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.
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:
- Milieau (environment, setting, atmosphere)
- Idea (question, mystery)
- Character (their internal problems, goals)
- 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
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.
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.
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.
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!
- The Center for the Study of Science Fiction has a great breakdown of each of the MICE codes with examples.
- This episode of Writing Excuses Podcast from 2011 features Mary Robinette walking through the MICE Quotient.
- How a 3-time Hugo Winner learned to Write Great Stories – An Interview with Mary Robinette Kowal In this article, Mary Robinette talks about how the MICE quotient unlocked novel writing for her.
- An excellent infographic Mary Robinette made that describes the MICE Quotient codes in a very clear way.
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.