Breaking down stories — variations

I’ve been reading stories and posting three-mood story breakdowns in a long thread over on Twitter. As I work out what I’m saying, it will make its way into blog posts, but you can find the thread (with typo) here:

Lauren Bajek asked if I ever play with a different number than three.

The answer is definitely yes. The three-mood approach feels like just the right size for general and high-level purposes (encountering, extrapolating). It’s also very portable — easy to remember and adapt, just long enough to give a sweep of movement, a sketch of the ride the story takes the reader on.

However, for particular purposes, or to really get to grips with a specific story, or to splint a draft onto a fairy tale when fixing it, I also like to break stories down further.

So e.g. if I’m looking for a story to map a draft onto, I’ll list out a few fairytales and look for ones which roughly echo what I’ve done, and then list their various big moods/events/stages (then look for places where I could adjust mine).

Here are some examples from a recent project, where I was seeking (a) a fairy tale that echoed something I’d already written, and (b) the places where the fairy tale and my story didn’t match.

Breakdowns of Toads & Diamonds; Edward Gorey’s The Doubtful Guest

In this case, it’s not about adapting a pre-existing story. It’s about finding a story that successfully did the thing I was trying to do, and looking at how it wears its socks, and then pulling my story’s socks up.

For example, if I had a story with a guest arriving, staying, and being accepted with polite passivity, that might work just fine. But if it wasn’t sparking, and I compared it to The Doubtful Guest, then I could see that making the guest somewhat chaotic (as well as unexpected) would increase the tension on the other parts.

Breakdowns of “The Princess and the Pea”, the story of Daphne, the (various) bone harp stories, and Goldilocks.

These examples focus more on interactions than moods, but that was what I was examining. If I was looking more at, e.g, family patterns, or settings, I’d break them down differently.

For example, take Goldilocks. Above, focusing on broad interactions, I broke down the key events as:

  • Family goes out
  • Goldilocks sneaks in
  • Goldilocks destroys things
  • Goldilocks makes herself at home
  • Family returns
  • Goldilocks flees

If I was working on a story about a family under attack, I might look at something different. Perhaps (and this will vary according to how sympathetic the characters are intended to be):

  • Family unified & secure
  • Individual leaves own people
  • Individual intrudes into family space
  • Lone individual forces a place for itself
  • Lone individual undermines family
  • Family consults among itself
  • Family evicts lone individual

Or if it was about setting, I might pick out the way the world outside is a blank, a nebulous mist from and into which bears and children periodically (de)materialise.

  • Group departs lit stage
  • Individual arrives on stage
  • Individual ricochets off walls / engages with set
  • Group returns to stage and exclaims
  • Individual flees stage (pursued as appropriate)

Or you could do it focussing on domestic activities, or morality, or…

If I were doing the three-moods on it (depending on the telling, where most of the heavy lifting is done), it might be any of the following (or other takes):

  • discovery — investigation — catastrophe
  • presumption — destruction — comeuppance
  • intrusion — violation — vengeance
  • unbearable inquisitiveness — unsatisfied desire — giddy flight
  • security — consumption — dismay

You can read more about the three-mood breakdowns here: Story Shapes — Three-Mood Stories. And there are a couple of other posts about mixing and matching that are related: Observation journal — mix and match, and Observation Journal: Mixing and matching stories and imagery.

And the running thread of short story takes starts over on Twitter, here:

4 thoughts on “Breaking down stories — variations

  1. Pingback: January 2022 — round-up of posts | Kathleen Jennings

  2. Pingback: January 2022 Big Giant Three-Mood Story Reading Thread | Kathleen Jennings

  3. Pingback: Story shapes — three-mood stories | Kathleen Jennings

  4. Pingback: Observation Journal: Mapping movements in stories | Kathleen Jennings

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