How to Focus a Story Using Orson Scott Card’s MICE Quotient

It can be tricky to figure out the right place to start and end a story—at any length, really, but it can be particularly challenging for a short story, when it’s coincidentally the most important to find the right moments. A novella or novel gives you a bit more time and space to breathe. You have the freedom to mosey a bit more, taking some time to explore the world and get to know the character before you dig into the meat of the story. With a short story, though, conventional wisdom says to introduce the reader to the core conflict from the first page, and that’s certainly what you need to do if you want to get your short fiction published in most markets. 

I’ve discussed strategies to find the right place to start and end a story in the past, and there are tons of different approaches you can take to do this. One that I’ve only recently become hip to is Orson Scott Card’s MICE Quotient, which is a nugget of storytelling wisdom that I’m mildly annoyed with myself that I’ve only discovered now, because it’s an incredibly useful way to categorize and think about stories.

In the MICE Quotient, stories are categorized into 4 groups depending on what provides the driving energy of the story: the world, information, a character, or an event. You can identify roughly where the story should naturally start and end, along with how the story should move between these points, based on what category the story fits into.

Usually when I stumble across wisdom like this I assume I’m pretty much the last person in the world to hear about it, but for anyone else out there who’s also a MICE Quotient novice, here are the basic details of each category as Orson Scott Card defined them in Characters and Viewpoint and How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy, and how you can use this framework to shape the plot and structure of your stories.

Milieu Stories

Milieu stories gain their primary energy from the exploration of a unique world. The settings of these stories are often intricately built in all the aspects of worldbuilding—not just their physical world and the associated sensations and details, but also the culture, societal expectations, customs and laws, and belief systems. 

Since the focus is supposed to be on the setting, the characters in a milieu story are often an “everyman” kind of player. It’s often best when they behave in a normal, predictable way that the average person would be expected to react in those circumstances. Generally, you don’t want to give the characters many eccentric or bizarre traits that will pull the reader’s focus from the milieu. This is one of the story types where archetypes and somewhat flat characters can be utilized to good effect.

This also makes it the main type of story where you’re allowed to write descriptive passages that exist for their own sake. This kind of setting and world detail would be extraneous in a character or idea-driven narrative, and would likely be something you’d want to cut from that type of short story. That’s exactly the kind of stuff that furthers and builds the milieu, though, so in this type of story it’s what the reader wants and pushes them along through the story, making it valuable and worth keeping.

Stories that are purely milieus aren’t very common, especially in the short story form, but they’re often nested together with the other types (more on that later in the article).

Idea Stories

An idea story starts off by presenting the reader with a question, conundrum, or mystery, and it’s the reader’s intrigue and curiosity that keeps them moving through to the end. Getting the answer is what gives this kind of story a satisfying ending for the reader. If you never answer the initial problem or mystery, then the story will feel unresolved. Going along with that, once the reader gets the answer, the story feels done—which means their interest will wane if it keeps going. 

The main way this type of story engages the reader is by inviting them to “play along” with the plot. Details are fed to them incrementally in order to lead them to solution while the character is discovering it within the story. The structure and pacing of these stories will often be closely linked to that reveal of information, and you can use that to help you identify and bring out the big beats of your story’s arc during editing.

Even though the character isn’t the main focus of these stories, they often do feature eccentric or unique protagonists who are fully three-dimensional characters. The key is to keep their character details rooted in the story’s driving question or obstacle, and focus their characterization on the points related to it. Sherlock Holmes is a great example. His character eccentricities are part of what make him so adept at solving crimes, so the developments of his character and of the plot feel like they’re of a piece.

Character Stories

This category of story is centered on characters—or, more specifically, usually on one character, who’s typically the protagonist. The story’s momentum and energy come from both what the character does on the page and their reasoning for it. The reader is expecting to get insights into the character’s goals, motivations, and dreams, and will expect the story to end with that character either achieving or abandoning those. 

What often kicks off these stories is the last-straw moment that has made their current circumstances untenable. They can be prompted by a more general, ongoing dissatisfaction, but for the story to kick off properly, the reader needs to understand what’s driving the character to try and change their circumstances now, if it’s established that their unhappiness is something ongoing.

The transformation that ends a character story can take many forms. It can be internal, like a change in how the character views the world or them learning an important lesson. Scrooge’s evolution over the course of A Christmas Carol is an example of this. It could also be an external change in the character’s environment, like in a rags-to-riches story where a character starts from nothing and achieves success or wealth. 

It's probably obvious but, in this type of story, three-dimensional characters are a must-have. The reader doesn’t necessarily need to relate to the character, but they need to understand why they act the way they do, should be able to empathize with them, and should see the internal logic of the character’s decisions, even if that’s not the exact choice a reader would have made.

Event Stories

In this final type, the story is built around a major event—normally a bad one, like a natural disaster or civilization-ending cataclysm. Event stories can have a smaller scope, too, such as a character who’s trying to stop a murder, or going through a life-changing event like a divorce or loved one’s death. 

Other building blocks in the story like setting and character can be well-developed, or they can be left vague and background—it depends on both the scope and nature of the disaster and the length and voice of the story. The main thing giving these stories their energy is the event itself. The goal is for the reader to want to know what happens next, and the story feels resolved once they feel that event is over.

This is the one that sounds to me the most familiar and obvious because it centers the first thing that comes to my mind, at least, when I think about storytelling: the events of the narrative. Whatever happens around those is peripheral and ultimately needs to be in their service. 

Nesting MICE

One thing to keep in mind is that these story categories don’t need to be mutually exclusive. One thing that Orson Scott Card notes is that most stories contain elements of all the MICE categories. The difference between stories comes down to which one gets the most focus, and in a longer work like a novel or novella, it’s common for different things to take primary focus at different points in the book, or for there to be multiple concurrent points of focus driving the reader forward.

The main thing to remember is that, whatever type of MICE story thread you start, it needs to be wrapped up with the right type of conclusion. If you introduce a question, the reader eventually needs an answer, even if they’re also exploring a new milieu at the same time.

Like with other story building blocks like arcs and characters, the number of MICE elements that a story will support largely depends on its length. In a short story, it’s probably best to stay in one category—I’m sure you’ll find examples of stories that break this rule, but it’ll be more challenging to keep those from feeling unfocused or overloaded. On the other end, a novel can easily weave all four of these types of storytelling together. Things like novelettes and novellas that are in the in-between space can often support more than one, too.

So how do you use all this info?

The most useful thing about this approach, in my view, is that it helps you to home in on exactly what aspect of your story is generating the most forward momentum. It’s a way to identify what kind of expectations you’ve established for the reader, which makes it much clearer what kind of conclusion will meet them. 

I’ve written a couple of stories lately that I didn’t really know what to do with after the first draft, and that’s where I’ve found it helpful to apply this thought process. With one story, I realized I couldn’t identify yet what its MICE quotient was—and that was useful info to learn, too, because it told me that particular story needed a point of focus.

In any case, I’m glad to have added this particular model to my revision toolbox, and I’ve added Orson Scott Card’s books on writing to my TBR list to see what other useful info nuggets they have to mine.


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