How to Write a Short Story: Should You Focus on a Mood or Event?

Edgar Allen Poe said, “A short story must have a single mood and every sentence must build towards it.”


However In Let’s Write a Short Story I wrote, “Besides length, one of the major things distinguishing short stories from other literary forms is they usually feature one major event.” I was arguing that most, if not quite all, short stories revolve around a central event, an event that provides most of the story’s meaning and creates a transformation in the protagonist.

So which is it? Are stories structured according to mood or transformative incidents? And when you’re writing a short story, do you need to have an event or a mood in mind before you begin?

Let’s find out shall we?

Event Driven Stories

For many short stories it’s clearly true that a single event organizes the story.

Think about John Updike’s highly anthologized story “A&P,” about Sammy, a teenager who quits his job in protest for the way two girls were treated by his manager (you might have read it in high school). There is clearly a central event to the story, the moment Sammy quits his job, rebelling against the value system of his parents.

Or Shirley Jackson’s story “The Lottery” (if you didn’t read this in high school, you must have been home schooled!), a Hunger Games-esque story about a lottery held in a small town that ended (spoiler alert if you somehow missed this one) with the public execution by stoning of the “winner.”  It’s very clear that this story revolves around a central event.

Mood Driven Stories

However, since writing Let’s Write a Short Story, I’ve been thinking about the stories that don’t have a central event, the stories where you can’t clearly say, “Oh, this is the major event in the story.” Some of the stories I’ve been thinking about don’t even have many major events to speak of. Instead these are “mood” stories, stories that aren’t organized by action but by an emotional state.

For example, in Roberto Bolaño’s story “Góomez Palacio,” which we will be dissecting in the premium edition of Let’s Write a Short Storyit is difficult to pinpoint an event that centers the story. However, Balaño is always building on a single mood (here’s my post from The Write Practice about how Balaño’s “Gomez Palacio” builds up to a single mood).

Or Denis Johnson’s “Emergency,” which I would argue does have a central moment, but which is mostly about the mood of self-destruction.

Which Is It? Mood or Event?

I’m not sure. While I think most good short stories are event driven, it’s hard to argue with Edgar Allen Poe, Denis Johnson, and Roberto Bolaño.

My suggestion is that if you’re writing a mood driven story, try to create a major event to center your story, and that if you’re writing an event driven story, try to maintain a consistent mood.

And if that doesn’t work, do whatever does work. The goal isn’t to follow a formula perfectly. The goal is to write a really good short story.

Best of luck!

About Joe Bunting

Joe is a ghostwriter, editor, and author. He writes and edits books that change lives. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

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18 Replies

  1. Funny enough, I just read “The Lottery” for school! Although it sort of went over my head the first read, there’s something unsettling about how…casual they are about the whole event.

    I also wondered how they are able to keep the town populated, especially before they had 300 people, but that was a “fridge logic” moment, and doesn’t really detract from the overall story.

    1. By fridge logic, are you talking about the latest Indiana Jones movie? 🙂

      I mean, one person a year isn’t that big a deal. It might even incite people to have more kids, which would lower everyone’s chance of being chosen.

      It is certainly unsettling though. That’s a great way to put it.

      1. Fridge logic, as in when after a movie, you go home, stare into your fridge, and then finally realize a logical flaw in the movie.

        But I case that the one incident in the Indiana Jones movie counts. (“Wait a minute, how could he survive that?”)

        But thinking about it, your theory is unsettling. Kids enter into the lottery too. And when Tessie’s own son is handed some pebbles…

    2. By the way, if you haven’t read the other stories I linked, you should. I think you’d like them. 🙂

  2. I haven’t read The Lottery… I was homeschooled. 🙂 I don’t think I’ll run out and get a copy either it sounds sad.

    So what you’re saying in this post is short stories are typically even driven, unless they’re not, then they’re mood driven. But if you can make them be both that’s best. But ultimately do what works for you. Right?!

    I was thinking I tend to be mood driven but then as I thought of my novel and some of my better stories for The Show Off contest there are definitely events. Like the Indian girl who dies and the girl who finds her grandmothers letters. I don’t feel like I’m good at writing action but I like to describe a feeling. I think I’m going to have to play with this concept some!

    1. You have to read it Beck (it’s linked). It’s a classic of classics, the kind of story that will be in textbooks for two hundred years.

      Hahaha yes, that’s kind of what I was saying. Except don’t do what works for you. Do what works for your story and the reader.

      I agree. Your stories, and most peoples stories, are best when they have a major event. And by the way, I’m not saying that Bolaño or any mood driven story are event-less. Like I wrote on the Write Practice, there are events filled with tension throughout the story, and Bolaño rarely tells. Mostly he shows action. But what’s unique about his stories is that the events are small and subtextual. It’s difficult to say that there is a single event that centers the story but rather that there are a lot of little events that together create a mood that centers the story.

  3. I also have not read The Lottery and I wasn’t homeschooled. I don’t think I want to read it either. I haven’t read Hunger Games for the same reason. I have a vivid imagination and a sensitive temperment, I just can’t handle such stories. I had trouble with Lord of the Flies, Equus, the Stranger and In Cold Blood which was required reading in High School. I loved this post and I loved yesterday’s post too. I am learning a lot from you. Thank you. I would join your contest, but I don’t believe I am ready.

    1. I can understand, Pilar. By the way I saw Equus in London (with Danielle Radcliffe). It was amazing, although Radcliffe wasn’t the best.

    2. Mariaanne

      I know what you mean about being sensitive Pilar and it does make it hard to read things but I think that same sensitivity can make you a better writer if you try to think exactly what it is in a story that is emotional and why it’s that way. I was absolutely stunned by “The Lottery” and had nightmare for weeks after reading it.

      1. You are so wise Mariaanne. I so appreciate all your comments. I can hug you. 🙂

        1. found your blog on Google and read a few of your other posts. I just added you to my Google News Reaedr. Keep up the good work. Look forward to reading more from you in the future.

  4. Mariaanne

    I am trying now to focus on the events and let the mood arise from the events. I’m trying this strategy because plots and endings are so difficult for me. In real life I think events can drive mood, and mood events and things can snowball. I know that when I am sad i see more sadness and when I’m happy tragedies don’t seem as large and insurmountable. Maybe in my next story the mood should change because of an event. A person could be happily going along and then have something horrible happen that makes them see the world as a darker place, or vice-vesa. It would be good practice anyway.

    1. I’m a little like that too, Marianne. I have a hard time creating “literary plots.” I may have a solution to that that I’ve been using on the latest story. It’s pretty cool. I’m planning to talk about it here soon.

    2. John

      There’s a gagillion theories, I struggle to get the motivation to begin usually… I feel writing is like music (and all the other projects) whereas the only way to get better is simply to stay involved.

  5. Amarilys Rassler

    Bought your book and I’m enjoying it and learning from it. Thanks!

  6. Ramshackle of Fresno

    I’m a public school teacher and found Let’s Write a Short Story! Looking
    through it, I found some great bits to help my 7th graders with writing
    narratives. I loved your section on phonoaesthetics; it reinforces the material I was teaching recently on the use of sound devices in poetry. Some
    of your material parallels what I’m already teaching, but other points
    helped expose the ways I might be squashing my students’ creativity and
    development as writers. So thank you. (Oh, and BTW, the link to “The
    Lottery” didn’t work for me, though I’ve read it before.) Peace.

  7. John

    The dryer’s horn goes off, and I put down my guitar. I pull my warm, clean uniform out of the dryer, and go straight to my car.
    The sunlight leads me down to the Pizza shop. Steve, the interviewing manager is standing behind the counter on a slow September afternoon. I hand him the shirt he gave me a week ago, shake his hand and get back on the road.
    Look at all these people go! All excited, everywhere, the new school year has begun, new teenage drivers, recent graduates, new jobs, new women, new.

    Hands on the wheel, I see the long clear way home straight ahead, but I take a late left turn and go through town. People stand in similar formations in their yards, all small circles jabbering about what they heard somebody must have done to their brother’s car. I turn right at the stop sign. And well, I wasn’t even thinking of it, but look at all the cars at the V. Must be somebody I know. I park round back and walk in the front door. I reach for the buzzer, but they buzzed me in before I could.
    “Hey Jerr’, what do you want to drink? It’s on me,” says the belle soon as I open the door.

    “I’m feelin a White Russian today, Suze’, since you’re buying,” I hold my arms out wide and melt in her warmth.

    She’s a wonderful friend of my folks with a glow of kindness you could see blindfolded.

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