The Information Architecture of Narrative
Tool 2: MICE nests
Mary Robinette Kowal’s second insight into story structure is that the MICE (Milieu, Inquiry, Character, Event) threads explained in my previous post are generally closed down in the order that they were opened in.
This is nesting code: if you open mileu and open inquiry, you have to close the inquiry before you can close the milieu.
You can think about it as getting a box, and the box is labelled “milieu” on the outside. And you open it up and there are a bunch of milieu toys, and then inside is a smaller box filled with inquiry toys. And you open that up, and you pull out those inquiry toys and you play with all of them when you’re telling your story. And then at the end of the day you have to put them back in the box, so you want to put the inquiry ones back into that smaller box so that it will fit inside the larger box of the mileu. It’s kind of like trying to return something to IKEA: if you don’t get it all back in the box you wind up that extra piece, and why are there so many allen wrenches?
[MRK unpacks a simplified version of The Wizard Of Oz as a nested story]:
<Character> Dorothy is dissatisfied with her role as a Kansas farm girl.
<Inquiry> “What do the ruby slippers do?”
</Inquiry> “The ruby slippers will carry you home.”
</Milieu> Dorothy leaves Oz.
</Event> People are okay after the Tornado – status quo restored.
</Character> Dorothy: “I didn’t need to go looking for adventure any further than my own backyard.
…Mary Robinette Kowal
Here are three useful applications of the MICE nest as a lens for thinking about a story:
- It helps you see the promises you’re making to your reader (“This event will be resolved” / “This question will be answered” / “This character will grow”) so that you can make sure you fulfil them or remove them.
- It can help you see how different parts of your story relate to each other and reinforce each other. For example, several minor events or inquiry threads might be used to force a character to see things differently and to change.
- It can help keep you focused by making sure sub-threads serve higher-order story elements rather than introducing new but unrelated problems late in the story.
- It can give you a clue as to where you need to go next, and what you still need to do in the story: “If a story starts with a murder, but morphs into a romance story when the widow falls in love with the detective and they end up getting married… you can’t leave the inquiry thread about who committed the murder unresolved.”
- It can help you identify the threads of narrative tension that are driving your story, and how to finish well. Closing threads out of order (e.g. finishing a story by tying up minor details after the major narrative threads have been resolved) tends to feel messy and anticlimactic. The greatest narrative tension probably falls on a thread you opened early on, so don’t close it off to early. Resolving multiple narrative threads simultaneously can add power and pace to your story.
- It can help you build cliffhangers that will drive your story over multiple chapters or installments: “Who is the mysterious stranger who appeared out of nowhere to resolve the mugging event thread?”
(In case you missed it, point 5 fulfils the “Pinging of Narrative Elastic” promise I made in the title. It turned out not to need its own subheading, but I like the title).
It’s fun to use this lens to things you’re reading or watching. I’ve been watching the Star Wars animated series The Bad Batch with my son, and last night’s episode (S1 E3, Replacements) was a great illustration:
<Backstory Event> Galactic Empire threatens to take over the galaxy.
<Backstory Inquiry> Who is the child-clone Omega?
<Event> Clone Force 99 (The Bad Batch) and Omega are on the run from the empire (there’s a parallel thread in the story about the character who’s chasing them)
<Character> The young clone Omega is wondering if she belongs in the group, and so are the squad – this question has been raised in previous episodes.
<Event> Omega has no space of her own on the ship.
<Event> The ship needs a repair before they can go to the place they hope to hide from the Empire.
<Milieu> They land on a planet to repair the ship.
<Event> Two characters go outside to make the repairs.
</Event> The repair is successful…
<Event> But a wierd creature steals the part they just replaced. Hunter will go to retrieve it.
<Character> Omega persuades Hunter to take her with him. Hunter doesn’t think it’s safe, but concedes. There is a question of trust, and of Omega’s usefulness to the team.
<Event> Hunter and Omega find the creature and the part, but are attacked, losing the part>
<Event> Hunter has lost his breathing mask and passes out.
</Event> Omega restores his mask, saving hunter and proving her worth…
<Milieu> Omega follows the creature into its lair to retrieve the missing part.
<Event> There’s a kind of confrontation with the creature, probably with a nested <inquiry></inquiry> thread as Omega works out what the creature is…
</Event> … and retrieves the missing part.
</Milieu> Omega leaves the creature’s lair with the part and returns to Hunter…
</Event> Closing the innermost ‘missing part’ thread…
</Character> … and proving her worth to Hunter again and revealing their care for each other. Hunter accepts the value she brings to the team.
</Event> They return to the ship and finish the repair.
</Milieu> They take off and escape the planet.
</Event> Wrecker reveals that he’s made a room for Omega on one side of the ship. Omega has a place to of her own.
</Character> Omega’s status as a member of the team is confirmed. Note that this theme was given several story beats throughout the episode.
The episode ends, leaving the overarching story threads and inquiry thread about Omega unanswered to drive future episodes.
Texts are dense! This is quite a lot of code for a simple plot description – and in fact it was only one of two parallel storylines in the episode.
Texts are ordered. Notice how all of the nested events were part of the overall direction set by the higher-order elements (the event, millieu and character threads started early in the episode), and how there’s a clear point about half-way through the story that the writers stopped opening new threads and started systematically closing down the old ones in order. This is what makes the story feel tight.
Texts are fractal. Each of the scenes decribed above could be broken down into further, smaller units.
So there you have it – an information architecture of story.
Watch the Lecture
MICE Quotient Graphic
(from MRK’s website here):