Plot Structures 5: M.I.C.E. Quotient

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Welcome to the last (?!?) of a 5-part series about Plot Structures. Don’t worry book-lovers, reviews will find their way between these updates.

Picture a gift. The tag reads “mystery.” You open the box, filled with strange objects of unknown purpose and origin. One of these objects is another box, labeled “character.” It contains a nice leather-bound journal and personal mementos…. And a third box, labeled “setting,” overflowing with travel photos. You’ve explored the three boxes. How would you naturally pack them back up the way you found them? You would probably start with the smallest box – “setting,” the one you opened last, then move on to “character,” and finally “mystery.”

Now you have an image of the M.I.C.E. plot structure.


Credit where it’s due: The M.I.C.E. quotient was originally invented by sci-fi author Orson Scott Card. The version I was first introduced to, described here, has been refined by Mary Robinette Kowhal (reviewed here, guest host here).

The M.I.C.E. quotient is an acronym for “Milieu (place), Inquiry, Character, Event.” Any problem your characters might encounter fits into one of these four categories. As your story unfolds, the different movements open like Russian nesting dolls. Once you cross the ⅔ – ¾ milestone, it is time to start putting your threads “back in the box” in reverse order – the most recent first, ending with the first thread you introduced: your initial conflict.

Viewing your story through this lens is more flexible than either the traditional 3-act or Hero’s Journey plot structures, but is more powerful than simple scene/sequel format. It helps us track questions raised throughout the narrative and progress towards their resolution. It can help you keep your plot from wandering by introducing complications that do not necessarily relate to the main conflict.

Let’s dissect each conflict category:

Milieu (Place)

(Don’t you just love it when an acronym uses an obscure word to shoehorn in a nice pneumonic? Come to think of it, I actually do.)

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A milieu plot thread is about your character being trapped in a place they want to escape. This is not a metaphor – save your character’s sense of lack for a character thread. The thread begins when your character enters the prison/wasteland/pirate ship/child’s birthday party and ends when they escape. Your job as the author is to think about ways they would try to escape and continually prevent them from doing so until it is time to move on. Many fantasy and sci-fi novels – with their emphasis on building an exotic setting – fit in this category

Inquiry (Questions)

There is a sense in which every story is a mystery. Before cracking open the first page, the reader knows nothing, and the story slowly unveils itself over time.

An inquiry plot thread, however, begins when your character has a question and ends when it is answered. The author’s job is to hide the answer from the character for as long as possible. It will come as no surprise that this is the realm of the mystery and crime novels.

Character (Angst)

Character plot threads begin with dissatisfaction with the world or with oneself, and end when the dissatisfaction is resolved. This does not necessarily mean that the character’s circumstances have changed – it may be that only the character changes. The author’s job is to explore the character’s struggle to understand the source of their unease and to overcome it. So-called women’s fiction and many literary novels follow this pattern.

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Event (Action)

Event plot threads are, perhaps, the most elemental of the four conflict categories. Something happens to shake up the status quo. The thread continues until the characters restore their normal, or, learn to live with or move beyond the disruption. The author places every conceivable road block in the character’s path to restore balance. Event-driven books are your thrillers, your slashers, your action stories: things are happening, and they’re happening fast.

Plotting With M.I.C.E.

How can you use this in your writing? Very few stories contain only one thread, with good reason: one-note stories are boring. However, keep in mind that very few stories give equal stage time to all possible threads. Remember the boxes from the intro? The first box contains all the others. Your main conceit is your largest and longest thread – it opens and closes your story. Along the way, you will open and close others, sometimes very rapidly. Picturing your threads and boxes, recording how you open them and planning how you might close them, is an excellent way to keep track of a robust, interesting, multi-threaded story while controlling bloat and random diversions.

Thank you, as always for reading. When I planned this series, this was to be the end of our discussion about Plot Structures…. but who knows, there may be one more surprise up my sleeve? Come back in two weeks to find out.

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