Plotting Advice from Orson Scott Card

How do we know when a story is done? It seems, mostly, like a feeling. If your movie cuts out a little early your response would probably be, "That didn't seem quite right, I don't think that is where it ends." This happened to my mother a few days ago and that was her reaction. Orson Scott Card talks about how we can tell when a story should end by what it focuses on. That idea is what I am going to play with today.

Orson Scott Card is a successful author most known for "Enders Game." His two books on writing, "How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy" and "Characters and Viewpoint," are both excellent. In them he talks about something called the MICE Quotient. MICE stands for milieu, idea, character, and event. Milieu just means all of the setting/context, I looked it up. I will let Card quickly explain the basic structures of each.

"The structure of the pure milieu story is simple: Get a character to the setting that the story is about, and then devise reasons for her to move through the world of the story, showing the reader all the interesting physical and social details of the milieu. When you've shown everything you want the reader to see, bring the character home."

"The idea story has a simple structure. A problem or question is posed at the beginning of the story, and at the end of the tale the answer is revealed."

"The character story is about a person trying to change his role in life. It begins at the point when the main character finds his present situation intolerable and sets out to change; it ends when the character either finds a new role, willingly returns to the old one, or despairs of improving his lot."

"The event story structure is simple: It begins when the main characters become involved in the effort to heal the world's disease, and ends when they either accomplish their goal or utterly fail to do so."

Now, it's obvious that basically all stories have at least some of all of these, but Card's point is that one usually dominates the story and then the story should have that structure. He goes into more detail on all of these in both of his books, I pulled these little explanations from "Characters and Viewpoint."

It's an interesting way to start thinking about stories. Genre's were created mostly as a sales tool for publishers and retailers. Audiences start to expect certain things so tropes and routine plots develop, but I don't like the feel of being quite so constrained like that. Granted, it takes a lot of skill to develop a good story within a structured framework, and it can be useful I'm sure, it just doesn't particularly appeal to me.

Dean Koontz talks about story structures based on genres in "Writing Popular Fiction," which is also an excellent book. He gives one general plot structure:

"...the hero ( or heroine ) has a serious problem; he attempts to solve it but plunges deeper into danger; his stumbling blocks, growing logically from his efforts to find a solution, become increasingly monumental; at last, forced by the harsh circumstances to learn something about himself or the world around him, to learn a Truth of which he was previously unaware, he solves his problem - or loses magnificently."

I like the different perspectives on story structure. I need to work on a lot of things concerning writing and stories, and one of those is overall structure. It is true that some great writers like Stephen King and George R.R. Martin usually write without outlines, but they also seem to be building the story moving forward in their head in a basic way, and they both learned structure and outlining before deciding not to use it. In the past I was working with structures focused on reversals like Aristotle and Martin Turner emphasize. I like that, but I think there is something to this MICE Quotient. So . . . let's see what we can do.

I am going to attempt to apply these structures in very general way to possible stories surrounding the Hindenburg disaster. Why? I don't know, it popped into my head and it seems interesting. I think I watched a documentary on it years ago, but I can remember very little. That's fine because I find the research interesting anyway. First, let's try the milieu story.

How do I have a story that focuses on the milieu of the Hindenburg? It seems natural to have a milieu story about a magical or fantasy land of some kind like "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" or "Gulliver's Travels," but a real place seems different. I could add in something fantasy based like vampires, but I really don't feel like doing that, and I don't think that would really help with the milieu. But, it can be an interesting story in exploring the setting because me, you, and basically everyone else doesn't know what it was like to be building or working on the Hindenburg. Apparently, of the 97 people on board only 35 died, I find that surprising. That means I could have a survivor. I think it best to bring someone into the situation that is also not familiar with it. Let's take a first swing.

Franz wants to travel the world, and when he gets a job on an airship he gets his chance.

No, that's wrong because the Hindenburg just traveled from Germany to somewhere near New York. Let's try again.

Franz dreams of leaving his small town in Germany where no dreams come true. He gets his chance by working as part of the crew of a magnificent airship, The Hindenburg. He has to learn quickly not only how to do his job, but how to get along in a different kind of society.

I don't know, I'm not really liking it, maybe if I try focusing on the building portion.

Frederick leaves his fathers farm in rural Germany with dreams of being a builder of great airships. He quickly learns that life away from the farm is a lot different. Not only will he have to learn how to do that job, but also how to fit in.

I think I may be missing a bit of something, I could definitely work on this a lot more because I don't particularly like it, but I want to try one of the others instead. Let's do the idea story.

Looking at the wreckage on the field Matt couldn't believe that so many people had survived. Just a few years before a U.S. airship had crashed and almost no one survived. The skeleton of the Hindenburg looked like a great beast that had been slain. There were only two options, and that was his first job; to find out whether is was an accident, or sabotage.

I like that a lot more, a fairly basic mystery idea. Let's see if character comes to me as easily.

Werner worked hard, and he thought working on the Hindenburg was helping Germany and the German people. To bring them back from their disgrace, but the owner didn't seem to be that type of man. The more he spoke the more he seemed to be against the greater glory of the fatherland. Cowards are the ones that don't take action, and Werner wasn't a coward.

That is kind of interesting, there is something there, but I don't particularly want to explore it further. Let's see what the last one can do for us, event.

Okay, this is hard. It seems like my last two basically fit the event style structure. I began by thinking that the MICE Quotient made a lot of sense and was easy to understand, but now that I have explore it a little more I'm wondering if it isn't one of those tools that is useful for helping you to evaluate writing but isn't the best for creating writing. I think I may stick with some other ways of working on story structure, but I will keep thinking about this one. You are welcome to join me and see what I explore next at


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