Story shapes — three-mood stories

This post is a running list of three-mood (or three-note) short story shapes I’ve found interesting (for writing and art). I’m gathering the list here for future reference and extension.

I will update & refine this from time to time. 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.

ordinaryinklingconfirmation
reluctanceengagementdeepening
humorous sketchelements clash/conflagrationfall out
inklingbuildreveal-behind-the-story
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
fragmentsfacetswhole
situationfailuressuccesses
doorsomething throughpushed back
metaphormetaphormetaphor
suspicionpeel backtruth & consequences
awkwardnessproliferation of optionsharmony
placerescuereverse-rescue
exposurematuringacknowledgement
discoverygrowing up[vigorous/defiant?] acceptance
horrordeteriorationexpectation
awarenessdecadenceacceptance/resignation
problemattemptssolution
petitionsolutionsresolution
consequencescausesremedy

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. Your mileage may vary — I’m used to thinking about stories through stories, and biting my way out of them from the inside. This three-mood approach to understanding stories is better suited to how I think and it’s helped me understand structures better. But it might not be for you!

Couldn’t this be distilled down to One True Story Shape? Sure? I enjoy looking for the Key to All Mythologies as much as anyone, but I don’t personally find it particularly helpful for making new stories. You do you. (Also problem — attempts — solution is commonly cited as a standard story-shape, but I’ve turned it up very rarely in this exercise).

Novels? Short stories. (I mean, go for it — so far I’ve only used this in reading, writing and drawing small stories, and trying to understand how they function as discrete objects.)

What does “mood” mean? Anything I want it to. Mood/note/vibe/point/aesthetic/gesture. But broadly, I mean the feeling of that section of the story, which carries the story along and changes into 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.

Are there only three moods in a story? No. You could granulate it even further. But three is easy 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.

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 trying to keep a better list — if you’re interested in seeing more of a specific breakdown, let me know.

Some related posts:

Note: If you’d like to support art and writing and posts like this about it, I have a Patreon account (patreon.com/tanaudel) and patrons there get behind-the-scenes process and sneak-peeks, starting from US$1, or you could buy me a (virtual) coffee at ko-fi.com/tanaudel (and I get through quite a bit of coffee).And/or check out prints and products available at Redbubble and Spoonflower.

4 thoughts on “Story shapes — three-mood stories

  1. Pingback: Concordia Lutheran College residency | Kathleen Jennings

  2. Pingback: Observation journal — getting meta with story structures #2 | Kathleen Jennings

  3. Pingback: December 2021 — round-up of posts | Kathleen Jennings

  4. Pingback: Breaking down stories — variations | Kathleen Jennings

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