Short stories: Rites and rituals and structure

Ballpoint drawing of a tawny frogmouth on a wire

As part of this year’s short story reading project, I’ve been noticing the strong structural and structuring pull rite or rituals exert on stories.

Structurally (and that’s how I’m talking about them in this post), rituals can be a way to first summon a story and peel apart a world, and then at the end to stitch through many layers, to mend and make new. And of course ritual brings with it layers of language, formulation, knowledge, history, time, family, the numinous brushing the physical, a way of altering the world or being acknowledged and changed by it, and (rendered bureaucratic) all the ways that can be made soulless.

This post is lengthy… (among other things, after the initial draft I injured myself in a way that made editing very difficult).

Where to find the stories

Stories should link back to where they are first discussed on this blog (and from there, to where you can read them).

Writing (or possibly illustration) activities

I’ve threaded through a bunch of dot-point ideas for ways to play with rituals to structure a story (or inform illustration). See also this post on Inventing Rites and Rituals. The illustrators might have to work a bit harder this time to translate activities to art (it is a short story post) but I have faith in you.

What do I mean by rite or ritual?

Caveat: I am looking at how rituals interact with story structure, rather than specific invented or real rituals. There are obviously a lot of things to consider, from all sorts of directions, when using real rituals — that’s one reason for the post on inventing them.

As usual I’m using terms broadly. For the purposes of this post, I mean:

  1. a rite/ritual/invocation/ceremony/sacrament etc fairly explicitly identified as such in the story (in so many words, or analogously), and/or
  2. a discrete, coherent sequence of actions (usually more than just a sacrifice/offer)
    1. having a function beyond the purely mundane
    2. having a degree of formality in its performance (or perception of it — form vs function occasionally rises as a question)
    3. exerting a weight of meaning within the world of the story

I’m aware there is a possible overlap here with the concept of “spells”, especially in invocation territory. Spell seem to have less visceral anchors in humanity, and the strongest common stylistic distinction I’ve noticed, in those grey areas, is a peculiar gravitas. That sense of a Right Structure (even if not formally recorded) and/or a Large Power Just Over There also tends to be missing from the more surreal examples of a series-of-actions-leading-to-a-result. But clearly there are overlaps.

Some things to try:

  • identify what makes a rite or ritual feel appropriately ritualistic to you in a story (or illustration) — think of sensory and aesthetic details as well
    • see if you can make a non-ritual story or seen feel that way
    • refer to your list if trying the techniques below

I’m looking primarily at a structural considerations in this post. But there is a strong thematic correlation between stories about rituals and those about: conflict and loss between cultures/traditions/communities; death and food; theatre; questions of the weight and value of humanity; (in horror) games.


Ritual, given sufficient focus, exerts a structural pull on a story. At its most enveloping, ritual can turn a story into a cocoon within which things (worlds, characters, faith, the ritual itself) may be broken down and remade. At its most skeletal, it outlines the steps that the story will take (or apparently plans to take — expectations can be played with there as anywhere) — sometimes very literally (e.g. “10 Steps to a Whole New You” — Tonya Liburd). In fact, a sufficiently deliberately-paced list/instructional story can harness the feeling of a ritual and give access to some of the tools below! (See e.g. “A Short Story in Seven Looks” — Sarah Turi Boshear.)

And a ritual-structure may be made up of one ritual, several iterations of it, bracketing or framing rituals, complimentary or opposed rites, and so on.

As a coherent, purposeful series of actions, ritual can import a ready-made structure into a story, which characters can pursue, or follow implacably, or fight for or against (forward-motion being drawn from desire, effort, dread, surprise — reader’s or character’s — etc). (E.g. “Seven Times Seven” — AC Wise, “Component Parts of a Belated Apology” — AnaMaria Curtis, “The Last Triangle” — Jeffrey Ford, “Barefoot and Midnight” — Sheree Renée Thomas).

Some things to try:

  • identify a series of steps in a ritual
  • make it the thing which the characters must
    • fight to complete or
    • prevent being completed, or
    • pursue with cold implacability, or courage, or grief
  • do they succeed or fail (definitely? and really?)


Or a ritual can neatly bracket a story, providing beginnings and endings (e.g. “My Country Is a Ghost” — Eugenia Triantafyllou and “All Worlds Left Behind” — Iona Datt Sharma — “All Worlds Left Behind” brackets the workaday centre with rites and rituals, while “My Country Is a Ghost” is bookended by little bureaucratic rites of passage and banishment at one end, and the Saturday of Souls at the other, with employment and reason and change in between).

And the formality of ritual can also provide a nicely weighted ending for a story, whether a necessary and proper ending/closure (“My Mother’s Hand” — Dante Luiz) or a revelation uniting previous events (“Grits, Goblins, and Good Times” — WC Dunlap).

Some things to try:

  • consider a ritual
  • what story might it provide a nice hard ending to?
  • identify two iterations of the ritual (or two related or contrasting rituals) — what story could fit satisfyingly between those?


Ritual is a set of actions with defined edges and often a scope for aesthetic elaboration — this means it can often have a stagey or theatrical effect (see staginess). This creates and contains a pocket of world (visuals, relationships, mechanics) just the right size for a short story. The narrative could be limited to or by the scale of the ritual, or the ritual could contain all the world necessary for the reader to see. That limited little Fabergé egg of a world can be broken by the character/story — or the character may learn to operate effectively within it. (See e.g. “Diamond Cuts” by Shaoni C White, and “The General’s Turn” by Premee Mohamed.) And to the extent ritual may be a setting of bounds, an opening or closing of doors, this all ties back to comments on endings and beginnings (above) and horrors beyond human comprehension (below).

Some things to try:

  • identify or invent a ritual, the space within which happens, the key sensory details
  • consider a story which might take place within that place
    • do the characters break out (deliberately or accidentally?)
    • do the characters stay inside (by choice, acquiring skills in that world? or by failing to escape?)
  • consider a world which the performance (once off? through time?) of the ritual might create


Not all stories about rites or rituals have a structuring role, of course — they might be background detail, or a jumping-off point or aesthetic cue (see e.g. “The Calcified Heart of Saint Ignace Battiste” by Christopher Caldwell, or “Returning the Lyre” by Mary E Lowd). But even there, the ritual frequently represents something structural within the external world or the protagonist’s internal world, and the protagonist must cope with any loss or rejection of it. Or an initial ritual may open a door to a greater truth beyond it, e.g. “Ratatoskr” — Kij Johnson.

Some things to try:

  • consider a ritual
  • what might happen if it goes very wrong — or very right? or if nothing happens at all? (consider external and internal consequences)
  • how might a ritual be accidentally conducted (or completed, or interrupted)?


As a potentially-magical formula, or at least representing a link between the mundane and something larger (communities, deities, history, time, seasons horrors beyond comprehension, etc), ritual is also a lens/frame for literalising and leveraging a large number of other human (or inhuman) purposes and concerns (e.g. “The Sin of America” — Catherynne M Valente). You could imagine a ritual for almost anything (see Inventing Rites and Rituals). But it is frequently linked with loss and death (simultaneously). See e.g. “The Part You Throw Away” by Elizabeth Bear and “We Can Make Death Work” by Cassandra Khaw.) Ritual can also access a sense of inevitability and horror, especially that sense of tapping into, being taken over by, or setting in motion something larger than the characters (e.g. “The Hanging Game” — Helen Marshall).

Some things to try:

  • formulate a ritual
    • what larger forces might it tap into? intentionally? unintentionally?
  • what is a key theme or motif or subject for a story you’d like to tell?
    • ritualise it, or tie it to a ritual (or, as with theatrical stories, parallel it with a ritual)
      • follow some of the possible implications (what could go right or wrong? what happens before or after or at the same time? what else must be true? etc)


Ritual is frequently (and unsurprisingly) used for stories about meaning, and the loss of it. Ritual can support (and contrast with) a reality otherwise unsupported by (or lacking) a sense of deeper meaning, whether mundane existence or the numinous. It shows up in tech vs deity stories (e.g. “Papa Legba Has Entered the Chat” — DaVaun Sanders and “The Frankly Impossible Weight of Han” — Maria Dong, but also raises questions of who has a right to ritual or meaning (“Sía” — Lizz Huerta).

Some things to try:

  • consider what the opposite of a given ritual might be — how would those elements interact in a story?
  • what other rituals exist in this tradition? are there differing approaches? what about differing traditions? how might they be contrasted, or brought together?
  • who benefits? who is harmed? who has access to which rituals and what happens if boundaries exist and aren’t respected, or don’t exist, or shift?

(it is safe to stop reading here)

This is a list of three-mood patterns extracted from my notes on the stories above (and a few others). It’s mostly for my own reference, although I might distill it later. However on a quick skim-through, a commonality that strikes me is this shape:

wonder-in-horror — a strong sense of frustration, bound up with breath — rebalancing strange rites

  • bad situation — worse — strange hope
  • attempts fail — attempts unclear — a final seedling hope
  • “progress” — vs “superstition” — beyond to a stranger truth
  • a loss — a reckoning with it — a healing
  • broken — considering the wound — remade (if smaller)
  • mundane action — uncommon parallel — comfort of the common
  • domestic — elevated — domestic
  • mirage — specific — visceral
  • resignation — held breath — complicity
  • representatives — individual — expiation
  • apprehensions — gentleness — violence/perpetuation
  • ominous mundane — metaphor literalised — logical consequence
  • invitation — partnership — inheritance
  • catch attention — focus attention — act in what notice
  • hospitality — mission — rescues
  • settling — learning — acting
  • edgy — sceptical — believing
  • horrors — summons — bargains fulfilled
  • crime — vengeance — consequence
  • injustice — crying out — justice
  • hatreds — old remedies — retribution
  • distress — grim purpose — acceptance of price
  • actions — consequences — corrections
  • what went wrong — spread — mopping up
  • choices — caught up — unknotting
  • refusal — unrolling — external aid
  • machinery — humanity — deity
  • preparation — grief — farewells
  • rites of passage — changing times — own rites
  • frail wonder — being reasonable — release
  • tales — omens — tolls
  • games — realities — prices
  • pasts — gaming the future — dealing with it
  • violent delights — violent ends — parents’ debts
  • trust — desire — love-in-grief
  • given — taken — traded
  • intensify (mythic/sacred/place-specific) significance — play out the tale — play out the (heightened) consequences
  • interrupted — quarreling — observed
  • harassment — grudging compliance — defiant obedience
  • defining a problem — unwieldy progress — deliberateness
  • irritation — violence — ritual
  • wondering — trying — finding out
  • discontent — playing with fire — catching light
  • willing temptation — willing seduction — willing destruction
  • failing powers — overpowered — powerful
  • offered — asking — getting
  • loss — compounded — refracted
  • letting go — resenting — holding differently
  • exchanging — resisting — giving in
  • how this works — substitutions — recreations
  • bleak — wounded — cautious joy
  • pain — script — revisions
  • loss — bitterness — partnership
  • acceptance — suffering — resistance
  • world — trap — door
  • serve — begrudge — reverse
  • niggling — burning — blazing
  • acquiring — learning — using
  • arriving — gathering — surging
  • scepticism — sardonic — sweetness
  • miffed — exasperated — riotous (vs diminished)
  • locus — vehicle — power
  • alarm — beauty — private
  • glimpse — facets — promise
  • given — giving — consequences
  • seen — seeing — looking forward
  • awe — purpose — a life
  • remarked — marked — recognition
  • determination — reversal — doubt
  • intention — overset — contaminated
  • making peace — a chance — precarity
  • ritual — emotional — unsettled
  • threshold — return — dissatisfied/haunted
  • cruelty — restlessness — nihilistic joy
  • pride — ambition — oversetting
  • tormenting — taunting — aligned
  • wind — bite — turn
  • decadence — intrigue — something new
  • pageant — strategy — daylight
  • gritty — anguished — torn
  • panicked — enthralled — coming to
  • trapped — pain — choosing
  • gripping — tearing — pulling free
  • the curse — the wish — the damage done
  • stately — breathless — patient
  • mysteries — secrets — knowledge
  • intellectual — personal — professional
  • ominous — passionate — treasuring
  • observe — observe — observe
  • guilt — place — loyalties
  • complicity — connections — choice
  • worry — anxiety — certainty
  • facade — awareness — open
  • path — crossroads — powers
  • helpless — breaking — mending
  • stalled — bewildered — understanding
  • alone — supported — connected
  • try — taught — seeing
  • perfection — insufficiency — fullness
  • honour — welcome — hold line
  • accept — receive — discern
  • overwhelm — comfort — certainty
  • beginning — acceleration — to roost
  • loss — joy — hope
  • decision — unexpected result — should-have-expected result
  • purpose — professional — visceral
  • arrangement — temptation — yielding
  • ritual — supplicants — rites
  • domestic — cosy — bloody
  • beauty — off-kilter — rebalance
  • sensory — careful — indulge

8 thoughts on “Short stories: Rites and rituals and structure

  1. Pingback: Inventing rites and rituals — some lists from the observation journal | Kathleen Jennings

  2. A word I do not often get to use – perspicacious! This essay crystallizes so many things, most notably the connection/reflection of story and rite. From the ritual re-enforcement of an establishing action (founder’s myth) right down to the child’s bedtime story that must be told the same way every time (or else?). I now have many stories to catch up on. Thank you!

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