With the Adventure Writing Contest coming up, I want to make sure I provide you with easy, accessible tools and information to write the best short story you can!
So, I’ve been digging around the internet for helpful advice, and I came across this great podcast that I’ve been missing out on. Seriously. Missing out! Writing Excuses. This you must check out immediately, my writer friend.
On that note, I’m going to give you some great link/resources and basic notes I took while listening to one particular episode of the Writing Excuses podcast: Season 12 Episode 32: Structuring a Short Piece. You can go to their website to listen or find the podcast on Stitcher (and probably other podcast places too).
The particular episode of the Writing Excuses podcast focused on how to apply Orson Scott Card’s M[A]CE (it’s originally MACE in his case) Quotient to short fiction. Mary Robinette Kowal has designed this fantastic infographic. She adapted the A (Ask/Answer) to I for Idea.
You can buy a poster of it on Zazzle.
The MICE Quotient is something science fiction & fantasy writer Orson Scott Card has coined and can be found mentioned in his book Characters and Viewpoints. MICE stands for Milieu, Idea (Ask/Answer), Character, and Event.
Now that we got all those resources out of the way, here are my notes:
There are four basic elements of story, or the MICE. All stories should have these things in vary degrees, but when writing a short story, you’ll only really have one (possibly two at most. In any story, one will be much stronger(clearer) than the other(s)).
So, breaking these elements or threads down is next. Keep in mind, these frames are sometimes your big, burning question and sometimes they are not, but they will still help drive your story forward.
This element’s focus is the world or journey. On Writing Excuses, they likened it to the the beginning is entering and the end is exiting.
- Example: the MC enters a room and the goal is the exit, the conflict is the struggle to exit, and the resolution is exiting. Or the main character’s quest (enters quest, struggles to get/do _________, gets/does ________, finishes (exits) quest). For this element, ask yourself: what is the primary driving conflict?
Its focus is like a puzzle being explored. There is usually a questioned asked and the goal of this thread is to find the answer. Sometimes an answer can be found early on that leads to an even bigger question or reveals that your character’s original question was, in fact, the wrong question. Usually, mystery stories fall into this category.
The focus of character stories is internal conflict, centering on some aspect of the MC’s self they are not happy with.
- Example: Personal Appearance, Ambition, Love, Coming of Age.
The conflict within the character driven thread is: something is stopping the character from achieving a self-definition they are satisfied with. The ending comes when they either transition to a self-definition they are satisfied with or come to the conclusion that they are doomed, as in “this is who I am.”
Here the external status quo has been disrupted.
- Examples are asteroid coming at earth, getting fired, almost anything action/adventure related.
These stories end when a new status quo or some other resolution has been reached. Event threads will often introduce the character element quite naturally.
- Example: the MC gets fired which could mess with his self-definition. The conflict in the event thread is whatever is stopping the character from reaching a new status quo.
The chart above is super helpful and concise!
Mirror the beginning and the ending, which will help you as the writer ensure the story heads in the right place.
Short fiction should not try for more than two of these threads. Overly complicating a story will make it longer, and we want short stories! During the podcast episode of Writing Excuses, they gave an example from the original Star Trek (“Galileo Seven”) where Spock and a team go to a planet and must get back to the ship, but they are trapped on the planet (Milieu). During the episode, Spock must learn (Character) that logic won’t always work. The writers of the episode used a conversation on the ship to bookend the story using what Spock thought about logic and learned about intuition while on the planet. It has two of the threads but the main framework of the piece centered on the Milieu thread with an underlying element of Character.
For a great use of this structure in short fiction, see Mary Robinette Kowal’s Hugo nominated “Evil Robot Monkey.”
Think yes, but/no, and while writing anything. The goal of this is to set up obstacles that make the story more exciting.
- Princess Bride Example: Yes, Inigo Montoya finds the six-fingered man, but guards get in the way. No, he doesn’t kill him right away, and he has to chase him down a hall. Yes, Inigo catches up, but the six-fingered man bars the door. No, he can’t open it himself, and he has to call for his friend’s help. Yes, Fezzik knocks the door down, but Inigo must battle the six-fingered man on his own…and so on.
Your story doesn’t have to have this back and forth, it can be a lot of “yes, but” in a row before you get to a “no, and” (and vice versa), but the point is to make things difficult for your character.
A lot of times in short fiction, it is okay for your story to NOT ask the big, burning question, and you let your reader ask the question themselves. Also, it can work the opposite in short fiction, where you don’t always have to answer the question. Often, a writer might let the reader answer the question themselves. This works for short fiction, but not with novel length stuff, so keep that in mind. Use this advice sparingly, I’d say.
Here’s what the authors on Writing Excuses suggested for homework:
- Take one MICE element for a story and ask then answer three questions:
- Where does the story open?
- What is the major conflict (what type of conflict)?
- Where does the story end up?
- Do the same for a second MICE element.
- Nest the answers to those questions.
- This becomes a six sentence outline for your story.
- example: if you’re elements are ask/answer and character: start with the ask/answer element, introduce the character element, close the character element, then close out the ask/answer element.
- Do it again, but flip ’em!
- character then ask/answer, close out ask/answer, then close out character element.
Hopefully these notes and the extra resources are helpful as you dive into writing your short story for the upcoming contest. If you have questions, I’d be happy to help. And as always, if I don’t know the answer, I will help find it!
In a day or two I’ll be going over the idea of brevity in fiction writing, too, so hopefully that will help. You can find another episode of Writing Excuses that discusses this topic here: How to Be Brief, Yet Powerful.
Have a great weekend!
Please leave a comment, question, or idea! I’d love to chat!