Wednesday, November 16, 2005

The Importance of the MICE Quotient

To demonstrate something about the MICE Quotient, I'm going to use an an example of a story's opening. Here it is...

I had been invalided home from the Front; and, after spending some months in a rather depressing Convalescent Home, was given a month's sick leave. Having no near relations or friends, I was trying to make up my mind what to do, when I ran across John Cavendish. I had seen very little of him for some years. Indeed, I had never known him particularly well. He was a good fifteen years my senior, for one thing, though he hardly looked his forty-five years. As a boy, though, I had often stayed at Styles, his mother's place in Essex.

We had a good yarn about old times, and it ended in his inviting me down to Styles to spend my leave there.

"The mater will be delighted to see you again--after all those years," he added.

"Your mother keeps well?" I asked.

"Oh, yes. I suppose you know that she has married again?"

I am afraid I showed my surprise rather plainly. Mrs. Cavendish, who had married John's father when he was a widower with two sons, had been a handsome woman of middle-age as I remembered her. She certainly could not be a day less than seventy now.

Now, judging from that opening, what's this story about? Clearly, it's about the characters and/or events referred to.

Woops! I forgot something. Here is that opening again with the missing part included:

The intense interest aroused in the public by what was known at the time as "The Styles Case" has now somewhat subsided. Nevertheless, in view of the world-wide notoriety which attended it, I have been asked, both by my friend Poirot and the family themselves, to write an account of the whole story. This, we trust, will effectually silence the sensational rumours which still persist.

I will therefore briefly set down the circumstances which led to my being connected with the affair.

I had been invalided home from the Front; and, after spending some months in a rather depressing Convalescent Home, was given a month's sick leave. Having no near relations or friends, I was trying to make up my mind what to do, when I ran across John Cavendish. I had seen very little of him for some years. Indeed, I had never known him particularly well. He was a good fifteen years my senior, for one thing, though he hardly looked his forty-five years. As a boy, though, I had often stayed at Styles, his mother's place in Essex.

We had a good yarn about old times, and it ended in his inviting me down to Styles to spend my leave there.

"The mater will be delighted to see you again--after all those years," he added.

"Your mother keeps well?" I asked.

"Oh, yes. I suppose you know that she has married again?"

I am afraid I showed my surprise rather plainly. Mrs. Cavendish, who had married John's father when he was a widower with two sons, had been a handsome woman of middle-age as I remembered her. She certainly could not be a day less than seventy now.

By omitting the first two short paragraphs the first time, I sent you off on a wild goose chase, didn't I? You had no idea what this storyteller is talking about. I had you thinking the narrator was talking about this story's characters or events. Subconsciously you thought that since this first-person narrator doesn't reveal his inner feelings, this story is probably more about its events. So, you expected exciting action and wondered what was going to happen.

Thus, off you went off like a bloodhound on a false trail. Missing all the clues. For, this isn't a character or events story; it's an idea story, a whodunit. It's a Hercule Poirot murder mystery by Agatha Christie — The Mysterious Affair at Styles.

That changes everything, doesn't it? Now you know that the events aren't consequential and that the details don't foreshadow: they are evidence, clues to the solution of a puzzle.

A storyteller directs the reader's attention. What you direct most attention to should be what readers should focus on. In fact, it is what readers focus on. So, don't mislead them on what your story is about. In the opening, the reader has nothing yet to go on, so you must give your bloodhounds the scent: open with material on the predominant element, as Agatha Christie does above.

There's another reason why you should open this way. One can't always judge a book by its cover. Potential purchasers judge it by the first page. What if you bought this book because the opening made you mistake it for mainstream fiction? You wouldn't be happy to find (in Chapter 3) that it's a murder mystery.

Moreover, since this is a murder mystery, character is unimportant. We learn nothing about the characters except what's necessary to solve the crime. Hence they are flat characters. Even Detective Hercule Poirot is but a caricature with eccentricities that make him stand out. If Agatha Christie had developed the characters into deep, three-dimensional characters, all this characterization would be superfluous and distracting, blurring the story's focus. In fact, readers quickly tire of a story with extraneous material — that is, anything that doesn't contribute to proving its premise.

Again, since this is a murder mystery, events are unimportant. Murder mysteries have no plot in the usual sense of the word, because the only events that happen in them are the murder in the beginning and the discovery of whodunnit in the end. The rest of the "plot" is just the detective gathering information to figure it out.

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