Observation journal: Building stories out of moods

On this pair of observation journal pages, I was still thinking through the three-moods approach to short fiction. That’s described in more detail here: Story shapes — three-mood stories, and has spun off into its own series of very large short-story reading posts and quite a few short stories (mostly rolled into some larger projects, such as Patreon stories and sub-stories in a current manuscript).

These pages helped me by:

  • clarifying the usefulness of a three-mood structure in:
    • coming up with a story-shape
    • coming up with and developing ideas
  • reminding me of the usefulness of having a clear final note towards which to aim (see also e.g. picture to story idea)
  • confirming the power of adjectives (somewhat flippant but I do like them)

There is (as usual) an exercise at the end of this post, if you want to try it out yourself.

On earlier pages, I’d been breaking down existing stories into broad moods/vibes. See e.g. story structures and story patterns.

Here, I started trying to build up a story shape in the other direction. First I made a list of emotions. Then I picked three at random and looked at what sort of story that progression would suggest.

Handwritten notes on moods and stories and an illustration of one idea.

Here’s the initial list of moods (non-exhaustive):


After picking three at random, I looked for the sort of story which that progression of moods might suggest. For example:

  • greed — doubt — aggression
    –> acquisitiveness and wanting leads to falsity and the fear of potential failure which then leads to destruction (of self? of the object of desires? indiscriminate?) in that pursuit
  • naïveté — desire — placidity
    –> ignorance/innocence being swept up in honest pursuit of its desire, and then achieving its happily ever after having successfully learned no lesson.
    (I’d already written an earlier draft of “Merry in Time at this point, but it was a structure I wanted to lean into on those edits. Arguably lessons ARE learnt in that story, but not — I hope — the obvious ones for that shape of story.)

These clearly suggested story-shapes. I also liked the way that, taken together, the moods definitely implied an end state — a final note towards which to aim.

Here’s a little sketch of an idea:

Tiny ballpoint drawing of a shed labelled "surprise: secret door" then (inside) "horror: skeletons", then "suspicion: cemetery-like garden beds"
SURPRISE (secret door) —> HORROR (skeletons!) —> SUSPICION (cemetery-like garden beds)

Parts of this one (although not quite identifiable) have 100% got into parts of a subsequent large project (yet to be announced). The idea also contains concerns taken up in”Not To Be Taken” (in Bitter Distillations).

On the next page, I tried combining two moods (at random) for added nuance.

Handwritten notes on moods and stories.

For example:

  • suspicious bewilderment –> seething greed –> surprised revulsion
    be careful what you wish for / dreams of avarice
  • affectionate instigation –> knowledgeable horror –> doubtful anticipation
    succeeding too well
  • melodramatic delight –> greedy fear –> antagonistically supportive
    lives(?) for the drama

I also tried rearranging positions of the moods to see what would happen.

The main additional lesson from this page was the power of adjectives, and how much they modulate the expression of a mood.

A tiny ballpoint drawing of a tented arrangement of sticks
Minimalist cubby down by the creek — this has also appeared in another project

Writing/illustration exercise:

  • Make a list of Big Moods (emotions/vibes/driving concerns). Try for at least 10, although 20 is usually more profitable. Think of moods you like from stories, emotions you’ve felt recently, etc. Or use the list earlier in this post.
  • Pick three at random.
  • Imagine they form the beginning, middle and end of a story. Make some notes as to what sort of story they suggest.
    • For example, if I chose “delight –> bewilderment –> repentance”, that might suggest an “all that glitters is not gold” story.
  • Think of a possible situation and character for that story — if nothing comes quickly to mind, pick a character and setting from a fairy tale or other template story, or just someone/thing you’ve seen today.
    • E.g. if I used the stick cubby picture above with “delight –> bewilderment –> repentance”, that could become a story about someone finding a cubby in the trees, and being charmed by it, and getting inside it, and then… well, all is not as it seems (and you’re in season 1 of Stranger Things).
  • Sketch out (in words or pictures) a tiny scene or moment for that possible story, capturing part of that vibe. If you’re having trouble choosing, consider what the final scene might be.
    • E.g. a kid scrambling delightedly into an ominous hiding place — or scrabbling desperately to get out.
  • Bonus: Repeat this a few times. Notice anything that particularly works for you — or doesn’t. Are there story-shapes or ideas that particularly spark? Moods that resonate for you, or which you have to struggle to like or capture? Story types or genres you tend towards? Make a note — that’s all useful information for things to try (or evade) in future.
A tiny ballpoint drawing of a beagle sleeping on a square cushion
sleeping beagle

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Observation journal: Secrets and preoccupations

On these observation journal pages, I was playing with giving characters and objects a secret or preoccupation. The objects won.

I think this was on my mind because of some conversation with actors or about this approach in acting — not a central, plot-driving desire but some private concern which adds nuance to behaviour and speech.

As usual, I was trying it out on fairy-tales, as handy story-shaped objects. But it felt particularly useful for retellings, adding specificity to elements that have become simplified by time and use.

So I started by listing some stories and characters, adding a secret or preoccupation for each, and considering what that would do to the story.

Tiny handwritten table of notes on secrets.

E.g. if the miller’s son of “Puss in Boots” wants to be a miller, not a Marquis, then he’s going to spend the story resisting while fate forces his hand. If Cinderella’s father was a Bluebeard figure, it ups the stakes for the stepmother. If Jack’s mother (in Jack and the Beanstalk) is just trying to get her son out of the house, then his continued early returns to it become hilarious.

These could be allowed to change the plot. But they also add a little depth to a basic retelling, and help triangulate descriptions and dialogue.

I then selected a series of “secrets, moods, motives and preoccupations” for Puss in Boots, and used them to reframe the cat’s reassurance to the miller’s son, that if he will only do what the cat says, then all will be well.

Tiny handwritten table of notes on secrets.

A self-interested cat, a wearily responsible cat, a cat whose sole intention is to acquire a tall building from which to better catch birds, a cat which can talk but prefers not to — all will have this conversation in different ways.

I tried the original process again, listing various characters and objects from “Little Red Riding Hood”, and possible large and small secrets or preoccupations (is the mother trying to get to work? are the washerwomen of one version actually were-plovers? does the woodcutter’s axe have pacifist tendencies?).

Tiny handwritten table of notes on secrets.

Big secrets deepen and skew plots and connections, and shift the story into other tracks. Small preoccupations affect character, adding texture, tone, friction, etc.

Giving people secrets and preoccupations added to characterisation and plot. But giving preoccupations and interests to things was a delight, much more fun, and skewing easily into story ideas or texture.

So then I played with the door of Little Red Riding Hood’s grandmother’s cottage — giving it an interest in celebrity gossip, in fashion, in piracy, in murder — and seeing what effect that would have on the scene where Little Red Riding Hood arrives.

It added personality to the door, in the case of celebrity gossip (creaking with ill-contained excitement). In the case of fashion, it leaned into personification — a lintel tilted at a superior angle, like raised eyebrows, an appreciation of the gentleman with the nice fur coat. The connection to piracy added a sense of wider worlds and tales — the life the timbers led before, and what will happen to them after, and the place of this story in the scale of things. The interest in murder gave a sense of the world pushing back against the story, of deaths it has seen and perhaps been complicit in.

Tiny handwritten table of notes on secrets.

Art/writing exercise:

  • The secret lives of objects:
    • Pick a template story (a fairy tale, or tall tale, or urban legend, or classic superhero origin story, etc). List some of the key objects in it — specifically mentioned or strongly implied.
      (If you can’t think of any stories or objects, you can use the sketches below: a camera and tripod at a workshop in a conference room, and a cold-drip coffee set-up on a cafe counter).
    • Choose one object, and list 5 preoccupations or interests it might have. Some might be suggested by the story (what if the glass slippers are interested in sobriety and disapprove of dancing?). But look for some unexpected secrets, too — something people you know have been interested in lately, or one of your recent fascinations, or an interest connected to something you can see (well-engineered roads?).
    • Consider how that object first appears in the original story — jot down a simple sentence or sketch of the scene. Then decide how that scene might change, if the object had each of those preoccupations.
    • Make a quick written or drawn sketch for each.
    • Bonus: Note which secrets/preoccupations/moods tend to pull the story away from the original plot, or change the setting, or deepen the scene. Are there any patterns?
  • The secret lives of characters:
    • As above, but for characters in the story. (Personally, I find this approach useful, but the object exercise is much more fun.)

See also “swapped descriptions and descriptive filters” for a related descriptive exercise.

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See what I see


There has been, for the last little while, a lot of talk about aphantasia and degrees to which people “see” things, mentally, and whether it hinders or helps the creative process.


Quite a few writers seem startled by the idea that people don’t have very clear mental images. But a surprising number of illustrators seem to be in just that situation. Since they’re both in the business of inserting stories into other people’s heads, the difference is intriguing.

Moving away from strict aphantasia, I’m interested in how much visualisation is functional/trained (setting aside whether a given reader has accumulated enough of a visual library — my littlest nephew doesn’t have enough of a framework for what a “dragon” is to be interested in stories about them yet, and growing up without TV or computers, I didn’t get cyberpunk as a thing until I saw The Matrix).

If I do the exercise above, cold, or if I’m reading as a reader, I’m a 1. If I’m in the process of writing, it drops down a few notches — sometimes it will be a 3, sometimes the word “apple” will appear in my mind or on the page and then I have to consciously stop and push it back along the scale until I can ‘see’ and describe it more specifically.


Tree fight!

But if I’m illustrating, I’m closer to a 5, and often don’t see the picture until it’s on the page. Lynda Barry talks about that process of drawing as discovery rather than expression. Even (or especially) drawing from life is a process of getting the image from the world onto the page through hand and pencil. And most ‘visualisation’ of solutions is more schematic/word-based.


Notes on a project

I mentioned above reading as a reader. A book can be as vivid as a movie, then. But when I’m reading as an illustrator, looking for images to draw, ideally I’m sketching them as I go, converting directly from words into shape and movement without necessarily picturing that inside my own head.


Earliest ideas

When I do picture things too clearly, it’s a trap. The disparity between the imagination and the reality can be distressing!This is one of the reasons I don’t often illustrate my own work (I had to get at the illustrations in Flyaway by starting more decoratively and then pushing back into the text).


Obligatory pre-order link

Although art and writing both come from the same storytelling aquifer, they reach the world through different wells. If I’m going to develop an illustrated piece of my own, I usually have to start with art and support it with words, and/or carve away the words until they don’t distract me from what the art is getting up to.


If it could just stay like this…