Observation Journal — similes and genre flips

This observation journal page is a late-night variation on previous exercises with flipped descriptions.

Like most late-night writing activities, it got a bit silly, but it was fun, and it turns out to have underpinned some more recent explorations.

Two page spread of densely handwritten observation journal. On the left page, five things seen, heard and done, and a drawing of a cat. On the right, the exercise described.

First, I picked items at random from the left-hand page, and tried to work them up into a simile, e.g. clouds like uncurling ribbons. Those comparisons, being drawn from daily life, tended to still be based in it. (I do find this exercise useful for building and describing a vivid world. I’ve elaborated on it in Variations on descriptions and More swapped descriptions.)

Then I reworked each sentence twice: once for a science fiction setting (from a ridiculous old testing-ground of a story) and once as some sort of Regency fairy tale.

So e.g. “steam uncoiling like a galaxy”, further flipped into “a galaxy uncoiling like steam”, and then “ice softening like unstarched lace”.

I wasn’t looking for a 1:1 equivalent, obviously, but something that approximated the original phrase.

(The Xs between the sentences are where I put the sentences into the wrong column, because if you think the phrase “ambulant laser-truncheon” is inconsistent with a strictly Georgian setting, you would be entirely correct.)

Right page of observation journal, with three columns and a variety fo flipped descriptions.

As I said (and as you will see if you try to read my handwriting, which isn’t necessary): a lighthearted little exercise. But it is a fun activity to keep your mental fingers limber (good for car trips and conversations with friends if they are those sorts of friends, i.e. the writer equivalent of theatre kids), and it is an interesting way to practice thinking about the structures and textures of a world, and the differences between genres, and to fine-tune word choice and tone.

Ballpoint drawing of a cat rolling on its back.

Like most creative exercises, the activity seems to translate between writing and illustration.

Writing/art exercise

  • Pick two observations/things around you at random, and work out how they could be similar. Writers, build a simile/metaphor. Illustrators, look for ways you could draw one thing using the shapes, textures, etc, of the other. (For more detail on this, see the activity in Variations on descriptions.)
  • Pick two genres you like (or two distinctive story worlds — your own or someone else’s). It could be clipped noir and bushwalking nonfiction just as much as something fantastic.
  • Consider your original sentence/sketch. How could you create an equivalent effect in those other two genres/worlds. What objects/textures belonging to those settings or aesthetics could you use or invent?
  • Bonus round: Repeat the exercise a few times, from the beginning. See if you notice any patterns in how you approach it, or the world, or the stories you seem to be telling. For example, here I found that the descriptions very quickly began to feel as if they belonged to a larger underlying narrative. That exploration wasn’t the point of this exercise, specifically, but I’ve found those patterns instructive to keep an eye on (as much for identifying strengths and things to explore as for finding habits that should be shaken up).
  • Bonus bonus round: Pick two very close genres (or even two moods in the same setting), and look at the changes needed to shift between those.

3 thoughts on “Observation Journal — similes and genre flips

  1. Pingback: August 2021 — round-up of posts | Kathleen Jennings

  2. Pingback: Observation Journal: Drawing from other images | Kathleen Jennings

  3. Pingback: Observation Journal: More mixed descriptions | Kathleen Jennings

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