An observation journal page from my birthday last year, in which — while very full of cake — I attempted to think about the shapes of short stories (written and drawn).
All that needs to be written about story structure probably has been. Personally I suspect that, as with art composition, “be deliberate” does a lot of the heavy lifting. (That said, Kim Wilkins (through the University of Queensland and the Novelist’s Bootcamp) and Angela Slatter have taught me most of the practical side of structure, and I recommend both).
But (to the despair of friends and mentors) I understand things best by thinking/blundering my way into them, and sometimes the act of reinventing of the wheel is more valuable than the individual wheel itself. This page began a series of exercises tinkering with how stories work in my head.
First, I applied observations to a structure:
- I drew a table of the second-most basic story outline: Beginning — Middle — End.
- Next I filled each cell randomly with observations from some of the left-side journal pages.
- Then I thought about which ones felt like a story, and what sort of moods/actions were happening in the sections.
Then I made a list of those moods/actions. Some were suggested by the table above (e.g. a beginning in which something is squeaking in the breeze felt a bit ominous). Some I’d observed in other favourite short stories. Here’s the (non-comprehensive) list:
- Formation of goal
- Foreshadow doom
- Quiet progression towards goal
- Red herring
- Proceed towards doom
- Something [gets] through
- Peel back
- Twist (of plot or knife)
- Achieves goal
- [Evade] doom
- HEA [Happily Ever After]
- Pushed back
- Truth & consequence
Finally, I rearranged those elements into a story outline: Beginning — Middle — End. I made notes on what stories (existing or otherwise) those evoked. For example, “Foreshadowed doom — Facets — HEA” suggested a sort of Sliding Doors / Run Lola Run situation.
This page has been useful for a number of reasons:
- It kicked off an occasional series of thoughts on plots I like (more to come on this).
- It’s been helpful for teasing initial ideas out into more of a story shape.
- It’s been useful for adjusting and restructuring ideas.
- It’s a reminder of the importance of movement, because at the very least the story has to get from one mood to the next.
- It gives me a working framework that I understand from the inside out.
- It’s helped me get a lot better at reading stories and noticing what the author is doing, and talking about it.
- Pick a few stories (written or drawn or a single very narrative illustration) you like, or have encountered lately.
- Think of how they start, continue, and finish. With a lot of illustrations and some very short stories, some of those aspects are implied.
- Jot down a list of the big mood/effect/movement of each section.
For example, I’m looking at the cover of Dungeon Critters right now, and you could say that it starts in ominous shadow and proceeds through vigorous confusion into overwhelming luminousness. Or perhaps it begins in a cavern and proceeds through a fight through brambles to threatening reward. There isn’t a correct answer — it’s a matter of how you see stories.
- Now pick three entries from your list (or mine above) and assign them to “beginning”, “middle”, and “end”. (You can read anything as a metaphor.)
- Consider whether you know any other stories/images that would fit that model?
- Could you invent a story that would suit that shape? If you’re stuck for ideas, pick something innocuous you’ve seen today (a deliveryman? someone making toast?) and apply it to the story. Do a quick sketch (written or drawn) of the idea.
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