Creative writing, or the speculative fiction genre, has long leveraged something called the MICE quotient. I first came across this when I was reading an Orson Scott Card book on how to write science fiction and fantasy (I think it was even titled How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy). The premise is that stories in the speculative fiction genre can be broadly binned as having one or more of four, primary drivers: milieu, idea, character, and event. Although most good stories will incorporate multiple of these components, with different ones emphasized at different times, there is usually one that drives the story forward.
Since I realize not everyone has tried to steep themselves in author-speak, we’ll first explain what each of these pillars are. Milieu is a French word that translates roughly to world, place, or environment. Stories that are driven by the world are often exploratory in nature (although sometimes exploratory stories can be idea stories, with milieu as their secondary pillar). The Lord of the Rings is probably the most famous example of a milieu story: Tolkien basically wrote those stories to explore the world of Middle Earth that he had created in such loving detail (if you’ve ever read The Silmarillion, you will understand exactly what I mean).
Science fiction broadly tends to play between the milieu and idea pillars, especially classic, “hard” science fiction. I would argue that A Journey to the Center of the Earth and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea are milieu stories – there’s not much story left if not for the places that the action takes place – while something like War of the Worlds, Ringworld, Off On a Comet!, or From the Earth to the Moon and Around the Moon would fall more towards the idea side. Note how all of these easily straddle both, and arguments could be made in either direction. What is an idea story? An idea story is a story that is driven by what I (and some others) like to call the “what if.” Ringworld: what if a civilization created rings around their host star as a compromise with a Dyson sphere? War of the Worlds: what if Martians invaded Earth? Off on a Comet!: what if a bit of Earth were put on a really eccentric orbit (conveyed through a bit of the Earth being picked up by a passing comet – yes, it’s a completely unrealistic framing device, but the exploration of the idea once they’re on the comet is quite fascinating).
Like the milieu and idea pillars tend to be linked and play particularly well together (although you can easily combine any of the pillars in any combination, and stories are certainly not just limited to one or two), the final two pillars, character and events, tend also to be linked. Character stories are stories that are carried by the strength of the people that populate the pages. It doesn’t so much matter where the characters happen to find themselves or what they find themselves needing to do; the story is primarily driven by their personalities and how they interact. A lot of the “buddy-cop” genre is arguably character mixed with a bit of idea. Or Patrick Rothfuss’s Kingkiller Chronicle: I would argue that is primarily a character story. A lot of narrative-framed stories are going to be character driven.
In event stories, the action, what is happening from page to page and paragraph to paragraph, is what drives the story. The broad “action-adventure” genre consists of event stories, wherein something happens, and people have to deal with it. There will hopefully be character development along the way, and we’ll hopefully get to see some interesting world building, but the main driver is the action that is unfolding. Wheel of Time is so large that it easily incorporates all of these pillars, but it arguably begins as an event story, with Rand and his friends having to flee after Trollocs attacks, and then being swept up into adventures. Thrillers leverage this pillar, too. I’d say that another good example would be Star Wars: an event happens (Luke happens to buy the two droids for which the Empire is searching, which leads him on to all of his other adventures) that leads to other events that carry the story forward.
Note that with most of these examples, really good stories leverage more than one pillar, to varying extents. If you’re writing really “hard” science fiction, you might be able to get away with focusing almost entirely on having an idea story, but the stories that stick with us have a combination of all of these. Star Wars may be primarily an event story, but it would just be an action-adventure romp if not for its character development and the memorable environments (note that milieu isn’t just the setting, but is really every that goes into world-building: places, terrain, cultures, religions, histories, politics, and so forth). Kingkiller Chronicles would not be half as compelling as it is if it were pure character: it needs the strong event supporting pillar, alongside a not insignificant milieu pillar (and amazing writing) to be the masterpiece of literature that it is.
Now, there are some people in the modern school of thought who like to replace “idea” with “answer,” giving us the MACE quotient instead of the MICE quotient. Their claim is that the vast majority of idea stories are not really about something as vague as “exploring an idea,” but are really about trying to find an answer to something. This has the benefit of enlarging MICE/MACE to more easily encompass genres beyond speculative fiction (science fiction and fantasy). Under MACE, most mysteries would be considered “answer” stories, although under MICE they would tend to fall into either character or event.
There is an argument to be made there, but to me it’s worth keeping in mind that MICE was developed to talk about speculative fiction, not literature in general. If it can sometimes apply to other genres, and be helpful, that’s wonderful, but I don’t think the point is for it to be universal to all writing. “Answer” may make this tool more useful for people writing things like mysteries or realistic fiction, but I think it leaves behind what makes a lot of really “hard” science fiction so compelling. Stories like Ringworld aren’t trying to reach an answer – they’re just trying to ask a question, to explore a concept or idea. To me, going with “answer” instead of “idea” is a little like putting the proverbial cart before the proverbial horse, or to use a more modern turn of phrase, building an airplane without an engine.
It’s probably a silly debate in the first place, since there’s not reason that we can’t use both in different situations, or that some people can’t choose to use one or other. After all, both are trying to communicate the same thing. And it could be that my preference for MICE is as simple as the fact that I learned MICE before I learned MACE, and I’m an old curmudgeon. Yet I really do think that “idea” better captures what that pillar is trying to convey than does answer. What do you think? Weigh into the debate below.