In Mary Robinette’s framework, MICE stands for the story elements Milieu, Ideas, Characters, Events. Mary Robinette talks about the Word Budget available to adequately cover a number of these story elements in a given length of text. How do you quantify and apply it? How do you avoid overloading a text with too many elements. What counts as ‘too many’ anyway?
No Rules only Guidelines
Unfortunately, there’s no hard rule. You have to work out your word budget and MICE quotient for each scene (we’re working in scenes not chapters, right?). You then get a subjective measure of words-per-element to help you decide if each element has sufficient focus.
How does it work?
- List the number of characters in the scene (principal and side characters, ignore ‘extra’s’ and walk-ons)
- List the milieu or setting/locations. Ideally each scene has one setting or location.
- List the number of ideas you’re trying to communicate in the scene (conflicts, themes, plot points, backstory).
- List the number of events or actions occurring or referenced in the scene
You can tell a story with four MICE, one of each type, character, setting, idea and event. For every extra MICE element, you multiply the length of the story by 1.5 in Mary’s calculation.
Multiply your word budget by the number of MICE. Say we have two characters, one location, one current event and one referenced event and one central idea. That’s six MICE.
I can write a meaningful scene containing one of each MICE element in 1000 words. If I add another MICE element, I need 1500 words to adequately cover it. I add another MICE element, I need 2250 words to cover it.
Does this fit into your word budget or do you need to cut back on the number of MICE?
‘Crowding’ your scenes with too many elements comes at a cost; the loss of clarity and focus.
‘Over-spending’ or ‘ under-spending’ on some elements affects what you have left in your word budget to spend on the others. You will spend more on the most important elements in each scene. What’s left has to cover the other elements with great economy. We’re not suggesting you obsessively count words against each element.
The Long and Short of it
If you draft the scene and it runs long, then you need to:
- cut back your word spend on the least important elements OR
- cut the number of MICE in the scene OR
- revise the word budget. This is easy in a full length novel. Less so for a short story.
If some elements are under-described, decide if they are necessary in the scene. How much text do you need to cover a given element? You may need to expand the expand the word budget to adequately cover them, or else steal some word-count from other elements in the scene. This is the joy of editing.
The MICE Quotient teaches you to write with economy. It’s also a way to assess what is important in each scene of the story.