I’ve been enjoying Brandon Sanderson‘s lecture series on writing fantasy and science fiction at Brigham Young University. The standout so far has been Mary Robinette Kowal‘s guest lecture on writing short stories, where Kowal provides several helpful tools for thinking about plot and story structure and delivers a really well paced flash-fiction writing workshop at the same time.
If you’re interested in writing / fiction / film / storytelling, this is for you. If they ideas below don’t seem new, Kowal does some interesting things with them in the second half of the video.
If you’re not interested in writing fiction you still get a useful framework for communicating ideas more generally, a nice lens for thinking about how the stories you enjoy are put together (see my next post), and an example of effective lecture/workshop delivery. Recommended.
Tool 1: The MICE Quotient
Note: The internet says that the MICE Quotient was described in this form by Orson Scott Card and then popularised by Mary Robinette Kowal.
The MICE Quotient is an organisational theory that explains pretty much every story, fiction and non-fiction… but if you have to write an essay it works the them too.
Stories are made of four elements – Milieu, Inquiry, Character and Event – mixed in different proportions. These elements can help you determine where a stories starts and stops, and the kind of conflict that your characters face.
A milieu story starts when a character enters a place, and it ends when your character exits a place. These are things like Gulliver’s Travels, Around the World in 80 Days, classic examples. Knowing where milleu stories end also tells you the kinds of conflicts that go in the middle… Your job as a writer is to work out what out what your character needs to do and then systematically prevent them from reaching that goal. The moment that goal is reached, the story is over.
Milieu conflict… ends when you exit a place, [so] all the stuff in the middle is about difficulty with navigating that space. It’s about people getting confused about finding the exit, it’s trouble surviving in the place, it’s attempting to navigate. Any [conflict] around space is milieu conflict.
[Kowal clarifies later that mileu stories can just as much be about trying to get in to a place.]
Inquiry stories are driven by questions. They begin when a character has a question, and they end when they answer it… It’s things like Sherlock Holmes, murder mysteries… So in an inquiry conflict, your job is to keep your character from finding the answer. They’re lied to, they can’t understand the answer, the answer leads to a dead end.
Character stories are driven by angst. In the simplest form they begin when the character is unhappy with themselves and end when they become happy… but really they begin with an identity shift: a shift in how the character self-defines… and they end with a new understanding of self. [These are] coming of age stories, romances… So your character is trying to change. Don’t let them break out of their role. Fill them with self loathing. Have the change backfire. Those are character stories.
Event stories are driven by action. These begin when the status quo is disrupted, and they’re restored when there’s a new status quo… and yes, “everyone dies” does count as a new status quo. But it is very much an external threat. Character stories are internal, this is external. So by this time you understand the drill: don’t let your character restore the status quo. You have fight scenes, you have chase scenes, you have explosions, you have more disruptions to the status quo.
So that’s what individual MICE elements look like, but you almost never never see a single thread story. Most stories are made up of multiple threads because single thread stories are really boring…Mary Robinette Kowal
MICE Quotient Graphic
(from MRK’s website here):