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The MICE quotient and nesting boxes

Advice from Mary Robinette Kowal on using the MICE quotient and nesting boxes for your short stories.

Over the past few weeks of story-writing, I’ve been revisiting this video from Mary Robinette Kowal and Brandon Sanderson.

Today, I’m going to share Kowal’s discussion about the MICE quotient and used nesting boxes to build a clear logic to your stories.

The MICE quotient

Kowal argues every story focuses on one of four things:

  1. Milieu: The story begins when your character enters a new space and ends when they exit the space. Your goal is to keep them struggling and surviving in that space.
  2. Inquiry: This one begins with a question and ends with the answer. Your goal is to keep them from finding the answer: lies, confusion, dead-ends.
  3. Character: Story is about character growth and change. Angst to understanding. Unhappy to happy. An identity shift (how they self-define) shapes the story. The story ends when they have a new understanding of self. The character is trying to change. Stop them, don’t let them break out of their role. Fill them with self-loathing. Have the change backfire. This is about internal change.
  4. Event: Disrupt the status quo and end it when there is a new status quo. Everyone dies counts as a new status quo. Don’t let your character restore the status quo. Think about explosions and chase scenes. This is about external change.

How do you use it?

  1. Ask yourself, what is the problem? What is your character struggling with or trying to figure out?
  2. Once you know it, identify which MICE quotient it is.
  3. Have your character struggle with that problem. Your story is only done when they have either solved it or at least moves a solution forward in some small way.

Nested Boxes

Stories don’t need to be about one MICE quotient. We can nest them inside each other.

They must be closed in the reverse order that you open them.

For example, if your story is:

  1. INQUIRY - A character investigates a murder
  2. MILIEU - but then falls into a hole
  3. EVENT - as a tornado approaches

You then need to:

  1. EVENT - survive the tornado
  2. MILIEU - get out of the hole
  3. INQUIRY - then find the clue that solves the mystery (preferably triggered by the tornado and the hole).

Hopefully, experimenting with it will help you build story logic and shape your short stories.