Story shapes and extrapolation

Recently, I’ve been revisiting this three-mood approach to story patterns (last posted about here Observation Journal — Story Patterns). I will probably continue to do so. [And later edits are indicated with a note and/or italics.]

Current thoughts are that breaking a short story into three big moods has proved useful in several ways. These include:

  • Recording my impression of a short story I’ve read.
  • [Edited to add:] Understanding story structure.
  • Borrowing a cage to trap a story idea, or a frame to train the story to grow on.
  • Guided extrapolation.

I’ve outlined these more below:

(A caveat, as ever, that I use “moodvery broadly, to include mood, texture, tone, trope, attitude, posture, allusion, reaction…)

Recording my impression of a short story.

As a reader: This is fun. I don’t have to find a correct answer. Other people would disagree, and my impressions change from moment to moment — quite often I can think of a few different ways of reading any story. But it’s also an almost tactile way to run my hands over the shape of a story and feel its form. I try not to overthink this process — sometimes I’ll even wait a little while before describing a story, so that what I’m catching is the lingering aftertaste.

There are a few more examples of this at the bottom of the post.

[Edited to add:] Understanding story structure

As a writer: Looking at stories through this lens is helping me to feel my way into a better understanding of standard descriptions of story structure. It’s also been useful for looking at a set of stories (ones that have a certain effect or belong to a peculiar sub-genre) and working out what they have in common, or to find out what makes a story different — what it did, for example, with the concept of a crisis and resolution, or how it succeeded in doing without them.

Borrowing a cage to trap a story idea, or a frame to train the story to grow on.

Sometimes I have an idea (written or drawn) that isn’t quite complete. I can run that idea alongside a few of these outlines, find one which seems to vibrate at the same frequency, and use the three beats of that story-pattern to quickly give some shape to the idea, or fill in parts that aren’t quite complete.

A story about neighbours fighting over an overflowing (cursed) garbage bin, for example, lands in a different way if its shape is unsettlement — deepening horror — the cusp of annihilation than if it’s metaphors all the way down (those shapes are both from this earlier post).

Any three moods, while being my reaction to a story, is so far from the original story that there isn’t any risk of taking from that story. It’s more like… training my ear by listening more closely to many stories, and then learning to transpose music into different keys.

And some mood-progressions very clearly belong to certain modes and genres (you should be easily able to pick some classic genres out of that earlier list, without knowing the stories that suggested them).

[Edited to add:] Working on a story in terms of three big moods also by necessity brings with it the need for the writing to move from one state to another, dragging consequences and meanings and events along with it.

Guided extrapolation.

This is related to the point above, but not quite the same. Occasionally, I need to imagine the consequences of an event or invention (or persuade someone else to).

Sometimes simply listing lots of possible consequences and then picking among them is best.

But if, for whatever reason, that sort of speculative extrapolation or brainstorming is hard or time-consuming, using some story-shapes for guidance can help.

The possible uses and meanings, for example, of “drone delivery” will look very different if you swap them into the “meet cute” section of a rom-com story shape than if you put them into the “lingering alarm” at the end of a Gothic structure.

Simply choosing any single story-trope would probably have this effect, but I’ve been finding that having a story-shape to slot that speculation into gives the exercise a bit more impetus and impact. The mood and genre with which you approach an idea can, after all, affect what you do with it.

Bin night

A few more shapes, as an example

Anyway, here are a few more story shapes, taken from the (spendidly unsettling) stories in issues 14 and 15 of Apparation Lit. Some stories have several outlines, and as I don’t want to accidentally spoil the stories, I’ve listed the titles separately below.

Again, these story-shapes are a musing on my reactions to the stories, rather than any sort of categorical judgement or interpretation of them!

  • awkwardness — proliferation of options — harmony
  • place — rescue — reverse rescue
  • exposure — maturing — acknowledgement
  • discovery — growing up — [vigorous/defiant?] acceptance
  • horror — deterioration — expectation
  • awareness — decadence — acceptance/resignation
  • problem — attempts — solution [this was notable for being closer to a usual explanation of a story shape]
  • petition — solutions — resolution
  • consequences — causes — remedy

The stories (all of which I found to varying degrees fabulous/fascinating/entertaining/deeply unsettling) are:

9 thoughts on “Story shapes and extrapolation

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