MICE In Your Story

Especially for writers who are planning to participate in NaNoWriMo starting in less than a week, it might be helpful to consider something Orson Scott Card introduces in his writing books Character and Viewpoint and How to Write Science Fiction. I came upon the concept in Writing Fantasy & Science Fiction, to which Card contributed several chapters.

Here’s the key concept: “All stories contain four elements that can determine structure: Milieu, Idea, Character, and Event” (Writing Fantasy & Science Fiction, p. 77). MICE, for short.

Milieu has to do with the story world–its physical, social, political, economic aspects.

Idea refers to new bits of information that characters discover in the process of the story.

Character relates, not just to who the main player is in a story, but how he changes.

Finally, Events show what takes place to correct a wrong in the normal order of things.

All stories have all these elements, but according to Card, one of the four takes central stage. The Milieu dominates Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, for example. Then Idea might be considered central to Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie. In Til We Have Faces by C. S. Lewis, the Character change would be the key component and in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe also by Lewis, the Events that put the world to rights, both in Narnia and in the Pevensie family, would dominate the story.

I’m intrigued by this way of looking at stories. I can see a particularly useful application because Card teaches that whatever dominant element shows itself in the beginning will also end the story. If a novel starts out as a murder mystery, for instance (Idea), but doesn’t end with the discovery of the perpetrator, readers will be frustrated no matter how well-told the story might be of the police detective’s recovery of his self-confidence (Character).

In some ways, I think this view of stories can help writers decide where their story starts and where it should end. If they begin with a character, for example, who has reached a point where he is so “unhappy, impatient, or angry in his present role that he begins the process of change” then it will end “when the character either settles into a new role (happily or not) or gives up the struggle and remains in the old role (happily or not)” (ibid., p. 81).

As you may have realized, I’m qualifying my reaction to this approach to stories. Card himself says all stories have all the MICE elements, and I agree with this point. I’m not so sure, however, that one dominates.

As an example of Milieu, for instance, Card mentions The Wizard of Oz.

The real story began the moment Gulliver got to the first of the book’s strange lands, and it ended when he came home. Milieu stories always follow that structure An observer who will see things as we would see them gets to the strange place, sees all the things that are interesting, is transformed by what he sees, and then comes back a new man . . . Likewise, The Wizard of Oz doesn’t end when Dorothy kills the Wicked Witch of the West. It ends when Dorothy leaves Oz and goes home to Kansas. (Ibid., pp 77-78)

I agree with this assessment, but believe The Wizard of Oz could just as easily be used as an example of a Character story which Card says is “about the transformation of a character’s role in the communities that matter most to him” (Ibid., p. 80). Clearly, Dorothy’s role in her family is central to the story. She was unhappy in the beginning and learned by the end that there’s no place like home.

A case might even be made that The Wizard of Oz is an Event story, starting with something wrong in the fabric of the world which needs to be set right. Dorothy’s unhappiness and determination to run away has unsettled her world; when she reaches Oz, it’s apparent that their world has been unsettled, too. As Dorothy goes about doing what she does to fix her own situation, she also puts to right what ails Oz.

characters-and-viewpoint-second_edition_mediumMy point is this: I tend to think that the best stories skillfully weave all the elements together so that the dominant one isn’t overpowering, and the subservient ones aren’t invisible–or worse, predictable and clichéd.

Is there any advantage in knowing what kind of story a writer is undertaking? Perhaps. If a writer isn’t sure how to end a story, then the dominant element can serve as a guide. Or the reverse. If a writer isn’t sure where to start the story, then the type of story he’s written can help him determine where the proper beginning lies.

The main take-away for me is that all four elements need to be present in a story. Whichever turns out to be the star, the others still must be present, still must pull their weight.

What do you think? Orson Scott Card is pretty hard to argue with. Do you think he’s right that one of these four elements will dominate a story? Or do the best stories bring all elements, or most, along with nearly equal strength? Can you give an example?



Filed under Character Developmet, Concept And Development, Plot, Setting or Story World, Story

5 responses to “MICE In Your Story

  1. Literaturelady

    Good points, Becky! My initial thought is that element dominance depends on what the writer wants to write. A five-book cycle probably should include the four elements equally. A 15 chapter story about a next-door neighbor might do better with one dominant.

    And Tolkien comes to mind (naturally); his trilogy uses all four elements, but it’s hard to say which is dominant.

    I really appreciate your remark about “…stories skillfully weave all the elements together so that the dominant one isn’t overpowering and the subservient ones aren’t invisible…” I remember pondering these different structures and wondering into which my own story fit…because any element I tried to raise as dominant crushed the other (plot essential) elements!


  2. Good point about the length allowing an author to do more, LL. O. S. Card does say that the writer will often discover what type of story she is writing simply by what comes to the forefront. But I couldn’t help noticing in the examples he gave (that I was familiar with), I could see the element he identified as dominant, but with just a different explanation, could equally believe a different element was dominant.

    Plus, one of the other writing instructors I’ve read–Donald Maass, I think–talks about resolving inner and outer conflicts at the climax, practically simultaneously. If a writer does that, then the character development and the events or ideas will all resolve together. And if a writer skillfully creates an internal need as well as an external want, than the two elements won’t seem so much like two, but one–different sides of the same coin, so to speak.

    All that made me think Card is on to something, but I don’t think he’s gone far enough.

    He used Raiders of the Lost Ark, for example, as an events story, clearly not dominated by character development. But, I couldn’t help wondering, how much better would it have been if, instead of purely fast-action escapes, the character actually learned something and grew from what he went through? First, it would have been a lot more realistic, and I also think it would have been a more complete story.

    But that’s me. I’m not a fan of Raider, so it allowed me to think critically about it. 😉


  3. Literaturelady

    Yeah, I never cared much for Raider either….the archeology is very interesting, but as for Dr. Jones himself? I could never see why some folks fangirl over him. 🙂

    I liked your comment about resolving inner and outer conflicts! Quite honestly, that makes more sense than having one dominant element, although, again, I guess it depends on what kind of story you’re writing.

    Thanks for replying!

  4. I hardly ever find anyone who feels about Raider as I do! Yea! 😀 I guess that means I really am more interested in character, though I’ve always said I read to find out what happens next. In Raider, the threats, after a time, lost potency because he kept making all these unbelievable (really–unbelievable!) escapes. I never got the fangirl deal either.

    But resolving both inner and outer conflicts at the end really makes sense to me, too. Yes, I think there is some flexibility based on the type of story. But the ones that touch the soul, I think that’s how the author does it.


  5. He is right on. And the amazing novels he writes proves it. I think he’s becoming my favorite all-time author. I have read about a dozen of his novels and am always blown away by his creativity, structure, world-building, and deep characters.

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