Friday, February 10, 2006

The M.I.C.E. Quotient of a Story

All four elements of a story (milieu, idea, character, and events) are in all stories. They aren't all equally important in all stories, however. Depending on what the story is about, the relative amounts of each element should vary. That is, a story contains four types of information: information about the milieu, about the idea, about the characters, and about events.

To the extent that a story is about its milieu, the information in it should be about the milieu. In other words, the amount of information about milieu should be proportional to the importance of milieu in that story. In his excellent book, Characters and Viewpoint, Orson Scott Card calls the relative importance of each story element the story's M.I.C.E. Quotient -- its ratio of Milieu : Idea : Character : Events. And so, in a milieu story the milieu predominates. In an idea story the idea predominates. In a character story character predominates. And in an events story events predominate.

Often, it's a bit more complicated. A milieu story might also place a good deal of emphasis on events. In other words, its M.I.C.E. Quotient could be something like 4:1:1:2. Therefore, it should be composed of about four times as much milieu material as idea or character material and about twice as much event material as idea or character material.

Note that this principle contradicts the widespread belief that all good stories are character driven. Not so. In fact, you can actually wreck idea stories, milieu stories, and even events stories by too much emphasis on character.

For example, note that Agatha Christie's idea stories feature characters like Inspector Poirot, a fairly shallow main character with but some eccentricities to spice him up. If she delved too much into his character, she'd no longer have a whodunnit, but rather a story about Inspector Poirot.

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