transformation of the self, altering their personality so a coward can become courageous or a miser can become charitable as with A Christmas Carol. Or it can follow a change in circumstances/society where the character acquires a new role such as in Malekith which follows a prince’s efforts to become king.

The story may begin with a longer establishing phase than other types in order to give value to the transformation of the character, a story in which the protagonist becomes charitable will have greater impact if the author builds credibility as a miser first. The bulk of the narrative is taken up with the journey of development and the events that take place during that process, it will end when the change has been achieved or the protagonist has failed. The conflict and drama of the piece stems from the obstacles in the character path, be they external issues or personal flaws and it builds with the reader’s anticipation of whether they will succeed or fail.

Any story can be made personal to an individual character, even against the backdrop of great events, but these stories will always succeed or fail based on the strength of characterisation and the author’s skill at developing them. If the reader does not engage with them or the character is not interesting enough when compared to other elements of the story the book will flounder.

Event

An event story is focused on the consequences of a change in situation, a disturbance that upsets the established order. It can be a minor domestic issue like a problem with a family member, or it can be a great sweeping change like a kingdom being taken over by an evil wizard. The important thing is that the event represents a significant change from what came previously and throws things into chaos. Fantasy novels are filled with these kinds of stories, prompted by prophecies awakening, newborn chosen ones and the regular appearance of monsters.

Emperor advanced by chasestoneEvent stories have a lot of flexibility as they can be about virtually any subject matter so long as it holds the reader’s interest. The narrative arc will usually follow the basic equilibrium, disequilibrium, new equilibrium format of fiction, with a change being introduced, a plot following efforts to rectify the change and the concluding when a new order is established (or if the old order is completely destroyed). Events stories habitually start not when the event occurs but whenever the protagonist who is key to resolving the issues becomes involved. An example would be a story where a kingdom that has been taken over by an evil duke beginning with a scene where a humble thief steals the duke’s taxes and becomes drawn into a plot for rebellion, resulting in the duke’s overthrow.

Event stories are the foundation of happy endings, but they can also lead to epic calamity such as zombie apocalypse stories. The main character(s) will require a lot of agency to affect change yet not necessarily much character development, it being perfectly acceptable to have archetypes like “tough guy” when dealing with a zombie horde. The key element is to focus on revealing the details of the event and the process of reaction to it, whether triumph or failure, that is what the story arc should follow.

The MICE quotient can be a helpful tool for understanding stories, it can be used to improve plot structure, solve problems in narrative arcs and serve as a guide to the author. Not everyone will agree on its use, or even which stories fall where, but learning the formula will provide another tool for the author when practicing their craft and might just provide a greater insight into your own work. So whatever story you’re writing, keep the focus on what’s important, if you get lost, follow the mice.

Title image by Brian Valeza.

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2 Comments

  1. Yora says:

    This explains the meaning of the four letters. But there’s frequent mention of a formula. What formula?

    • Aaron Miles says:

      Sorry, perhaps, construct or concept would have been a better choice of word. I meant to refer to the organisational idea as a way of looking at stories when I said formula.

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