Six LDS Writers and A Frog

Monday, March 03, 2008

Does Your Novel Have MICE?

A lot of times writers are unclear on where their novel should start and end. I don’t mean the first paragraph or page per se. That’s really more of a choice of what will hook the reader. What I’m talking about is the point of focus of the novel in which the story itself actually begins. I’ll be discussing this in more detail at the Storymakers conference, but here is a brief example of what I am talking about.

A good novel should usually have at least three storylines. Too many storylines, and you risk losing the reader’s focus. Too few and you go from a novel to a tale. Each storyline must start and stop at the proper point, in order to give your novel a good flow.

Orson Scott Card divides stories into four types, which he calls the MICE quotient. Stories can either be milieu (place driven), idea driven, character driven, or event driven.

A good example of a milieu driven story is Lord of the Rings. In a place driven story, the story is about exploring a place unfamiliar to the main character. The story begins with the discovery of the new world and ends with the wrap-up of the world. People who complained the third LOTR movie had too many endings didn’t understand that the story was not about the ring. Therefore it didn’t end with the ring’s destruction. It didn’t end with Frodo returning home, because it wasn’t about him. It was about the world, which is why we needed to find out everything that happened to the world.

An idea driven story is a story that revolves around a problem. In a mystery, a person may be killed. The story ends when the killer is caught, killed, escapes, or in some way leaves the story. Idea stories typically have lots of false turns and red herrings. Characters may be minimally fleshed out.

Romances are a great example of character driven stories. The character driven story begins when the protagonist finds his or her lot in life unbearable (bad husband, no husband, dull job, etc.) It ends when the protagonist either changes her life or comes to realize she is actually okay with their life.

Event driven stories are stories where the “world” is out of order. It begins when the main character tries to find a cure. It ends when the goal is achieved or when the character fails. The event can take many forms: a usurper, a betrayal of trust, or a crime unpunished.

By analyzing what type of story you have written, you will find it easy to locate the correct beginning and end.

Let’s use this tool to break down the first Harry Potter book.

Is there a problem Harry must solve? Yes it is the potential theft of the Sorcerer Stone. Who is trying to steal it and will HP and friends solve the mystery? It’s possible then, that HP1 could be an idea driven book. Except that the book does not begin or end with the mystery.

Let’s move on to milieu. Does the main character discover a new world? Obviously. A major part of the story is Harry discovering the world of magic. By seeing it through the eyes of a person who has never seen magic, we get to experience his delight as well. So HP1 could be a milieu. He does discover the world of magic before the issue involving the Sorcerer’s Stone, and he leaves the world after. So it could be a place story. But wait there’s more.

Let’s look at event. In almost every HP book, the world of magic and the world in general are in danger. In particular, Hogwarts itself is in danger of being shut down by one thing or another. And after Harry resolves the conflict, we learn that—for the moment, at least—Hogwarts is safe. Event? Maybe, but . . .

What every HP book starts and ends with is Harry being unhappy with his state in life. He is living in a closet, he doesn’t hear from his friends, he is possibly going to get kicked out, he has lost a loved one. And what is the last thing that happens in every book? Harry comes to settle with his current lot in life. By examining each of the storylines in HP 1, we determine that while there are elements of all story types (which is one of the things that gives the HP series such universal appeal), ultimately HP is a character driven story.

Now try this with the novel you are working on writing or the one that you are reading. It might open your eyes.


At 3/04/2008 12:35 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The problem with the Lord of the Rings beginning is that the reader (viewer of the movie) was lead to believe that the Ring was the story instead of the ring being part of the story about these worlds. There was certainly a lot about the worlds, but that was mostly done in a narrative voice, whereas the really powerful, on-scene drama was focused on the ring. If the opening the middle of the novel/movie would have done a better job focusing on the destruction, rescue, and preservation of the WORLDS the ending would not have been confusing. It has a lot less to do with the reader not "knowing" that this just happens to be a story about worlds, you dumb reader, and more about the author not empasizing, organizing and preparing the opening of the novel in a way that the reader/viewer wants to find out what happens to the world rather than what happens to the ring. Its not the reader's fault they looked to the ring as the climax rather than the end-state of the worlds----that's a problem for the author/creator and their selection of how to open the novel, how to title the work, and what to empahsize in the opening hundred pages (or first 40 minutes)....

David Woolley

At 3/04/2008 12:42 AM, Blogger J Scott Savage said...

Good points, David. Had the movies been true to the books, it would have been the most boring 9+ hours of film ever made. The movies are essentially an action adventure. Kids who watch the movies and then read the books will be sadly disappointed for the most part.

That being said, many of the people watching the movies were huge LOTR fans, having read the books over and over. So the director couldn't ignore the story entirely.

I personally think PJ did an amzing job of blending the two. That being said, I thought the third movie went on too long.

At 3/04/2008 6:01 PM, Blogger Kerry Blair said...

Oh, rats! I don't know if I have MICE or not...

Thanks for the post, J Scott (or Jeff S or whoever you are today)! It's another for the 3-ring binder, for certain! (With comments, of course.)


Post a Comment

<< Home