The MICE Quotient – A Storyteller’s Mixing Board

I first read Orson Scott Card’s Characters & Viewpoint nearly two years ago.  Of all the advice and thoughts that small, yet powerful, book introduced to me, the biggest take away was the MICE quotient.  For those unfamiliar, Card claims that there are four “kinds” of stories.

Milieu – Here’s a cool world, let’s explore it!  Why? For the sheer pleasure of discovery!
Idea – Philosophical meanderings and questions pursued.  The thoughts intrigue us.
Character – That’s it!  A journey of change and we won’t be the same in the end.
Event – Tip one domino and the rest of them will start to fall.

 Card never implied that each story can only be one kind, he goes on to state that often stories are combinations of two or three kinds.  I claim that all four of these kinds can be and should be included in every single story.  The question is, how much of each is appropriate for the story you are trying to tell and the space you have to tell it in.  A ninety thousand word novel has more room for exploration than a fifteen thousand word short story by virtue of its length alone.  Therefore, you might choose to explore only one concept in depth in the short story, but all four can still be present, if not prominent.

The Lord of the Rings is often pointed at as the example of the milieu story.  Tolkien spends long pages describing birthday parties, meals, songs, poetry, languages, customs, cultures and scenery.  The Lord of the Rings itself begins with a 15 page prologue titled “Concerning Hobbits,” which delves into tidbits of milieu, some of which are explored later, much of which is not.  However, I claim that the whole series is about the corrupting influence of ultimate power, an idea.  Though often criticized as being flat representations of their races, each character in the fellowship is an individual with desires and goals.  They all change by the end of the story.  Finally, the passing of the ring of power to Bilbo in the Hobbit is the event that starts it all off.  All four kinds are present, though some are more heavily weighted than others.

It comes down to what kind of story we choose to tell.  We direct an orchestra of plots.  We conduct choirs of characters.  We draw out the bass of deep thoughts and the trilling notes of trivial ones.  We direct the melody of worlds we build and explore.  We take all this into the mixing board of our skill and experience, choosing which characteristics to highlight and suppress in order to tell the story we seek to tell.

Beginning the Discussion: Can you name a story that truly stuck with you over the years that didn’t have one of the components of the MICE quotient at all?


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