Showing posts with label MICE quotient. Show all posts
Showing posts with label MICE quotient. Show all posts

Thursday, November 1

World Building & Story Creation: Use What You Know

World Building & Story Creation: Using What You Know

1. Pattern your created world on this one

Don't try to re-invent the wheel. Re-purpose as much of this world as you can when you create your new one.

An example is Frank Herbert's invention of the Bene Gesserit. It has been a long time since I last re-read Dune, but I always thought Herbert may have modeled the sisterhoood loosely on the Catholic Church, but instead of only men being allowed to be priests, in the sisterhood only women are allowed to be reverend mother's.

Naturally the differences between the priesthood and the sisterhood are many and profound, but the similarities between the two are as defining as the differences.

2. Pattern your created world on an existing mythology

I was introduced to Greek Mythology in grade four and instantly fell in love. Use what you know.

Zeus (though you probably wouldn't call your character that!) could be a powerful, controlling, licentious CEO of an international corporation married to an incredibly strong, jealous, powerful and spiteful woman. As you can see from the description, many writers have mined the rich stories the ancient Greeks gifted to us.

Story Creation and Orson Scott Card's MICE Quotient

Just because you create the world in which the events of your story will take place, this doesn't mean the world itself will be the focus on your story. In MICE terminology, it doesn't mean you'll write a Milieu Story. That said, having created this marvelous place, not to mention the people who inhabit it, chances are the world, it's quirks, how it differs from our culture, our societies, will be an integral part of your story.

Like Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, you will have subplots involving Idea Stories (Is the King under a spell? How can we break it?), or Character Stories (A girl doesn't want to live the life her father planned for her, instead she desires to wed the man of her dreams--and her father's nightmares), or Event Stories (some guy who lost a ring wants to take over the world. Again.). Or perhaps some combination of all three!

Despite these subplots, though, your main focus will likely be the milieu in which the events occur, it will be the workings of the world itself. Typically, your story will begin when your main character enters the alien world and will end when they leave it.

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This post was inspired by Lori Devoti's excellent article A No Stress Guide To World Building. Thanks to Elizabeth Spann Craig (website + blog) for tweeting a link to Lori's article.

Have you ever written a Milieu Story? How did you come up with the characteristics of your new world?

Other articles you might like:
- NaNoWriMo: A Survival Guide
- SEO Tips & Tricks: How To Make Google Love Your Blog
- Making A Scene: Using Conflicts And Setbacks To Create Narrative Drive

Photo credit: "Tagged!" by JD Hancock under CC BY 2.0

Wednesday, October 24

The Mysteries of Outlining and Nesting MICE: Creating Killer Stories

The Mysteries of Outlining and Nesting MICE: Creating Killer Stories

Yesterday I talked about Mary Robinette Kowal's workshop The Mysteries of Outlining and promised to show how this could be used in conjunction with Orson Scott Card's MICE Quotient to create killer stories.

Let's get started!

Nesting MICE Story Types

The power of structuring your story with MICE comes through when you start to nest story types. Let me give you an example. Let's say I'm writing a murder mystery. Usually murder mysteries are Idea Stories. They focus on the question: Who killed X and why? In an Idea Story the story is over when the problem--finding the murderer and explaining how the murder was done--is solved. But let's say I want to write my murder mystery as a Character Story rather than an Idea Story.

I can do this. How? By nesting story types.

In my main story I would focus on the widow and her changing role in society (a character structure) but since I want my story to also be a murder mystery I would have an Idea Story subplot where I ask the question: Who killed the widow's husband and why?

Close out subplots in the proper order

When you nest story types it's crucial to close them out in the proper order. I would need to close out the Idea Story subplot first and only then, at the very end of the book, close out the Character Story by showing that the widow had found a new role in society (or, if I was writing a tragedy, that she failed to do so).

If I had ended the story after the murderer was found and before the widow's fate was resolved my story would be incomplete and my readers dissatisfied.

Multiple subplots

Each subplot of your novel can have a different story structure. Just because your main story is, say, an Idea Story, or--as with Lord of the Rings--a Milieu Story, doesn't mean that you can't have subplots that incorporate other story types.

Using Orson Scott Card's MICE Quotient to help outline a story

As I mentioned yesterday, Mary Robinette Kowal taught a workshop on The Mysteries of Outlining at SiWC. You don't need to read that post to understand this one, but it might help. In any case, to make things easier to follow I'll include the updated list of actions we developed for the story of Rapunzel:

List of actions:
1. Parents steal a Rapunzel plant
2. Baby born
3a. Witch/enchantress takes baby
3b. Rapunzel locked in tower
5. Grows hair
6a. Prince out hunting
6b.Rapunzel sees prince and calls to him
6. Prince climbs tower
7. Witch discovers Rapunzel has been seeing the prince
8. Rapunzel is tossed out of the tower and left to fend for herself in the wilderness
9. The witch strikes the prince blind
10. Rapunzel and the prince find each other
11. Rapunzel's tears give the prince back his sight
12. Rapunzel and the prince live happily ever after

The question: How are we going to tell this story? Which action will be start with? Where will we draw the line between backstory, story, and postscript? In the wikipedia version of Rapunzel there is no backstory or postscript, all the events from 1 to 12 are included.

So, again, how are we going to tell this story of Rapunzel? We can help decide this question by choosing a story structure. Let's try out each in turn.


Let's say we want to tell Rapunzel's story as a Milieu Story. This means our story will begin when our main character, let's say that's Rapunzel, enters a strange new world and that the story will end when she leaves it.

The only way that fits is if we begin the story at (3b) when Rapunzel enters the tower and end it at (8) when she leaves it. We wouldn't throw out points 1, 2 and 3a, they would simply become backstory and we would work them in at the appropriate time. It would be a sadder story, though, because we would leave Rapunzel learning to be free, learning to feed and clothe herself, learning to stay alive in the great wild forest.

The prince's story could be a sub-plot, one we might decide to write as an Idea Story. In this case the question/problem would be: How can the prince free the princess from the tower? The story would end when the question is answered at (8). We would have to change the outline a bit so the prince's arc would end before the story ends at (8) so we would need to swap (8) and (9) in the outline.


If we were telling this story from Rapunzel's point of view we might be most interested how she'll get away from the witch (question/problem: How will Rapunzel get out of the tower and escape the witch's power?) in which case we'd begin at (3a) with the witch taking the baby and putting her in the unscalable tower. The story would end when Rapunzel left the witch at (8).


If we wanted to write Rapunzel as a Character Story how we began would depend on who we wanted to be our main character. If Rapunzel, we could start when she entered the tower as a baby (3b) or when the prince came into her life (6b), most likely the latter, since it's difficult for a baby to be unbearably dissatisfied with their life! The story would end when Rapunzel found her new role in life as queen at (12).

If we wanted the prince to be our main character we'd start and end the story at roughly the same place, at (6b) and (12).


The Event Story is about the world being out of whack and the main character has to restore order. For this kind of story it would seem easiest to take the prince as the main character. He's out hunting and he sees a beautiful maiden locked in a tower. Perhaps she doesn't call to him, perhaps he hides behind a tree and sees the witch climbing down Rapunzel's golden locks. He becomes outraged at the injustice of keeping a young maiden locked up in a dusty old tower and vows to set things right.

To tell the story this way we'd have to change our outline slightly. Instead of Rapunzel seeing the prince and calling out to him, the prince would see the witch leave the tower and would go and investigate, so we'd need to change (6b). This story would end when the prince had restored order to the world and had taken Rapunzel home to be his wife and queen at (12).

Alternatively we could have Rapunzel realize that being locked in a tower by a witch isn't normal. At the moment she realizes this, at the moment she realizes the woman she had thought of as her mother is actually her jailor, the story would begin--probably somewhere around the time Rapunzel has grown her hair (5). Everything before that would be worked in as backstory. The main story would end when Rapunzel's world was put right and she was part of a family (12).

Choosing a MICE type depending on who you use as a main character

Instead of choosing a story structure and then figuring who we want our main character to be and where the story should begin, we could choose a main character and ask which MICE type would suit that point of view the best.

Well, that's it for this section! Do you have any questions about Orson Scott Card's MICE Quotient and how to use it in an outline? If so, please ask!

Tomorrow we'll look at the last of the tools Mary Robinette Kowal introduced in her workshop The Mysteries of Outlining: Yes, but ... / No, and ...

I was wondering, those of you participating in NaNoWriMo, how is your preparation coming along? Any tips or tricks you'd like to share?


This article is part of a series:
- Orson Scott Card & The MICE Quotient: How To Structure Your Story
- Mary Robinette Kowal and The Mysteries of Outlining
- The Mysteries of Outlining and Nesting MICE: Creating Killer Stories (Current article)
- Making A Scene: Using Conflicts And Setbacks To Create Narrative Drive

Other articles you might like:
- Dialogue: 7 Ways of Adding Variety

- Amazon Ranks Authors In Terms Of Their Book Sales

Tuesday, October 23

Mary Robinette Kowal and The Mysteries of Outlining

This post is a continuation of Orson Scott Card & The MICE Quotient: How To Structure Your Story where I explain what Orson Scott Card's MICE Quotient is and go through the various structures: Milieu, Idea, Character and Event.

My goal today is to show how MICE can be used when outlining but to get there we first need to be initiated into the mysteries.

How To Create An Outline

This material is based on Mary Robinette Kowal's workshop The Mysteries of Outlining I attended at SiWC this last weekend. Mary has a great website (love the black cat!) and an incredible selection of articles on how to read aloud.

I was going to use a different example from the one Mary used in class--Sleeping Beauty rather than Rapunzel--but she knows what she's talking about and I'm still learning, so I hope Mary won't mind if I use her example.

Please keep in mind I scribbled this in my notebook, there was no handout, so any mistakes are mine, not Mary's.

1) Write down all the events of the story

This is easier for us since we're working from a story, Rapunzel, that's already written. When you're outlining a story being created you'll write down all the events you know take place.

Mary stressed that outlines are fluid and meant to help you as a writer, not to lock you in, so just because something is in your outline doesn't mean you're committed. Mary compared an outline to a roadmap. If you have a roadmap you can see where you're going; it helps you stay on track and to reach your destination without unnecessary detours.

But perhaps you want to detour.

When you're on a roadtrip to Los Angeles from Seattle you can decide to take a detour and see the grand canyon, but it'll cost you. If you think the detour is worth it, then go for it! In fact, you may decide that instead of going to LA you'd much rather go to Vegas. You can do that too, but that's a very different road trip and there will be a cost. Your outline helps you see what that cost will be and evaluate whether it's worth it to you.

To sum up, an outline is a tool to help you reach your goal of finishing your book. It helps you keep track of both where you are and where you want to go. It can also help to reveal plot holes and help you get around them.

List of actions:
1. Parents steal a Rapunzel plant
2. Baby born
3. Witch takes baby
4. Grows hair
5. Prince out hunting
6. Prince climbs tower
7. Witch discovers prince
8. Loss
9. Blindness
10. True love

2) Look for plot holes and fill them in

Look at what you have so far and figure out where the plot holes are, then fill them in.

We need to insert "locked in tower" between (3) and (4) and between (5) and (6) should say something about Rapunzel seeing the prince and trying to attract his attention.

3) Look for duplication

Are any scenes serving the same function? Can you roll them into one?

For instance, we might show Rapunzel is lonely by writing a scene where the girl watches a nest of birds and tearfully waves goodbye to the chicks as they fly away. We could use this scene to show how lonely Rapunzel is, now isolated she feels. We wouldn't then also need a scene where Rapunzel brushes her hair and thinks how lonely it is in the tower. We've done that.

4) Flesh out the scenes

For each event--these will becomes scenes--write down:
a) What happens.
b) When it happens.
c) Where it is.
d) The character arc.
e) The time of day.
f) Who is the main character of the scene.

Outlining: Multiple Points of View

In part (1), above, we wrote down a list of actions. These actions are going to get us from the first event: the parents stealing the witch's plant to the last one, true love. (Mary did a great impression of The Impressive Clergyman in The Princess Bride. If you ever have a chance to take one of her workshops, do! It's a lot of fun. Moving on .... )

Balancing point of view (POV) scenes
For each scene decide which character has the most at stake, that's the POV of the scene. Now look at which characters have POVs and if you need to balance them. To balance things you may need to change what's at stake for a character within a scene.

For instance, lets look at the scene where the prince climbs the tower for the first time. It seems reasonable to write that scene from the prince's point of view because he seems to have the most at stake. He could fall, the witch/enchantress probably would do something nasty to him if she came back and caught him, and so on.

But if we needed for Rapunzel to have the point of view we could talk about how much it hurt to have someone climb your hair and how much she would be in trouble with the witch were the prince discovered.

When NOT to give a character a POV scene
One thing Mary stressed was that if a character has nothing at stake then you don't write a scene from their point of view.

POV and your main character
Keep in mind that, all things being equal, the character you start with will be the character your audience most identifies with and so that is the character you need to end with. For instance, if your first scene is told from Rapunzel's POV then you need to end with a scene from Rapunzel's POV.

Outlining and the MICE Quotient

Wow! This post is a lot longer than I thought it would be.

Although this section was what I had intended to get to, it's what I've been working up to, I think I'm going to leave off and come back tomorrow. My post yesterday was lengthy and contained a lot of information so I don't want to overload anyone.

Please do come back tomorrow and I'll (finally!) talk about how to use the MICE quotient with your outline to create a killer story. :-)


Here are all the articles in this series:
- Orson Scott Card & The MICE Quotient: How To Structure Your Story
- Mary Robinette Kowal And The Mysteries Of Outlining
- The Mysteries Of Outlining And Nesting MICE: Creating Killer Stories
- Making A Scene: Using Conflicts And Setbacks To Create Narrative Drive

Other articles you might like:

- Book Review Blogs That Accept Self-Published Work
- What to do if your book isn't selling: Tips from Johanna Penn

Photo credit: Barnaby Kerr Photography

Monday, October 22

The MICE Quotient: How to Structure Your Story

The MICE Quotient: How to Structure Your Story

As I mentioned yesterday, I attended the annual Surrey International Writers' Conference last weekend and am brimming with information from the various workshops I attended. There's so much I want to talk about! First up, let's look at Mary Robinette Kowal's workshop, The Mysteries of Outlining.

Orson Scott Card's MICE Quotient

I heard about Orson Scott Card's MICE quotient before, but I never used it. I'm not sure why. Obviously I hadn't realized how powerful it was, or how to apply MICE to my writing. If you don't immediately understand its relevance either, hang in there. I need to describe MICE before we get into the nitty-gritty of how to apply it to your stories.

This article is too big for one post, so here's how I'm going to break things up. Today I'll talk about MICE. I'm going to try to cover the whole thing, but I may just get half through, depending on how much time I spend on examples. Another post will talk about how to apply MICE to your writing; how to use it. The third, and last, post will discuss another tool Mary discussed: "Yes, but ..." & "No, and ...".

At least, that's the plan! :-)

What is a MICE Quotient? Will it bite?

In his book Characters and Viewpoint Orson Scott Card writes:
[W]hat are the different kinds of stories? Forget about publishing genres for a moment-there isn't one kind of characterization for academic/literary stories, another kind for science fiction, and still others for westerns, mysteries, thrillers, and historicals. Instead we'll look at four basic factors that are present in every story, with varying degrees of emphasis. It is the balance among these factors that determines what sort of characterization a story must have, should have, or can have.

The four factors are milieu, idea, character, and event:
Here's a summary:

MILIEU: A milieu story concerns the world surrounding the characters you create.

IDEA: An idea story concerns the information you intend the reader to uncover or learn as they read your story.

CHARACTER: A character story concerns the nature of at least one of the characters in your story. Specifically, what this character does and why they do it.

EVENT: An event story concerns what happens and why it happens.

Let's examine each of these in turn.

Milieu Story

Start: The story begins when the main character enters the strange new world.

End: The story ends when the main character comes back from the strange new world.

Characterization: less is more

Orson Scott Card writes:
Characterization is not a virtue, it is a technique; you use it when it will enhance your story, and when it won't, you don't.
Focus on the world/setting. If you draw the reader's attention to a character, even your main character, you are taking their attention away from the milieu. In a milieu story it's fine to describe the setting just for the sake of elucidating the world. In other kinds of stories this would be considered padding. Generally readers aren't primarily interested in the world you've created, they want to get to the solution of the puzzle or they want to understand why a certain character is acting a particular way. In a Milieu story, though, your readers are primarily interested in the world you've created, so go for it!

The main character, or characters, of a Milieu story should be 'normal'. That is, they should do what you think anyone would do given the same circumstances. You don't want them to stand out and draw your reader's attention away from the milieu and onto them. In a sense, your characters will be types rather than fully formed individuals because you want them to be typical of certain cultures or social roles that exist within your milieu.


A pure milieu story is rare. Usually a milieu story is mixed with one of the other three types of stories. For instance JRR Tolkien, in crafting Lord of the Rings, took great care in describing his fictional universe--in many ways that was the main focus--but it was also an idea story.

Frodo needs to get rid of the magical ring Bilbo gave him. He tries to give it to Gandalf but Gandalf adamantly refuses. First Frodo takes it to the elves in the hope they will take up the burden but even they cannot. In the end Frodo realizes he can't rely on anyone else to destroy the ring so he and Sam carry it to Mount Doom.

Orson Scott Card also gives Dune as an example of a Milieu story.

General types of stories that are milieu stories: travelogues, utopian fiction, natural science and westerns.

Idea Story

Start: The story begins when your main character meets an obstacle. They have a problem that must be solved. This gives rise to a question: how will they get around the obstacle?

End: The story ends when the character has answered the question and removed the obstacle.

Characterization: The eccentric problem solver

Since the focus is on a problem, or the idea of how to solve the problem, you don't want your characters to steal the focus. That said, you DO need your characters to be entertaining. Many authors give these kinds of characters eccentric characteristics to help differentiate them and make them more interesting as they go about the main job of the story: solving the problem.


- Bob needs $100,000 dollars to pay off a loan shark. He plans to rob a bank to get the money. He robs a bank. Bob learns some new skills during the course of the story and decides to blackmail the loan shark into forgiving his debt.

- Mr. Smith is found murdered in a locked room. Five people were near the room at the time of the murder and all five had motive but, apparently, no means. At the end of the story the sleuth discovers one of the five is a magician and able to create a locked room illusion. Case closed.

General types of stories that are idea stories: Allegories, locked room mysteries, bank heist stories, and so on. Anything where the idea is everything.

Character Story

Start: Your main character is unbearably dissatisfied with their role in society and sets about changing it.

End: Your main character either finds a new role, is content to return to their old role or despairs.

Characterization: God is in the details

As you can guess, for a Character Story well-rounded characters are a must. Orson Scott Card writes:
Needless to say, the character story is the one that requires the fullest characterization. No shortcuts are possible. Readers must understand the character in the original, impossible role, so that they comprehend and, usually, sympathize with the decision to change. Then the character's changes must be justified so that the reader never doubts that the change is possible; you can't just have a worn-out hooker suddenly go to college without showing us that the hunger for education and the intellectual ability to pursue it have always been part of her character.
That said, only the main character and any character involved with their decision to change their social role, must be fully characterized. As Orson Scott Card remarked, characterization is a technique. Use it if it will add to your story, otherwise don't.


- Maria is miserable. Her husband won't allow her to work but, when she needs money to go grocery shopping, he throws a fit. Maria hasn't bought new clothes for herself in ages.

Every day on her way home from the grocers Maria sees a beautiful red dress in the front window of a local boutique. She would love to buy the dress but it's completely out of her price range. One day she discovers the boutique is closing and the red dress has been marked down 90%. Ecstatic over her good fortune she buys the dress and wears it when her husband comes home from work.

Maria's husband throws a fit. Maria tries to tell him she paid next to nothing for the dress but he ignores her and, in a rage, rips the dress off her body, destroying it. Maria discovers she can't live like this anymore and leaves her husband. Maria works her way through school, finds a good job and, after a few disappointing dates, resigns herself to growing old alone and adopts ten cats.

- Danny is a hit man for Killers-Are-Us. One day his boss, Marty, tells him to kill a young girl, a task Danny finds repugnant. Danny has a choice: do his duty or leave his old life behind. Danny chooses the latter and Marty orders his top people to take Danny out.

After evading and dispatching his pursuers Danny realizes he'll be pursued until someone succeeds in killing him. Danny decides to return to his old life but instead of asking Marty for his job back he assassinates Marty and becomes head of Killers-Are-Us.

In this kind of story there needs to be a basic belief that some sort of order should exist in the world. Maria believes the way her husband treats her is wrong and that she'll be able to build a better life. Danny believes that killing children is just plain wrong. Full stop.

Note that Danny's story could also be an Idea Story. Instead of focusing on his changing role in life, we could focus on his idea to get away from his demented boss. In this case, though, the story might end after he'd dispatched the first wave of killers.

I see Danny lean nonchalantly against an alley wall, wipe the blood of his would-be killer from his hand and take a long pull from a cigarette. He exhales and looks down at the bloody bodies of his victims strewn at his feet. Danny then gazes into the distance, sees the next wave of killers coming his way, and smiles. The end.

That could work as an Idea Story, if that's how we'd set it up, but having set it up as a character story, I think the more satisfying ending is either Danny getting away clean and starting a new life, giving in and going back to the old one, or finding--as I've suggested in my example--a third way.

General types of stories that are Character Stories: Romances.

Event Story

Although events happen in every story, the world in an Event Story is out of whack. It is out of order; unbalanced. An Event Story is about the struggle to re-establish the old order or to create a new one.

Start: Your main character tries to restore order to the world.

End: Your main character either succeeds or fails.

Characterization: The level of detail is up to you

In this kind of story you can be as detailed as you like with your characterizations. Orson Scott Card writes:
It's possible to tell a powerful event story in which the characters are nothing more than what they do and why they do it-we can come out of such tales feeling as if we know the character because we have lived through so much with her, even though we've learned almost nothing about the other aspects of her character. (Although Lancelot, for instance, is a major actor in the Arthurian legends, he's seldom been depicted as a complex individual beyond the simple facts of his relationship to Arthur and to Guinevere.) Yet it is also possible to characterize several people in the story without at all interfering with the forward movement of the tale. In fact, the process of inventing characters often introduces more story possibilities, so that event and character both grow.


- The movie Trading Places is an event story. Here's the tag line: "A snobbish investor and a wily street con artist find their positions reversed as part of a bet by two callous millionaires". The end of the movie comes when the upper-class commodities broker (played by Dan Aykroyd) re-establishes order in his world by besting the bosses who were tormenting him.

Stories that are Event Stories: The Count of Monte Cristo, Oedipus Rex, Macbeth, The Prince and the Pauper, and so on. Orson Scott Card gives many examples in his book, Characters and Viewpoint.

Social Contracts And Your Readers

In every story you make an implicit contract with your reader. For instance, if a murder occurs at the beginning of your story and you focus on characters who have a reason to find out how, why and by whom the murder was committed then your readers will expect to discover how, why and by whom the murder was committed. (Simple, right?) If they don't, they won't be happy with you or the story you've written.

The general rule of thumb is this: Whatever kind of story you start out writing--be it Milieu, Idea, Character or Event--you have to finish writing that same kind of story. For instance, if you start out writing an Idea Story such as the murder mystery I mention, above, then you have to end it like an idea story and not, say, like a character story.

If you said, "Oh and the murderer was never found but the wife of the dead man used the fortune she inherited to transform herself into a world renown art collector," (a Character Story ending) then we would feel cheated because we started reading with the belief we'd find out who the murderer was and why he or she did it.

Nesting MICE

No, we don't need to call an exterminator! This is where we really start to see the power of Orson Scott Card's MICE quotient. Tomorrow I'm going to talk about something Mary Robinette Kowal showed us: how to 'nest' the various story types. I'll also talk about how any story can be retold as just about any of the story types. What varies is who the viewpoint character is, where in the story we start and where we finish.

If that's clear as mud, trust me it will make sense. I'll go into it in much more detail tomorrow.

Cheers! :-)

Here are all the articles in this series:
- Orson Scott Card & The MICE Quotient: How To Structure Your Story
- Mary Robinette Kowal And The Mysteries Of Outlining
- The Mysteries Of Outlining And Nesting MICE: Creating Killer Stories
- Making A Scene: Using Conflicts And Setbacks To Create Narrative Drive

Other articles you might like:
- Book Review Blogs That Accept Self-Published Work
- Surrey International Writers' Conference 2012
- What to do if your book isn't selling: Tips from Johanna Penn

Photo credit: cygnus921