Story shapes — three-mood stories

Update: Here are all the 2022 short story posts (general and topical)

Last biggish update to this post: 19 February 2022 but see also the subsequent posts above

Edit: This post was meant to be a running list of three-mood (or three-note) short story shapes I’ve found interesting (for writing and art). But the list got very long. So I’ll gather the links here instead, for future reference and extension. And this post will continue to be updated and clarified as I go.


Many short stories (and other story-shaped pieces of writing) can be described as a pattern of three big moods (broadly defined). Vignettes and slices of life have one or two primary moods; novellas and novels have more complex structures. But a pattern of three main moods contains the shape and motion needed for a short story (initial run and take off; billowing glide; pulling it all back to ground in a story shape). They hold together in a story-shape, by something like surface tension.

Three-mood story shapes are a quick tool for reading and making notes on a story without needing to (consciously) do a deep analysis, “get” its meaning, assess its quality, or decide whether I like the story. It’s a handy way to pin down what the story is doing, and how, and can lead to more complex observations.

It’s also useful for writing. Taking an image or a concept and dropping it into a three-mood pattern helps to draw an idea out into a story shape (in something like capillary action). The idea flows to fill its container. It’s a way to hack intuition, to quickly get a feeling for the shape a story might take.

There are further explanations at the bottom of the post, along with links to related and previous posts. Let me know if you have any questions.

A collection of story-shapes from the early notes

humorous sketchelements clash/conflagrationfall out
worlddeeperdissolve into it
unsettlementdeepening horrorthe cusp of annihilation
ominouscompoundedtwist (of plot or knife)
formation of goalquiet progression towards goalachievement of goal
inklingred herringsolution
foreshadow doomproceed towards doom[evade] doom
meet cutecomplicationhappily ever after/for now
doorsomething throughpushed back
suspicionpeel backtruth & consequences
awkwardnessproliferation of optionsharmony
discoverygrowing up[vigorous/defiant?] acceptance
appearancepersistancedismissal (from unexpected quarter)
a nefarious planthe consequences of successan attempt to undo
a careless additionan eerie consequencea lingering discomfort
initial distressincreasing stress reveals worldbrief interaction sealing humanity
odd affectiondual-track distressstrange discomfort

More information and ways to use this

Background/caveats: I find “beginning — middle — end”, three-act structures, etc, more useful as a diagnostic tool than as a starting point for storytelling. I find they risk becoming clinical and mechanical (your mileage may vary). I like thinking about stories through stories, feeling my way through, and biting my way out of them from the inside. This three-mood approach is better suited to how I think. It’s helped me understand structures better, appreciate many more short stories, capture ideas, and write.

Couldn’t this be distilled down to One True Story Shape, though? Doesn’t it mean essentially “beginning — middle — end”? It could be boiled down, of course, and of course it tracks to those structures. But I find that degree of reduction leads to cold analysis and lifeless stories when I do it (not that I don’t enjoy looking for the Key to All Mythologies as much as anyone). Also “beginning — middle — end”, or “problem — attempts — solution”, and so forth, don’t always describe how those parts of a given story feel. In fact, those patterns only occasionally show up as a three-mood structure (although they do appear from time to time). As for writing using the three moods, the elements that are necessary to a “beginning” tend to self-populate, once an idea is dropped into a story shape. And then those traditional structures are very useful for editing.

What about novels? Short stories can be held together by surface tension, and three moods is just enough to give one shape. Novels are definitely affected by moods, but they need more complex structures to hold them up. And then, of course, there are vignettes, slice-of-life fiction, and so forth, which are beautiful and worthy modes but tend to have only one or two main moods. Mostly I’m looking at short stories, but it’s been interesting to see the ways in which vignettes and story shapes can be stacked into longer pieces.

How are you defining a “short story”? These definitions always get a bit circular. I break short stories down into three moods / short stories are things that can be broken down into three moods… Basically, I’m reading things that have been published as short stories, and mostly they break down neatly, while things published as other things (vignettes, novellas, etc) tend to have something else going on (fewer distinct moods; many vignette/story-shaped components connected).

What about short stories with complicated structures? So far, this has worked on stories built of mini-chapters, multiple viewpoints, lists, instructions, stories told backwards, variable chronologies, poetry, found-correspondence stories, etc. It’s pretty structure-agnostic, as far as reading goes. I think it would be easy to default to a linear telling when using three moods to guide writing, but as long as you’re aware of this, it shouldn’t be a trap. I’m beginning to understand how it works to tighten stories with fragmentary structures.

What does “mood” mean? I’m using it very broadly! It can mean mood/note/vibe/point/aesthetic/gesture. Basically, I mean the big feelings which carry the story along before passing the baton to the next mood. Decadence flowing inevitably into resignation, or an appreciation of a world leading someone to dig deeper (perhaps too deep). That implied movement from one mood to the next is vitally important, but also fairly self-evident.

How do you find the moods? After I read the story, I consider my reactions. Are there three big obvious moods? Often there are. But there are others ways to look for them — and sometimes I’m looking for a particular variant (how the story accomplished something with its character or world or language). But here are a few things I sometimes consider:

  • Overall vibe
  • Tone
  • My personal response/reaction (what I felt, or suspect the writer wanted me to feel)
  • Aesthetic
  • Emotions/experience of main character/s
  • Preoccupations/aims of characters
  • What the story is doing with X (e.g. with the material it’s retelling, or a particular viewpoint)
  • Pace
  • Thirds (what happens in each third of the story — moods don’t always change at that point, but checking this transition point in a trickier story often clarifies things)

I don’t tend to look for the moods as I read. I just read the story, and then think back on it.

Are there only three moods in a story? No. You could granulate it even further and I often do, when I really want to get to grips with a particular story, or want to borrow the bones of a classic tale for a retelling (see: breaking down stories — variations). But three is an easy number to hold in the mind, and tends to make room for most of the short stories I’ve tried it on, and implies enough transition of some sort (of action, emotion, experience, etc.) to create movement through a short story.

Do certain types of stories use certain shapes? I have noticed some classic patterns — ghost stories, romances, mysteries, stories about sorrow, science fiction romps… Sometimes similar patterns occur, at varying strengths. They seem to be strongest in stories very deliberately operating in particular pulp modes, or pastiches. Those established patterns are useful for quickly creating an effect (using “door — thing through it — lingering dread” to expand a Gothic idea, for example). But just as frequently stories will use other patterns, and it’s not uncommon for an expected progression to be subverted. The final note is sometimes the clearest genre key: you could use a “meet cute — complications — happily united” pattern to tell a horror story, but the final sentence would probably have a slightly different tone than in a romance.

What do you mean by the final note? The final note of a story isn’t the same thing as a mood, although it can definitely harmonise with it (or be deliberately discordant). It’s that lingering sense of unease, or horror, or peace, or sentiment, or satisfaction you’re left with after the story lands and turns itself off. This can occasionally be fairly specific to a genre. Literary stories seem to end more on a note of “so it is” while horror tends to “God forbid it should be so” and science fiction and fantasy to various degrees of “what if it didn’t need to be that way? or what if it were this way?” And you might not want to end a capital-R romance with a sense of “happily ever after… but what’s that scratching at the window?” (or maybe you do!). But there’s a lot of overlap and experimentation and drift. I don’t need to know a story’s final note to use the three-mood structure. But occasionally being deliberate about the final note helps me focus. But thinking about final notes in novels and short stories kicked off this whole process of thinking about moods.

Here are a few ways to use this approach for writing and illustrating (and possibly other shortish forms of storytelling):

  • Analyse a story: After reading a short story, try to distil it into three big moods. These will be subjective, and you could quite easily do more than one version. It’s a useful way to compress both the story and your personal reaction to it into something you can examine.
    • Sometimes this is easier a little while after you’ve read the story, when the details have softened with distance.
  • Make your own list: Keep repeating the step above. This way, you’ll also have a deeper understanding of what you mean by the moods (and why), and why you like particular story-shapes.
  • Develop an idea: Take an idea (or image/object/aesthetic). Pick a story-progression you like.
    • Drop the idea into one of the three slots. See what ideas that suggests for the other two slots.
      • E.g. say you choose “fragments — facets — whole” and your idea is a bicycle courier on a penny-farthing bicycle.
        • Does that idea feel like a fragment? In that case, what else is going on in the world — other anachronisms? And then why — what’s the whole story? Time travel? These are the last bicycles built to last? This is likely to be a world-building story, widening out from a glimpse of an individual.
        • Or is the anachronistic (but jaunty) bicycle courier a larger facet of the story? What are the original glimpses which are made sense of by this magnificent personage? And how does their world fit them? This is less character-focussed, and personally it’s the idea that attracts me least.
        • Or if the solution and reward of the story is the realisation of the reality of this tweed-clad courier, then the first two sections might be about building up the puzzle, the oddities and idiosyncrasies of this person (an ever so slightly jarring day-in-the-life), before letting the reader know what they’re actually riding. This is more of a twist ending.
        • (This approach work equally for an illustration — either a three-panel story or a way to choose a scene to illustrate).
    • Once you have images to match those three moods, you’ll probably need to consider the links and impetus, how each connects and moves on to the next. This is fun and fairly self-explanatory.
  • Strengthen a story: Think of a story you are working on. Look for a story-shape that appeals to you and/or resonates with the draft. See where you could strengthen the story by enhancing (or being more deliberate about) some of those moods.
    • Note: Some of these story shapes are more common in certain genres. You can pick a shape that obviously suits the type of story you’re working with. “Door – something through it — pushed back (with lingering knowledge)” is a very common old-school ghost story structure (it fits most of my favourite M.R. James stories).
    • But you don’t need to find an ‘appropriate’ shape — it’s fun to work against the grain. You could, for example, tell/illustrate a fairy-tale romance with a mood of gathering horror.
  • Reinterpret/riff on a story: Pick an existing story (or one you’re illustrating) and choose the WRONG mood progression, and retell/illustrate it according to that.
  • Remix: Randomly select three moods and find a story-shape you want to play with (resolution — horror — meet cute?). Or randomly select three images to drop into a particular story-shape, and try to make them work as a story.
  • Shortcuts: This has been useful for getting people who aren’t used to thinking in terms of narrative structure to quickly develop a story.

Which short stories are these based on? I haven’t included the reference-stories in this post because some of these progressions are spoilers and a few are very vague memories, and some of them are extremely subjective interpretations — my personal reactions to a story I knew was intended to create a different effect, but had an unintended but intriguing impact on me. Further, many shapes are distilled from or common to a genre or style. I’m keeping better lists now!

Some related posts:

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