Plot your novel with MICE Quotient Nesting Codes and Try/Fails

Essays by Shalon Sims on education, creative writing and literacy

Plot your novel with MICE Quotient Nesting Codes and Try/Fails

This is it, folks. This is seriously what made plotting go from hell to heaven for me. From “I’m never going to figure out what’s wrong with my novel draft or how to fix it” all the way to “I love my novel and I just submitted it to agents.”

It’s a technique called the MICE Quotient that I learned from Hugo-award winning writer, Mary Robinette Kowal, during the Surrey International Writing Conference in 2018. She credits the technique for her success:

“[Orson Scott Card’s] MICE quotient was the thing that unlocked everything for me,” says Mary Robinette. “Not so much for characters, because I had dealt with characters on stage for 20 years, but for the overarching story structure.”

– Mary Robinette Kowal

So before I get into it, just a summary of what I’ll be going over in this article:

  • How to plot your novel (of any genre) using the MICE quotient
  • Nesting codes and their deliciously beautiful symmetry (I LOVE THEM!)
  • Try/Fails for a tense, non-saggy bottom Act 2
  • And I’ll give you an absolutely free plotting template to print and use at home. See photo below for reference, and scroll to the end of this article to learn more about the template.
MICE Quotient Plotting Template (with simplified 3-Act structure beatsheet)

Now, if you’ve read my blog, you’ll know I’m no stranger to plotting techniques. I wrote an indepth essay comparing The Writers Journey story structure and The Hero’s Journey, I’ve developed my own tried and true method to overcome plot holes, and I’ve also studied and used Save the Cat beatsheets.

However, as much as I’ve studied, I still find the 3 act structure and beats confusing in how to implement. I can skip over plot holes with ease, but I still have trouble with the order of events, and story structure.

The MICE Quotient technique is simple and gives an excellent bird’s eye view of the key elements of your plot—the elements your reader cares about most: the promises.

Brief overview of MICE

Now, the technique was originally developed by Orson Scott Card. I don’t know the history, but I believe Mary Robinette has vastly improved upon the technique by adding what she calls “nesting codes.” I’ll get to that later. First the 4 codes of M.I.C.E:

  1. Milieau (environment, setting, atmosphere)
  2. Idea (question, mystery)
  3. Character (their internal problems, goals)
  4. Event (external problems, catastrophes)

PLEASE NOTE: I am not going to describe what each of these codes mean since there are plenty of people who have already done that. This article is going to touch on how to plot your novel using these codes. So if you need to learn what each of these mean, please see the Further Reading links at the bottom of this article.

The way Mary Robinette describes it, each of the MICE codes is a promise you make to your reader. So, if you start your story off with an event (eg. a plague is wiping out humanity), then you need to keep your promise by having that event resolved at the end of the novel (humanity is saved). If you have a character who is lonely at the beginning of your novel, then you need to keep that promise at the end by showing they either have friends, or they’re okay with being alone by the end of the book.

The delicious symmetry of nesting codes

Seems simple enough, but what I love about this is that Act 1 mirrors Act 3 perfectly, but in opposite order.

Did you read that? I’m going to say it again because it’s easy to miss, but incredibly profound:

Act 1 mirrors Act 3 perfectly, but in opposite order. To really get a feel for what this means, here’s a picture of how I successfully plotted a book that had driven me crazy for years using the MICE nesting codes (on the left page):

You’ll notice that except for one (which was a mistake) all of the codes mirror each other perfectly. So ‘plague threatens humanity’ is the opening scene and ‘humanity is saved’ is the last scene.

So in Act 1 you set things up, while in Act 3 you dismantle what was set up (ie. you keep your promises) in the opposite order you introduced them in. That is why they’re called “Nesting Codes” because it’s first in, last out, similar to how computer programmers create websites. It’s the same principle. Mary Robinette talks about them as boxes inside of boxes (you need to open the first box, and then the box inside, etc, and at the end you need to close that box inside before you can close the outside box.

Follow the clues to find whatever is missing

What’s great about this mirroring effect is that if you don’t know where to begin your novel, you can look at the ending (if you know that) and that will tell you how the story begins. Tada! In fact, anything you know for sure, you can add a code (either an opening code, or a closing code) and then you know there needs to be a mirrored opposite on the other side (of Act 2). So even if I don’t have all the puzzle pieces, I can usually suss them out.

How many codes?

Now, my story is science fiction and starts off with an event, but Mary Robinette says ALL novels have ALL codes. Only a short story should have one maybe two codes. A novel would have multiples of all of them.

For example, a romance is basically a mystery (IDEA): will she find love? Will they get together? Who will she end up with? Etc. It’s also a CHARACTER plot: we see how she is before and what’s keeping her from true love, and how she has to change in order to find love. You can add EVENTS (she gets cancer, her husband divorces her, her kids go to school, etc.) and you can add MILEAU (she moves to a small town, or even her kids leaving the house is a big change in environment).

To sum up, you set up 1 or 2 of each code in the first act (first 25K of a 100K novel) and then you delay resolving any of those promises until the last act (75-100K).

Act 2 Try/Fails create tension

Now, Act 2 is the fun and games and, in my experience, the nesting codes aren’t necessarily useful in Act 2. Act 2 is where I put what Mary Robinette calls “try/fails,” which are basically your character trying to achieve his goal, but failing, and having some fun along the way.

By ‘fun’ I don’t necessarily mean ha-ha fun (depending on your genre), but it’s the part that is most fun to read because it’s the most intriguing part of the book.

Why is it the most intriguing? Well, in Act 1, we have a character with problems and desires, and by the end of Act 1 they have a clear goal. Act 2 is all about the mystery of figuring HOW they will achieve their goal. So that mystery or intrigue creates tension for the reader that pulls them along. Especially if you use a few try/fails.

How many Try/Fails?

Mary Robinette explained that the more try/fails, the more tense the story becomes, and I’ve found that to be true. I like four try/fails before the big try/succeed. Basically, you want to delay keeping your promises until Act 3 when the reader is begging for them. The harder the MC needs to work for that victory, the sweeter it will be. Although you probably don’t want too many or it would become tedious.

In my story, my MC’s friend is going to die from a virus and it’s up to her to save him. That’s the clear goal she enters into Act 2 with. The try/fails are the two of them sneaking around her parent’s house, and the compound where she lives, looking for the antidote.

A try/fail in a romance would be (let’s say at the end of the Act 1, she’s decided she loves this guy and wants him), then the try/fails would be all the ways she tries to get him, but fails.

There are usually a few try/fails before the turning point (when the novel turns from optimistic to dark), and then at least one try/fail after the turning point, which is pretty pathetic and desperate, and leads to that very dark moment in the novel known as “Dark Night of the Soul.”

The Turning Point

Turning point in fiction is when the story goes from light to darkness, from hope to hopeless, or in the case of tragedy, from hopeless to false hope.

 

The turning point in my novel is when the parents catch the two kids sneaking around. The MC is taken away in a spaceship, never to return. Dark night of the soul…. However, she doesn’t give up! In the second half of Act 2, she wanders around the spaceship and meets an alien who helps her embrace her suppressed alien telepathic abilities, which she eventually uses in Act 3 to tell her friend where the antidote is.

In a romance, the turning point would be when the love interest gets married to another woman. All hope is lost. However, in the second half of Act 2, the MC overhears in her pottery class (her B-Story of self-empowerment and friendship) that the love-interest is unhappy in his new marriage. So the MC shows up, makes a fool of herself, and runs away mortified, but somehow makes an impression on the guy.

The Third Act

The third act is simply keeping your promises in the opposite order you introduced them. The boy uses the antidote and is saved, and saves humanity from the plague. In the romance, the kids come home for Christmas, her cancer is cured, and someone knocks at the door—it’s her man! Tada.

My experience

Although some might say this is pretty detailed plotting, I personally consider this a lot less onerous or complicated than sitting around for months and sometimes years scratching my head wondering what is wrong with my story. Sometimes we know that something is missing, but we can’t find it. That’s been my experience.

I have taken what Mary Robinette taught me at the conference, and built upon that to include what I learned from Joseph Campbell, Christopher Vogler and Blake Snyder (save the cat), as well as the 3-Act Structure, to make a truly unique plotting template that lets me see my entire story on one letter-sized page.

I’ve successfully plotted and written (with very little rewriting) two full novels using this technique in the last eight months. I feel confident I’ve unlocked the code to plotting a novel. Finally! Hallelujah!

If you’re having the same experience as me, with beta-readers saying “Something just isn’t right—something is off. It’s not satisfying,” and you can’t figure out how to fix it, then this might just work for you.

Basically, what I’ve learned is that all good stories follow this plotting technique, although most of them do it intuitively, and that this mirroring effect (and keeping ALL your promises) is what makes a story extremely satisfying for the reader.

The Template

So, here is the template—feel free to use, adapt and share for non-commercial purposes. No email or newsletter sign up needed. Have at ‘er.

MICE Quotient Plotting Template – click here!

The template includes everything I find important while plotting:

  • Space for 12 MICE nesting codes or promises (you don’t need to use all of them. I used 8 for one book and 10 for another)
  • Space for four Act 2 Try/Fails (optional if you want to use them all or just a few)
  • Key features of the 3-Act structure
  • Key Save the Cat beats
  • Approximate word counts for each section

You are welcome!

Further Reading

I’ll be honest, I was in a rush to finish this article and the template, so if something doesn’t make sense, please feel free to get in touch. I will edit and update in the days, weeks, and months ahead, as usual.

 

27 Responses

  1. Charles Thomas says:

    Pretty useful, thanks!

  2. Bonni says:

    I can’t wait to try this!

  3. Guy says:

    Greatly appreciate the template thank you very much

  4. […] ***Save the Cat: The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need. 2005. This is such a great book about story structure with so many concrete, practical tips. I can highly recommend it. If you find it handy, then check out my blog post about plotting.  […]

  5. […] Plot your novel using MICE Quotient and Try/Fail cycles. This is a technique I learned from Mary Robinette Kowal at the Surrey International Writing Conference. This blog post is one of the more popular on my website. There’s a free MICE Quotient plotting template you can download.  […]

  6. Billie says:

    The template is great. I recently heard about MICE and so am just trying it out, but so far it’s helping a lot.

    • Shalon says:

      Thanks for taking a moment to leave a comment, Billie. I’m glad the template is useful. Yes, the nesting codes really nailed plotting for me. I owe it all to Mary Robinette Kowal, so if you want to learn more about it, take a look at Writing Excuses–it’s an awesome writing podcast.

  7. […] Plot your novel using MICE Quotient and Try/Fail cycles. This is a technique I learned from Mary Robinette Kowal at the Surrey International Writing Conference. This blog post is one of the more popular on my website. There’s a free MICE Quotient plotting template you can download.  […]

  8. Alan Marks says:

    I read Card’s book a long time ago and the one thing I still remember is the MICE approach. I’ve always used it since when trying to teach story structure to my writing students. The thing they need to understand is that however you “begin” a story (with whichever of the four MICE options), that is a sort of promise to the reader that that is what the story will be about and what it will “end” with. Start by finding a body (an Idea story–a mystery), you end with the resolution of that mystery. You can have other things nested within that mystery (a Character story where the character needs to grow in order to solve the mystery) but it has to be nested. The way I’ve always put it to students is that it’s like the parentheses in a mathematical formula. If it’s a mystery with character development within it, it begins and ends with the mystery. If it’s a character story but, through the solving of some mystery, they grow as a character, it begins and ends with character. (M+(C+C)+M), or (C+(M+M)+C), respectively. Looking at it like that, you can build any sort of mix of MICE arcs into a story, making it as complex as you want without it being confusing. As long as you aren’t crossing them up (C+(M+C)+M), you can add numerous sub-plots about setting and character and ideas and events and keep it structured in a way where each sub-plot plays a clear role in the larger story.

    • Shalon says:

      Hi Alan,
      Thank you for taking the time to stop by and leaving a comment. So few do. I like the simplicity of your math-style parentheses. It’s very visual and clear. Your students are lucky to have an instructor in creative writing who is willing to look at and teach about tools found in commercial fiction. I know in my university creative writing courses, it’s all about literary fiction and peer editing workshops, and basically that’s it.

  9. […] Plot your novel with MICE Quotient Nesting Codes and Try/Fails (website article) […]

  10. Ann says:

    This is an awesome template!! I do have one question. For each code, are they chapters or scenes?

    • Shalon says:

      Hi Ann,
      The codes do not relate directly to chapters or scenes–they’re promises to your reader, or ideas that you plant in the reader’s head, which need to be wrapped up by the end of the novel.

      I guess you could say that a promise (or story premise/idea) is always contained within a scene, so technically, the codes would be scenes, but not every scene is a promise/code.

      For example, if your story has a scene at the beginning where the orphan protagonist is looking for their father, that is a promise. You are basically saying that the story is about looking for a father, and by the end of the novel, you will have an answer to whether they find their father or not. Ideally this answer will come at the very end of the novel to mirror the opening to your story.

      I do want to say that this mirroring is simply a technique and you don’t need to follow it–it’s just a strategy for your consideration. Often times you might wrap up the promise earlier on in the novel, but that might lead to an even greater complication or idea that drives the story forward. For example, they find their father at the end of the first chapter (mirroring the beginning of the chapter), but they find out that their father is dying of kidney disease and they must decide whether to be a donor. That next premise could drive the entire story, or it could simply lead to the next premise/promise.

      Ideally, though, I believe there should be a premise/promise that overarches the entire novel. That is what we would see as the main conflict/goal of the protagonist, which gets wrapped up during the climax or after the climax.

      • Mandy says:

        Thanks for this explanation! I was worried about the mirrored thing because in my story the main character asks a question early on (Idea) but it’s answered before the end of the first act. The answer is a huge complication involving several MICE threads that takes up the rest of the book. So of course I couldn’t wait until the end of the book to answer the question that kicks off the main plot, and had no idea how to make the story symmetrical! This comment helps clarify how a structure like this could work.

  11. Mary says:

    I’m a plotter so this template is going to be incredibly helpful! I was wondering how you might adapt this to short story structure? How many nesting codes/promises would you use? I think I’m still thinking in scenes/chapters instead of ideas.

    • Shalon says:

      Hi Mary,
      Mary Robinette has a fantastic workshop on nesting codes and short stories. I’ll try to see if I can find a video.

      Okay, here I found one video about nesting codes and short stories. I’m not sure if it’s great quality, but it was all I could find.

      She does offer workshops on her website. She announces them in the Journal (blog) section of her site, but you have to be really quick to catch the registration. Not sure how often she does them. But that video above should be basically the same. I’ve taken that workshop and it’s fantastic.

      Basically, what I know is that short stories will only have a few nesting codes, or a very short story would only have one. For example, micro-fiction would literally only be one open and one close.

      Hopefully that helps!
      Shalon

  12. Ethan says:

    Hi Shalon,

    This was a helpful article. I’ve played around with the MICE quotient before, but I’ve always wanted to dedicate more effort to it. I’ve just gone through the Writing Excuses Master Class on it, and I agree that it is likely going to be a game-changer for me.

    My question is about the try/fail cycles. Is that four cycles in all, or for each MICE thread? If it’s only four in all, how do we ensure that each thread is fully developed? If it’s for each thread, I guess that’s why Mary Robinette warns about how much a single thread can increase the overall story.

    Thanks!

    • Shalon says:

      Hi Ethan,
      I have put my own slant on the try/fail cycles and I don’t believe it corresponds to how Mary uses it (or how it was originally intended). For that matter, I should probably be transparent about that in the article…

      Basically, I see try/fails as separate from the promises (MICE codes) and I see them as being housed primarily in the second act. I think Mary would disagree. I think most writers who are familiar with try/fails would say they happen throughout a novel (not just the second act). There is that technique called Scene & Sequel, where you set up in one scene and then you follow through in the next (action/reaction), and often these result in multiple rounds of try/fails. Character does x, then y happens, which causes character to react with z, which causes q to happen, which…). This is happening throughout a story whether it’s intentional or not.

      However, when I heard about try/fails I had a personal insight into my own novel’s second act, which I suddenly saw as a very large try/fail cycle that was missing a few try/fails. Mary explained in one workshop on try/fails that if you only do one try/fail cycle, the audience will be disappointed (they want complications), and two try/fails can be predictable. Three try/fails can surprise the reader. Four will really pump them up (each time there’s another fail, the tension gets ratcheted) because it’s fairly unexpected to have four try/fails. So you’re playing with the reader’s expectations. Most readers expect the protag will succeed after the second try. When they fail, it’s a surprise. Then the reader expects FOR SURE the protag will succeed after the third try, so if the protag STILL fails, they are absolutely 100% sure that the protag will succeed after the fourth try. When even that goes south, you can create a very meaningful dark night of the soul for the reader.

      The way I see it, you can’t do that kind of extended tension building throughout the novel. If you keep doing try/fails, the novel will be utterly exhausting (though some writers do it, primarily thrillers). So, I tend to see try/fails as really living in the second act. I want to save that desperation and tension for the second half of the second act. So the first few try/fails are fun and games (lighthearted, predictable try/fails). But then it crosses over into the second half of the second act and suddenly those try/fails are no longer funny. They become desperate and lead, ultimately, to that dark night of the soul, which is obviously reserved for the turning point.

      That’s my personal vision of how try/fails work.

      I hope that makes sense for you!

      warmly,
      Shalon

  13. Tema Frank says:

    Sounds like a really helpful way to examine one’s plot. I downloaded the template, but it comes out as a PDF, not a Word document, so I can’t actually edit it. Is there any way to get an editable version? (By the way, I’m curious: you have no direct way to contact you on the site — or if you do it is well-hidden. Is that intentional?) Thanks for the tips!

    • Shalon says:

      Hi Tema—I print out that document when I use it and fill it out by hand. But I like your idea Of having an editable version. I’ll see if I can make one.

      Regarding contact — I had one up for a long time, many years, and I never once received anything but spam from it so I took it down…

      Anyway, thanks for reading my blog and stopping to say hello.

  14. […] the idea of nesting these different elements within your story appeals to you, check out this article by Shalon Sims on the Learning to Grow website. She also provides a very nice template to fold the […]

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