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