MICE, Fractals and Budgets

Following Mary Robinette Kowal’s guest lecture for Sanderson’s 2020 course, we started looking at Word Budgets. Let’s go further with MICE, fractals and budgets.

Kowal likes to think of story elements in terms of MICE – Milieu, Idea, Character, and Event. Stick with this next idea; Robinette Kowal declares a novel has the same construction as a fractal. There is a story arc that goes from opening problem through conflict to resolution. Within the whole novel, the chapters also need to deliver a story arc from opening problem through conflict to resolution. Otherwise, they don’t do their job in moving the story forward in a satisfying way.

Another level of decomposition? Within each chapter, there may be multiple scenes; perhaps one long scene start-to-end, perhaps two, three, or four scenes with harder or softer breaks between scenes. Again, each scene has to deliver a satisfying story arc from opening problem through conflict to resolution.

A chapter of 2500 words with no scene breaks might feel like luxury if there’s only one of each MICE element. It comes under strain if you increase the number of milieu, characters, ideas and events within the chapter. Just step through Alice’s looking glass to find out.

Consider a chapter broken into four scenes. Each has to do its work in an average of 650 words. Each has to adequately explore its given MICE elements, within a scene story arc, before it runs out of budget.

Next level of decomposition? Each meaningful dialogue between characters (call it a micro-scene) also has to deliver a story arc while dealing with the MICE elements loaded on it.

You might think Austen’s Pride and Prejudice a long book. It isn’t; 124,000 words in the standard edition. It is, for the prose style of the period, very economical with its word budget. Through chapters, scenes and micro-scenes, every single one completes its story arc right where it needs to.

The concept of the word budget makes sense. Spending a little more to complete an arc in one place risks going ‘overdrawn’ overall. Cutting back somewhere else might throw the whole structure out of balance.

I’ve come to like the idea of a Word Budget as a structural measure. The current project has short opening and closing chapters. They carry the MICE elements economically and complete their story arcs. In the middle, where it gets difficult, the word budget expands to meet the structural underpinnings of the book.

A chapter that ran double the length of the rest was obviously a candidate to split. Yes, the original structure was 24, not 25 chapters. Interestingly, splitting it in two improved the pacing, without changing the placement of plot points. The important plot point arrives at the required place in the overall story arc, coming at the end of the second chapter. Both chapters are within the average length, each split with its’ own climactic arc.

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