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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May 2022 short story reading post

Photo of notebook with handwritten notes — key sections extracted below

This post is a roughly tidied version of my May 2022 tweets about short stories. It’s quite long, so I’m putting the rest of it below the cut. There’s a list of all stories at the very end of the post.

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Short story reading: a few notes on selection

Screenshot of thumbnail view of spreadsheets
(originally I was keeping the notes in spreadsheets, but things Got Out Of Hand)

Choosing stories

I was recently asked how I choose the short stories I’ve been reading for the short story reading posts. It’s not particularly scientific. But I’m trying very hard not to primarily review each story or reduce comments to whether or not I personally like it. Rather, I’m interested in what a story does, and how.

That’s why I’ve been working through a few recommended / year’s best lists (e.g. Locus and Quick Sips Reviews, among others).

I tell myself the stories have been

  • (a) published by a venue, and
  • (b) additionally selected by someone else,

so there’s no need to add my additional valuation to that. (Counterintuitively, this has also made it a lot easier to just enjoy the stories.)

Beyond that:

  • I’ve chosen to read through some anthologies and collections because I’m interested in the author or editor or theme;
  • sometimes a story just catches my eye, or a recommendation floats past;
  • I’ve been reading Fireside Fiction and The Sunday Morning Transport stories as they arrive in my inbox; and
  • when awards shortlists are announced, I’ve been adding any stories I haven’t read yet to the list.

Noticing patterns

So far, this reading project tends to be most revealing about:

  • an author’s techniques and boundaries and the size of the blocks they build with
  • a magazine’s vibes (these can be extremely distinct — often far more than editorial or authorial flavours)
  • the consensus definition of a theme (in a given group — see e.g. the comments on the Supernatural Noir stories in the February post)
  • the particular interests and tastes of people who collate lists of recommended stories

I need to read more anthologies, as the patterns of editors’ motivations are still a little obscure. There are lots of overlays there — the market or venue’s style, what is submitted, the collective motivation or interpretation or concerns of a particular group of authors in a particular era. I suspect analysing what’s happening at the anthology-construction level, across a number of books by the same editor, would give more of a sense of this.

Notes about individual stories

So far the short story notes are in these posts, but there will be more (tagged short story reading posts):

April short story reading post

Photo of double-page of notebook with some handwritten notes on stories (elaborated below)

This post is a roughly tidied version of my April 2022 tweets about short stories. It’s quite long (although the month’s reading was abbreviated by Covid), so I’m putting the rest of it below the cut. There’s a list of all stories at the very end of the post.

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March short story reading post

Photo of notebook with handwritten story notes

This post is a roughly tidied version of my March 2022 tweets about short stories. It’s extremely long, so I’m putting the rest of it below the cut. There’s a list of all stories at the very end of the post.

Parts will very likely end up in other posts in the future. There are ideas coalescing, including thoughts on e.g. stories of revolution, loss, communication, witness, and the metaphorical weight of birds — and thoughts on the emphases and accents of speculative fiction, and the evolution of stories on given themes.

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February short story reading thread

This post is a roughly tidied/slightly edited version of a Twitter thread I’ve been keeping, tracking my February 2022 short story reading. It is extremely long, so I’m putting the rest of it below the cut. Parts will very likely end up in other posts in the future. And at the very end of this post is a list of all the stories read.

Read on…

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Three moods master post update

I’ve been tinkering with the three-moods overview post, which can be found here: