Of MICE and Murder

Listeners of the Writing Excuses podcast are probably familiar with Orsen Scott Card’s MICE quotient, which categorizes elements of your story as Milieu, Inquiry, Character, or Event.

But I want to talk about a different MICE—one that’s uniquely relevant to the murder mystery writer, and borrowed from counter-espionage strategies developed during World War II.

MICE describes the four primary motives driving someone to commit espionage: Money, Ideology, Coercion, and Ego. These are still the central focus of security clearance investigations in the U.S. They also happen to be, on a higher level, the same primary motives driving someone to commit murder.


Murder for money means more than just paid assassins. Your murderer could want their inheritance a little earlier than expected. They could want to protect their assets in a divorce. They could want the contents of their victim’s wall-safe or a particularly valuable piece of jewelry. While this is probably one of the most common motives for murder in the real world, it can also be too simplistic on its own, and unsatisfying for your reader without layering more complex motives, such as Ego or Ideology.


Ideology is a complex motive for murder that lets you, as author, explore broader societal conflicts and dig deeply into darker premises. Is there a deep schism in your murderer’s religious community and they must kill their opponent “for the greater good?” Did the victim betray their community and way of life? Are they an interloper who threaten the community’s traditions? Is your murder a hate crime?* You can see how this motive is strong enough to hold it’s own, but it also layers well with other motives, particularly Ego.


This is the motive that I find writers using when they want their murderer to be sympathetic. Usually, the murderer is being blackmailed, exploited, or abused, and the only way out is by killing the person who controls their fate. Another common twist on this motive is for the murderer to be a pawn for someone else, coerced into murdering someone to protect their own life or (more sympathetically) their family or loved ones. This allows the murderer to remain a decent person in the eyes of the reader/viewer, because the decision to kill arose from sheer desperation or self-preservation.


While this motive stands alone, it also works as a second layer for any of the other motives. Ego involves the preservation of a person’s self-image, rather than physical self-preservation. Perceived disrespect drives these murderers, because their own self-image is fragile enough that if they allow the disrespect, it makes them question their worth, attractiveness, competence, or status. It allows you as a writer to play with social status, societal hierarchies, and even toxic gender, class, and relationship roles.

Ego is what drives your murderer to kill their cheating spouse (or their lover), or the person who rejected their intimacy. Some motive models list these crimes as “love” or “passion,” but it’s important to understand that what’s really driving the murder is the person’s bruised ego and self-image. They are angry over the hurt and feel diminished. They need to assert dominance and control. That has nothing to do with love.

How to use MICE

Murders are personal. They’re visceral, and the stakes should be high. But once you determine your murder motive, understanding the underlying MICE drivers will help you make that motive realistic, consistent, and clear. Murders are often executed with baroque complexity, but the psychological drive behind the decision to kill is what makes your murderer interesting.

*If you are using an ideology motive that affects a real-world marginalized group, please make sure you consult with an expert from within that group to ensure you are not falling into a lazy writing role of exploitation or stereotype.

3 Writing Lessons from Dungeons and Dragons

Tabletop role-playing games (RPGs) have a lot to teach you about writing. You create characters and tell a collaborative story in real time, so of course it’s good practice for your novel! Taking away the setting elements (fantasy, sci-fi, horror), you find lessons that apply to any writer in any genre. Here are the first three that come to mind.

1. Think in Combat Rounds

Whenever an important scene is happening in an RPG (Combat, traps, or any other dangerous encounter) game play is broken down into “rounds.” In each round, every player has an opportunity to take an action. Maybe that action is to hold back and wait, or maybe they’ve been badly injured and their action is “be unconscious,” but everyone has a chance to chime in or check-in every round.

When something important is happening in your story, where are the characters and what are they doing? Too often, the action or conversation narrows down to a couple of characters, and everybody else “disappears” from the scene for several pages. That can be somewhat effective for a romantic dramatic first meeting, where everyone metaphorically disappears from the character’s world for a moment. In most cases, however, every character present will be present and taking some sliver of the narrative awareness. Like in games, they can pass on acting for a round or two, but if three things happen (conversational lines, actions, events) with no reaction from a character in a scene, consider whether they need to be present at all.

Not everybody needs to have a starring role in every scene, mind you. We’re talking about a cough here, a quip there, a brief facial expression a la mode. When you’re having a conversation with other people present, you’re at least somewhat aware of who’s around you and what they’re doing. Your main character should have the same situational awareness. It helps us readers really immerse ourselves in a complete, detailed scene. It makes the scene real.

2. Actions Take Time

In Dungeons and Dragons, a “round” is considered to be about six seconds long. This limits how much you can get done in a single round. Generally, you can move about five to ten feet and then interact once with something or someone (e.g. cast a spell, swing a sword). Things that take very little time or can be done at the same time as moving or interacting, such as dropping an item or a short line of dialogue, are “free actions.” These can be taken in moderation alongside your movement and interaction.

This limitation is a valuable guide for scenes in your book. If Bob fires a gun at Jane, he does not have time to recite a five page monologue and run across a football field before Jane takes some action of her own. Maybe Bob has a killer monologue (pun intended) and you really want to work it in. That’s fine, but not uninterrupted. If he’s holed up in a hiding spot and shouting his fine speech, Jane should be responding, strategizing how to get to him or flush him out, addressing her wounds if she’s bleeding, and maybe taking the occasional pot shot of her own. She shouldn’t disappear from the scene, or stand frozen to give him time to monologue. Would you give him that time if it were you? Bob might not manage to kill Jane, but taking Jane out of the scene for several pages certainly kills the tension.

3. Nobody Enjoys a Railroad

I’m not talking about actual trains, which are pretty fun. I’m talking about a moment in an RPG where the characters are forced to a certain location or action, against their will, because it’s convenient to the overall plot. It’s called “railroading” in game terms, because the plot becomes a fixed path the characters must follow (like the rails for a train). This takes away their agency and ability to create the story collaboratively on their own terms.

“But,” Paladin Jane protests, “there’s no reason for my character to take a job guarding this slaver caravan. It goes against everything she believes.”

“Well, the next encounter in the module happens while you’re guarding the caravan. So if you don’t do it willingly I’m going to have your character arrested on a trumped-up charge and sentenced to guard the caravan. And you can’t free the slaves, because we need them for the last scene in the game.”

At this point, the player isn’t enjoying the game, the DM isn’t enjoying the game, and the reader of this story is side-eyeing the whole operation. This is a particular pitfall for plotters, who set out major events in the story ahead of time, then write to fill in the outline. Yes you need to get the characters to Point 15 in the outline. But make sure Point 15 is someplace your character would naturally want to go. Nothing makes me want to put a book down faster than a character acting contrary to their nature for the convenience of the plot. That kind of deviation needs some selling. It needs consistency. You need to set up their motivation for this decision several chapters in advance, so that it seems like a natural step to take. It needs to make sense, not according to the writer’s perspective, but the character’s. If you can’t do that, you might need a different character, or a different plot.

What character or storytelling lessons do you take from RPGs?

Three P’s of Writer’s Block

It happens to every writer. You get to a point somewhere in the middle of the book and the plot that has been rolling merrily along simply evaporates. Where do we go from here? It’s an intensely discouraging moment for all of us. In some cases, it can even convince people to put their writing down for good.

But it isn’t always as hopeless as it seems. There are three questions you can ask yourself that might help beat the block.

1. Is it Physical?

Our brains and bodies are not separate. Writers are notorious for immersing themselves in a project and ignoring the body’s demands. Sooner or later, though, the body says no more! The first thing you should do when you’re blocked is a quick physical assessment. Are you hungry? Dehydrated? Sleepy? Sore from sitting in one position too long? Does your head hurt from staring at a screen? Do you have to pee? Are you coming down with a cold?

Give yourself a break to address your body’s needs. Eat something sustaining (protein, fiber, fat). Drink some water.  Take a stretch break. Put on an upbeat song and dance like only your cat is judging you. Go for a walk. Go to bed early and try again tomorrow.

2. Is it Pressure?

This is especially a problem for people with very little time to write. When you can only squeeze in half an hour of writing time between work, classes, and kids, anything that interferes with it has an outsized impact. We’re also under pressure to produce. How many words today? How many chapters edited? How many queries sent? This keeps us motivated, but the stress can also actively interfere with the creative process.

Writing is a long game, and a sustainable pace is more important than a high word count. If you only have a half hour to write, it’s better to get twenty good minutes in than thirty bad ones. Take ten minutes and do something completely different to clear your mind. Take a walk. Take a shower. Meditate. Don’t get on social media or read…let your mind actually relax from the effort of creating. Don’t think about your writing at all, if you can help it. As Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi teaches us in “Creativity and Flow,” our brain sometimes does its best work when we’re not trying to make it work.

Make sure your goals and expectations are sustainable. If you are continuously blocked and frustrated trying to produce 400 words a day, try shooting for 200. If you do more than that, great! But a reachable goal removes a lot of pressure, and a relaxed mind is a creative one.

3. Is it Plotting?

This is a particular problem for pantsers, but plotters are not immune. You reach the end of a scene in your book, and suddenly have no idea how to get the characters where you want them to go next! Everything you try seems awkward or forced. It’s chapter three, and the book seems to want to end right here.

This is a plotting problem. It usually means you’ve wrapped up a conflict too early in the story, and need to delay its resolution for a while longer. You could also go back and introduce a new conflict before this point to carry the story forward. Always ask if your characters are miserable enough! Yes, we love them. But in the immortal words of Urgl, “It has to hurt if it’s to heal.”  When you resolve a conflict, you remove tension. When you add or prolong a conflict, you add tension. Don’t drop your tension too soon, and it will prevent these “early ending” moments.

What other suggestions have you heard to beat writer’s block?

No, People Won’t Like Your Book

I was browsing Twitter yesterday, and came across a post from someone I really admire.  They were complaining about romance arcs in mystery novels, and vice-versa. I looked at my fresh new fragile baby of a first novel, which has both mystery and romance arcs, and winced.  The rest of the conversation was a series of complaints that tore at every trope and element of my writing, and of books I enjoy reading. It was pretty devastating, since I haven’t quite developed the thick skin of authorship yet.

But then my partner gave me some words that completely shifted how I look at writing. “Even if you make the New York Times Bestseller list and sell millions of copies, more people will always dislike your book than will like it.”

Just to be clear, this wasn’t him downing my book in particular, which he thinks is the bee’s knees.  It was a general statistical statement.  People have very specific likes and dislikes.  Not everybody reads. Some people only read one genre, or are very particular about which books they like. Some people will dislike your main character.  Some people will think your ending stinks. Some people will hate your book because their pastor or co-worker find something offensive in it. Some people will hate on your books for the sole fact that it is popular. It is impossible that everyone will like it.

This isn’t meant to be depressing. It’s meant to be liberating. It’s a careful balancing act to decide whether to include something in your book that people find objectionable. If you’re looking to please everyone, you will inevitably fail. This is not meant to excuse racism, misogynism, or other bigotry that turns away readers en masse. But the bottom line is that you can’t actually write the mythical perfect book your anxiety tells you you need to write.  You only need to write the book you want to read.