How Orson Scott Card's MICE quotient maps to internal and external genres of narrative drive
Summary: Story theorists commonly apply the MICE quotient to story structure, but elements from the framework apply to the core conflicts behind action-, revelation-, and character-based plots.
In Character and Viewpoint, author Orson Scott Card explores four factors that have come to be called the “MICE quotient.” They are milieu, idea, character, and event. (Card, Pages 62-63)
- Milieu is the “landscape, the interior spaces, the surrounding cultures . . . everything from weather to traffic laws.” (Card, Page 62) In other words, the setting.
- Idea is “the information that the reader is meant to discover or learn during the process of the story.” (Card, Page 62) In other words, mystery and revelation.
- Character is “the nature of [a person] in the story — what they do and why.” (Card, Page 63)
- Event is “everything that happens and why.” (Card, Page 63) (Emphasis mine) In other words, action.
Milieu alone isn’t a strong story driver
Card looks at the MICE quotient from the perspective of pure story structure. Which elements impose dominant structural demands on a story?
Let’s take milieu as an example. One common form of milieu-based story is the “road trip,” a series of vignettes that the protagonists travel through, each framed by a different location on a journey. The road trip form lends itself most naturally to a structure that resembles a string of pearls, a series of mini-stories that each add up to a larger whole.
C. S. Lewis’ The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is a great example of this kind of story. The protagonists sail to a series of islands on a quest, and each island has its own unique, self-contained challenge.
The way my brain works, I view the MICE elements from a slightly different angle. I think of them in terms of the underlying story engines that create narrative drive.
From this perspective, milieu is the weakest element of the bunch. An engaging setting can provide a lot of enjoyment and interest to a story, but it, alone, cannot support a story’s core narrative drive.
In most stories that have a dominant milieu, the narrative drive itself almost always comes from one of the other MICE elements — the events that happen at the locations, the ideas that are explored, and how those events and ideas influence the characters.
Removing milieu from the framework leaves us with ICE — idea, character, and event.
ICE elements map to external and internal genres
If you look closely at this point, you’ll discover something interesting. Idea, character, and event map perfectly to what have been called the internal and external story genres.
In The Story Grid, editor and story theorist Shawn Coyne talks about story beats that turn on the external genres of narrative drive, action and revelation. (Coyne, Page 168) These are none other than Scott Card’s event (action) and idea (revelation). Events and revelations come from outside a protagonist and force her to react in some way.
That leaves character, which is the internal genre of narrative drive. Responding to the demands of the plot, the protagonist must face dilemmas and make decisions, revealing who she is and who she can become.
If you’re following Dwight Swain’s scene-sequel framework, events and revelations create the “disasters” that form the external plot. Those disasters then force the protagonist to make decisions, which form the internal, character plot.
Good stories often use all three
Different stories lean in different directions when it comes to the source of their narrative drive. For example, stories in action genres tend to focus on event-based drive, while stories in science fiction and mystery genres tend to focus on idea-based drive. However, there’s often a fair amount of overlap.
Overlap is a good thing. Coyne suggests that turning points should be a mix of events and ideas, neither leaning too heavily in one direction nor the other. If stories turn on only action, they can come across as “overly plotted,” while if they turn only on revelation, they can feel “melodramatic.” (Coyne, Page 172)
As one example of balance, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets has a plot driven by the mystery of discovering the identity of the heir of Slytherin, a villain behind a series of attacks (idea). But, there are action beats sprinkled throughout the story, culminating in a major action showdown between Harry, Slytherin’s heir, and fearsome monster (action).
And, of course, characters must respond to all that action and revelation, which provides a great opportunity to layer in character story. Characters reveal themselves through the decisions they make. One of most clear ways to demonstrate character change is to show how a character, near the end of the story, makes different decisions in response to the kinds of events or revelations that they also faced at the beginning.
In The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, the events on one of the islands are particularly impactful for a character named Eustace, who has, up until this point, been characterized by selfishness. In a moment of especially indulgent selfishness, Eustace is magically transformed into a dragon. Eustace returns to the crew only to discover that he can no longer interact with them as before. Confronted with true isolation, he ceases to think only of himself and begins to think of others. This is demonstrated, among other things, by his decision to help replace the ship’s broken mast, finding a suitable tree and using his strength as a dragon to carry it from the forest to the beach where the ship is repaired. The external events of the plot have forced Eustace toward internal character change.
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