MICE Outlining

Another masterclass series from the Writing Excuses podcast that I found interesting on script writing as M.I.C.E. This stands for

  • Milieu (a place or location)
  • Inquiry
  • Character
  • Events

The basic premise is that stories are easier to understand when you nest the starting and ending of parts of the story. For example, you can start a storyline for A, end A, start B, then end B.

  • Start A
  • End A
  • Start B
  • End B

Alternatively nest them so you start A, start B, end B, then end A.

  • Start A
    • Start B
    • End B
  • End A

But avoid a structure of start A, start B, end A, then end B (overlapping). (Like most rules, this is not a “never do it” rule, but more guidance to make stories easier to understand.) The reader can feel like “you told me A, then the most recent thing is you told me was B, but you did not end B – you changed the topic back to A. What happened to B?” So another way of describing nesting is close off the last topic opened before starting a new topic.

Milieu, Inquiry, Character, and Events represent four types of segments you can have. It is useful to think about the starting and ending criteria for each type, as well as obstacles and complications that are in the way of completing the segment.

Milieu

You start when you enter a new location with the story continuing until you leave that location. An action movie might have a series of puzzles in different locations to solve to escape a burning building. Leaving the location (the burning building, or a specific room in the building) is a clear signal of success.

Note a location could be a room you are locked in, a cave where the tunnel collapsed, or a trip across the country from one city to another. The importance is it the start and end are location based.

Inquiry

You start when a question to be answered is discovered (very common for mystery stories). The segment ends when the mystery is solved. Conflicts during the segment can be due to lies and deceit when asking questions to try and solve the mystery.

Character

These segments are about internal character development – growth and maturity. For example, the character might be trying to overcome being embarrassed to talk in public. The focus is on the growth and development of the character. Conflict can hold the person back from that achievement.

Questions that come up are self-introspection. Who am I? Do I matter? Does anyone care? Questions of self-doubt, self-worth, etc.

The desire to change can also come from different sources. For romance, it might be driven by a desire to overcome a personal limitation before they feel worthy of their love interest.

Coming of age stories usually have an outer character arc. But you need to think carefully is it about the character personality changing, or is it just their circumstance/environment that changes (which would make it event based rather than character based). An interesting example was Sherlock Holmes (the books). Sherlock Holmes solves the mysteries, but he typically does not grow personally during the cases. The stories are Inquiry based, not character based.

A challenge with character based changes is how to make sure the story is interesting. The growth is internal, which can be less visible to the outside world.

Events

Events are reflect changes in the status quo. What is the normal daily life for the character, due to external influences. A pauper to riches story might start with the character struggling every day looking for scraps of food, but by the end of the story, they have been fully discovered by others as to who they are. They get to each rich food in a palace whenever they want. If the attitude of the character did not change, that is an event driven rather than a character story segment.

Obstacles vs Complications

There was also discussion of the difference between obstacles and complications. Obstacles are things that get in the way of achieving the current goal. Complications lead to other problems arising. (I might have the details not 100% correct here.)

For example, a milieu obstacle might be escaping from a room needs you to find the key and some oil for the door hinges. A character complication might be you overcome a character fault (such as being shy), but it results in you getting a scholarship to a music school across the country… if you can get there in 3 days’ time (milieu). The challenge did not have to be overcome to complete the previous segment, but rather a new segment got initiated because of a complication when the previous segment completed.

Putting it all together

When outlining your story, you can use these different types of segments to think about your structure. A mystery book will probably have at the outermost level a big mystery to solve. So introduce it early and don’t solve it completely until the end. Forgetting to end something you started can be very unsatisfying to the reader. (For example, in Tonikawa: over the moon for you, you discover Tsukasa has some linkage to rocks from the actual moon – but the topic is raised but never closed out. It was mentioned in the title, but otherwise to me I felt unsatisfied as they opened a thread and never closed it off.)

The first part might be an event. The detective starts off with nobody trusting them, but by the end of the part they have the respect of those working around them. This is nested inside the inquiry segment. The second part might then be a Milieu segment – the detective gets locked in a room they have to escape from. That this, different types of segments can nest inside and follow others.

What the outlining stage gives you though is a recommended ordering. You can summarize the outermost goal of the book, identify some obstacles and complications that occur before you complete the book. Then you break down the book into parts and repeat. Then break the parts into smaller and smaller sections. By nesting, it is generally easier for an audience to follow.

What level of nesting should you go to? That is up to you I think. You can have many levels deep if the story is longer.

Conclusion

I found the approach interesting. The idea of nesting is second nature to me as a programmer (its how you write code, do top-down-design, and so forth), but I had not thought of it before as a way to make stories easier for the audience to follow. I was planning to try and do more complicated weaving of the plot line. The message I got from this set of classes was that can make it harder for the audience to follow – it may actually reduce enjoyment.
 

For example, I am planning a series, so I will have the overall series, then arcs covering a few episodes, then each episode, then a few parts in an episode. I plan to try the above approach to make sure I have a clear intent in my mind as I structure series, arcs, episodes, parts, etc.

There still some points I need to worth through as well. For example, a common practice is to put a cliffhanger at the end of an episode to get them back for the next episode. Is that an exception to the nesting rule? Or is an “episode” not a level of nesting (the end of one episode flowing into the next matters more). But does that imply the end of one episode should flow into the next rather than drop a tidbit of story coming later?

All these techniques I find interesting as guides. But they are guides, not absolute rules. They give a model for thinking things through which may be value enough.


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