This post is about writing craft, so you can just stop right now if that doesn’t interest you.
I’ve had that book for a looong time, and I’ve read at it several times. But Mary offered a very simple explanation of the MICE concept that sort of blew my mind. I had always thought of the M, I, C, and E as types of stories, but I totally missed that they are more than that: they are structures.
For an excellent overview, check out Karen Woodward’s overview. None of the rest of this will make sense without that.
Even if you’re familiar with MICE, here’s a reminder of what the letters stand for:
Using these structures, let’s take a look at the structure of Die Hard, one of the most awesomest movies—and therefore, scripts—ever! As a bonus, I’ve included a summary analysis of the story from Hans Gruber’s POV.
(You could skip to the summary if you don’t want to relive the whole movie.)
When John McClane arrives in Los Angeles, the limo driver Argyle takes him to the Nakatomi Plaza where he will join his wife at her company’s Christmas party. As they ride Argyle asks why he’s in NY and she’s in LA. John says, “It’s complicated.”
As John is getting out of the car, Argyle poses a scenario, that John will go in and his wife will rush into his arms and everything will be better. To which John replies, “I can live with that.”
And so that all tells me we’re opening with a Character story, that John is dissatisfied with the current situation. He’s living in New York and his wife, Holly, is living in California. (Interestingly, he’s a blue-collar cop, and she’s an ambitious, white-collar executive)
Next, John enters the building, and in doing so enters the Milieu of both of the building itself and also the world his wife has chosen to live in.
So he goes up the elevator and into the corporate Christmas party. At that point he meets up with Holly, and they have a big argument to remind us and them why they are separated. Holly goes off to talk to the other employees at the Christmas party.
Then the bad guys, led by Hans Gruber, arrive and start shooting guns and taking everyone hostage. This is an Event that disrupts the status quo. It sends John McClane running off into the stairwell with no shoes on.
One of the bad guys comes after him, and John kills him and discovers that the bad guy had a bag full of plastic explosives and European cigarettes. John looks at the explosives and says, “Who are these guys?” This opens the Idea story. Two questions are in play: Why do they need the explosives? And who are these guys?
Then we have a middle stretch where John alternately hunts and is hunted by the bad guys. Using a walkie-talkie, he communicates to the outside world through the character of the Al the cop. John ends up having to fight not only the bad guys but the incompetence of the assistant deputy police chief and the FBI jerks.
How does the MICE Quotient reverse and resolve?
Well, John learns that the main bad guy is Hans Gruber. That answers the “who are these guys” to a certain extent. Then John learns that the roof of the building us wired to blow, and thereby kill all the hostages. That answers the what are they going to do with the explosives question. That closes the Idea.
John eventually ends up killing almost all of the terrorists, including Hans Gruber, who falls to his death from a high floor of the building. It’s a false ending to the Event story, because Karl of the long blond hair wasn’t actually killed when John hanged him by the neck from a chain.
John and Holly exit the Milieu by leaving the building through the front door.
Then the Karl comes out in a rage and nearly kills them, but Al (the cop who couldn’t draw his weapon after killing a kid by mistake) shoots Karl. THAT ends the Event story for good, and it establishes a new status quo because the Nakatomi building is in pretty bad shape.
Finally, John and Holly get into Argyle’s limo (the same one John arrived in), and as they drive away, they kiss. This reunion wraps up the Character story as John gets what he came all the way to LA to get.
Here’s the summary
Die Hard MICE structure from John McClane’s POV
- Character opens: John wants to reunite with his wife and put his marriage back together
- Milieu opens: enters building through front entrance
- Event opens: bad guys take everyone hostage and kill some people in a brand new building
- Idea opens: who are these guys, and why do they have plastic explosives and detonators
- Idea closes: They are thieves and they plan to destroy the building
- Event closes: Hostages escape and bad guys killed, new status quo: building pretty much ruined
- Milieu closes: John exits building through front door
- Character closes: gets in same limo he arrived in, but has his wife whom he kisses as credits roll
Now let’s look at the story from the POV of Hans Gruber, the bad guy!
- Character opens: A super-educated European, Hans Gruber, wants to steal millions of dollars worth of negotiable bearer bonds in order to live a life of luxury, but more importantly, he wants to steal them beautifully
- Milieu opens: He enters building through basement loading dock
- Event opens: A non-hostage (John McClane) is running free, is killing Gruber’s men, and has stolen the detonators. This disrupts the status quo of Hans’ plan. In particular, he needs those detonators back!
- Idea opens: Who is this cowboy?
- Idea closes: It’s a New York cop
- Event closes: Hans recovers the detonators and the cop is severely injured. (Remember John running barefoot over shards of glass?) This establishes a new status quo, one acceptable to Hans as time is running out anyway
- Milieu closes: Whoops. Hans exits the building by falling from a top floor, thereby delivering the closing the the Character piece.
- Character closes: Hans fails to steal the bonds and is killed by the cowboy