13 December 2019

The MICE Quotient in the Science Fiction Creative Writing Classroom

I've been teaching a science fiction creative writing class this semester, and it's definitely testing the limits of my pedagogy: I have a formula and structure for teaching both academic writing and literature at this point, but I've never really thought about how to teach the writing of stories before. What do you actually do in class? Beats me.

I used a textbook to guide me and give structure to the class, but I ended up not liking it very much. What I did find myself doing was googling around and coming up with writings by working sf authors and using them as the basis for lessons. If I got to teach this class again, I would probably make my own "textbook" by assembling them into a course packet or something, and in the future, I'll probably spend a blog post detailing the ones I found most interesting and helpful.

Tayler, Sanderson, and Kowal
from Medusa's Library
One thing I found myself doing a lot was skimming the transcripts of the podcast Writing Excuses for ideas. A weekly podcast now in its fourteenth season, Writing Excuses is co-hosted by Brandon Sanderson (my sister's favorite fantasy writer), Mary Robinette Kowal (author of this year's Hugo Award for Best Novel winner), Dan Wells (who I had never previously heard of), and Howard Tayler (creator of Schlock Mercenary, one of the most unfunny and uninteresting webcomics I have ever read; regardless, it was a finalist for the Hugo Award for Best Graphic Story five times). Each episode is a twenty-minute discussion of a topic and includes a book recommendation and a writing prompt; I pinched from those writing prompts a lot.

I became curious if they had published a textbook or something similar. Amazon brought me to Shadows Beneath: The Writing Excuses Anthology, a collection of four short stories by the four co-hosts. What makes it interesting, though, is that in addition to the finished short stories, it also includes transcripts of brainstorming sessions (originally aired as Writing Excuses episodes), early drafts, transcripts of workshop sessions, "Track Changes" comparisons between drafts, and essays about the writing process. I'll review it in a future blog post; what I want to focus on now is a concept I learned from reading the transcripts.

from Mary Robinette Kowal's site

The MICE Quotient

The "MICE Quotient" is a coinage of Orson Scott Card, from his book Characters & Viewpoint, which I haven't read, so I can only give you my take on other people's takes. The web site for the Gunn Center for the Study of Science Fiction at the University of Kansas has a particularly useful breakdown. Basically, Card claims all stories balance four factors, but are primarily one of the four types:
  • MILIEU: Stories of place and environment. This is a story that focuses on a setting; it begins when the character enters the setting, and ends when they leave, and a large part of the interest for the reader is in the setting. A lot of portal fantasies are milieu stories: The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.

    Out of my own recent reading, I would say the 1900 novel Stringtown on the Pike: A Novel of Northernmost Kentucky is a milieu story; though it obviously includes the three other factors, the purpose of the story is (as indicated by the title) to introduce the reader a particular place at a particular time: Florence, Kentucky, during and after the Civil War.
  • IDEA: Stories of problems that have to be solved. A lot of mysteries fall into this category; so do those (mostly now perceived as old-style, I suspect) sf stories where someone has to cleverly science their way out of a science dilemma in a scientifically plausible way.

    Of what I've read recently, I actually think a lot of the Hornblower stories would qualify: Lord Hornblower, Mr. Midshipman Hornblower, and Admiral Hornblower in the West Indies (among others, I'm sure) all have parts where Hornblower is thrust into a tricky situation, and reasons his way out of it: how does he take down a group of mutineers without force? how does he survive a duel when he's really a quite awful shot? how can he stop a group of French loyalists from freeing Napoleon with just his wits? Hornblower's character, though fascinating, only exists as a vehicle for the idea stories.
  • CHARACTER: Probably self-explanatory: stories where the focus is on the characters (as opposed to the other ones on this list, where the characters are just there to get you to the milieu, idea, or event). In a character story, the character needs to (though they might not succeed in) changing something about themselves.

    Probably the easiest to find examples of in my own reading, especially in highbrown sf and literary fiction: Ancillary Justice, Kowal's own Lady Astronaut books, Heinlein's Double Star, the Murderbot Diaries, are all examples of character stories.
  • EVENT: These are more plot-driven stories. An event happens, and the characters have to react to it. The way the Gunn Center site puts it is pretty clear: "Although events happen in every story, the world in an Event Story is out of whack. It is out of order; unbalanced. An Event Story is about the struggle to re-establish the old order or to create a new one."

    I actually just finished a really good example of an event story: The Walking Dead. The series begins with the world going out of whack (a zombie outbreak); it ends when the situation is resolved, and a new, stable society is establishes, largely zombie-free.
The thing that makes the MICE Quotient useful is that it makes you aware that stories are a contract with your reader. The beginning of the story signals what kind of story it is, and the end of the story has to fulfill that promise. You can't have a story that begins with a murder mystery and ends with the protagonist fixing her relationship with her mother; you've swapped an idea story for a character story there. The two can co-exist, of course, but you can't break the promise you made when you opened your story with a dead body.

a nesting mouse
photo by Brianna Gaskill, from SCOPE 10K

Nesting MICE

Mary Robinette Kowal has built on Card's basic idea. (I think this is her addition, anyway.) I can't find a succinct write-up of it on her own site, but the blogger Wendy Barron wrote up her notes from attending a workshop run by Kowal. The idea is that, especially in short fiction, the different factors nest within each other, and operate kind of like HTML codes, on a FILO system: "first in, last out."

So say you want to write a murder mystery where the detective also has a strained relationship with her mother. If you open with the dead body, you've begun an idea story: <i>. Then, later, you introduce the relationship issue: <c>. That means that the very last thing you must do is resolve the idea story, so you must resolve the character story first: </c></i>. On the other hand, if you want the detective's relationship to be the focus, but also to have a murder mystery, you need to begin with a character problem and end with a resolution to it, with the murder mystery being introduced second and resolved first: <c><i></i></c>. What you can't do is open with the character crisis and end with the solution to the mystery, because then the story you promised your reader ends but things keep on going: <c><i></c></i>.

The nesting can get complicated if you want. Barron's write-up gives the example of The Wizard of Oz (the film, not the novel), which I've paraphrased for you:
  • <c> Dorothy is dissatisfied with home.
    • <e> Dorothy runs away.
      • <m> Dorothy ends up in Oz.
        • <i> Dorothy needs to find a route home.
          • VARIOUS ADVENTURES WITH EVEN MORE NESTING
        • </i> Dorothy is told how the Ruby Slippers work.
      • </m> Dorothy leaves Oz.
    •  </e> Dorothy returns home.
  • </c> Dorothy accepts there's no place like home.
In my ALL CAPS bit, you could expand: there are lots of <i>s and <e>s nested within there: how will they convince the Wizard is an idea story, with how will they kill the Wicked Witch of the West? another <i> within that one, and within that, the event story of Dorothy being captured by the Wicked Witch! And once the convincing-the-Wizard <i> is closed out by Toto's inadvertent discovery, a new <e> is soon opened up by his balloon accidentally flying away.

Though I think the FILO nest definitely applies to the outermost code, I'm not entirely convinced it has to all the way down: it seems to me that in a novel, you could introduce a character sub-story, introduce an idea sub-story, then resolve the character sub-story, then resolve the idea sub-story, as long as the whole set was nested in something else. But despite the Wizard of Oz example, Kowal is mostly focusing on short fiction.

Using the MICE Quotient

So, after I paused reading Shadows Beneath to figure all that out (the book mentions the MICE Quotient a couple times, but doesn't explain it), I thought, "Well, that's neat... but is it true?" Which is to say, lots of people will give you formulas and ideas about writing, but no matter how neat they sounds, they're totally useless if they don't lead to you writing better stories.

I read Shadows Beneath over Thanksgiving break, and the week we came back, I was meeting with my creative writing students one-on-one to discuss their final stories. They had all previously submitted rough drafts, which had been workshopped by the class; now, they were meeting with me to discuss their revised drafts in anticipation of submitting final drafts the following week.

On my first day of conferences, I found myself explaining the MICE Quotient three different times because it allowed me to name structural problems that were working against my students. I think I would have known something was wrong with out it, but the MICE Quotient was very helpful for labeling what it was quickly and easily. I'll give some examples, kept vague for my students' sake.

For the rough draft, one had turned in the opening of a story about a guy isolated by himself, a person apparently full of self-loathing. Then, something happens that break that isolation, and he has a problem to solve. The story ended when he solved the problem. But the ending didn't satisfy, because the character issues hadn't really wrapped up; essentially he'd begun a character story, but ended an event one: <c><e></e>. So my suggestion wasn't a whole-scale rewrite, but another scene or scenes that wrapped up the issues of isolation the first few pages had focused on.

Another had written a story that opened with a dramatic murder, and then jumped forward several years to explore the effects on the victim's daughter. She wanted to know if the murderers had to come back. (There had been mixed opinions on this during the workshops.) My argument was that if the story opened with the murder, then yes, they ought to, because the opening would lead us to expect an event story. But if the story opened with the daughter several years later, then we would know it was a character story about the way this was affecting her life. She opted, in the interests of time, to go with the character story, as telling the event story would take more words and thus more time... and after all, it was almost finals week. I kinda feel like this is a shame, because I really liked how she wrote the opening, but I guess that's the kind of thing you gotta do in writing.

Another student had fundamentally written an idea story, about an inventor trying to get an invention to work, but the response to it had been muted: there wasn't a strong "hook" to get the reader involved; the "stakes" were abstract as we were often just told that people out there were suffering. The class had suggested adding another character that we actually met who was experiencing the problem themselves. In my conference, I suggested this new character should go in the first scene to make the stakes clear: but the MICE Quotient led me to realize that the story then couldn't end with the main character finally getting the technology to work, but with the side character's problem being resolved: <c><i><e></e></i></c> is probably how you would diagram out the resulting final draft, though I would argue that it's fundamentally an idea story, so I don't know if I made the right suggestion there or not.

So, I think on the whole, the MICE Quotient was a surprisingly useful concept for working with short fiction, and if I ever teach creative writing again, I will have to make use of it more than dropping it on some students during individual conferences. For starters, I will need to track down the actual place where Orson Scott Card actually writes about it himself, instead of relying on other people's interpretations!

Works Cited

Ahlstrom, Peter, editor. Shadows Beneath: The Writing Excuses Anthology. Dragonsteel, 2014.
Barrron, Wendy. "Short Fiction, MICE Quotient, and Nesting Codes." Wendy Barron Editorial Services, 3 Feb. 2015, www.wendybarron.com/2015/02/short-fiction-mice-quotient-and-nesting-codes.
"FILO." TechTerms: The Tech Terms Computer Dictionary, Sharpened Productions, 7 Aug. 2014, techterms.com/definition/filo.
Glassman, Sara. "Writing Excuses Retreat Recap." Medusa's Library, 6 Oct. 2014, medusaslibrary.com/2014/10/06/writing-excuses-retreat-recap.
Kowal, Mary Robinette. "I Am 49 Today! Have a Story and My Process as a Party Favor." Mary Robinette Kowal, 8 Feb. 2018, maryrobinettekowal.com/journal/i-am-47-today-2.
"The MICE Quotient." Gunn Center for the Study of Science Fiction, University of Kansas, 27 Sept. 2016, www.sfcenter.ku.edu/Workshop-stuff/MICE-Quotient.htm.
Richter, Ruthann. "Stanford Researcher's Easy Solution to Problem of Drug Testing in Mice." SCOPE 10K, Stanford Medicine, 30 Mar. 2012, scopeblog.stanford.edu/2012/03/30/stanford-researchers-easy-solution-to-problem-of-drug-testing-in-mice.
Sanderson, Brandon, et al., hosts. Writing Excuses. 2008-present, writingexcuses.com.

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