Exceeding the MICE Quotient

Exceeding the MICE QuotientMy novella hit problems a while back, entirely from exceeding the MICE quotient. I tried to pack too much into a 20k novella, lost focus and… it didn’t work.

Set in the same world as my fantasy series, the novella is a prequel that pulls in a number of characters from the three books. The first two acts of my conventional three-act structure seemed to progress well. Act Three felt completely wrong.

Exceeding the MICE quotient, I somehow failed to address the core conflict and ended in the wrong place.

If you recall a previous post about short-fiction specialist Mary Robinette Koval, then you know
MICE stands for:

  • Milieu
  • Ideas
  • Characters
  • Events

The MICE quotient is her inexact formula for determining how much content you can pack into a
given length of text. The more settings, ideas, characters and events you try to pack in, the less
text you have to properly describe each of these story elements. Some become irrelevant,
orphaned, neglected or unfinished. Worse, all these surplus elements become a distraction
and divert focus away from the core of the story.

If you have true writing skill, you can pack more in than a journeyman author. But there is a
limit. Pride and Prejudice (collect a sticker) simply doesn’t fit in twenty thousand words. It’s why every TV
and film adaptation cuts the script to fit the medium.

Diagnosis: Novella

The basic diagnosis of faults: too many set pieces, too many characters,

The treatment: wind back to my core conflict, trim and edit.

I begin the story with two sisters; the younger a cold-hearted assassin for the Emperor, the older
the guardian of a missing general’s daughter. In Act One, the older sibling attempts to prevent a massacre,
appealing to the younger sister’s long-absent mercy. Act Two sees the older sister attempting to stop the coup that will get the conspirators killed.

Except I messed up. I got distracted by the general’s teenage daughter; the character who becomes my protagonist in the main series. I also got distracted by a sub-plot involving the bad guys behind the coup.

Result? An extra set-piece battle. All very exciting. All very unnecessary.

The Act Three climax followed almost immediately, another set-piece battle.

Then the novella finished without properly addressing the conflict between the sisters.

Be kind, Rewind

Re-working the final act restored the focus:

  • cutting the first set-piece battle and a lot of excess material freed up the word count
  • the second set-piece battle is the only one needed and highlights all the cool fantasy stuff
  • adding a final scene in which the sisters face off against each other returned the focus to the
    moral conflict between them – bringing us full circle.

The final show-down is not a fighting scene – we already did that. It’s a debate, a negotiation
and a kind of reconciliation. That’s where the story lives and breathes.

3 thoughts on “Exceeding the MICE Quotient”

    1. There’s no hard rule. Work out your word budget for the scene (we’re working in scenes not chapters, right?).

      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 is 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 occurring or referenced in the scene

      Divide the number of MICE by the word budget. Say we have 3 characters, one location, 1 current event and 1 referenced, 2 ideas. We estimate the scene to be 800 words. 800 divided by 8 = 100 words to spend on each element in the scene. Drawing from the budget to expand some elements means less to spend on others.

      If you draft the scene and it runs long, then you need to
      a) cut something in the edit
      b) revise the word budget upward

      If some elements are under described, then either cut those elements or expand the word budget to adequately cover them.

      At best you learn to write with economy. Not everything will fit in the first draft.

      1. I’m writing another post based on Mary Robinette’s formula. But it’s less about hard math than a reasonable estimate of elements to words so you can work out what is most important in the story.

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