Observation Journal: By whom and to whom

On this observation journal page, I was thinking about by whom and to whom stories are told (whether in words or pictures).

(A quick note: The examples in this are pretty light: just me riffing on fairy tales. The exercise does, however, also lend itself to thinking more deeply about who gets to tell a story and who listens — and to remixing that.)

The page
(I’ve transcribed the lists — see the bottom of this post)

I’d been thinking, recently, about points of view, and the voices of slightly unexpected narrators. This was mostly because I had been reading Kim Scott’s Taboo and Maria Dahvana Headley’s The Mere Wife (a really interesting pair of books to read against each other). I’d also just reached the section about narration in Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer.

First, I made a list of 20 people who could be telling or listening to a story (keeping it fairly general, but with a fairy-tale retelling in mind). As usual this got out of hand and escalated to 45. Then I made two story-specific lists, for Little Red RIding Hood and Rapunzel.

After that, I mixed and matched entries from those lists to end up with, for example, “What the washerwomen at the ford told Little Red RIding Hood’s mother” (my favourite LRR is where she runs over the river on sheets held by washerwomen), or “What the kitchen told the prince” (which would turn the extended attempted-murders version of Rapunzel into a crime scene investigation).

The typed versions of the list are right down at the bottom of the post.


It was a lot of fun doing this, both seeing the potential immediate impact on story and purpose, but also how well it worked for editing — suddenly contracting and clarifying a story, suggesting a form it should take or a hidden (or overt) agenda. Even if I don’t change the narrator, referring back to this exercise is useful for strengthening my commitment to what I have written or sketched. (Tangentially related: reversing the (ideal) audience). The exercise has also made me more aware generally of the possibilities and ramifications of considering point of view and purpose. And it’s remained a useful exercise for new and ongoing projects, even (or perhaps especially) where I want the narrator to remain largely behind the curtain but still have a bias, either for subtle drama or my own amusement.

Art application

All this applies to illustration, equally. There are obvious art/point of view overlaps, of course, but there are also deeper narrative impacts: Consider the focuses in the stories told by the ” nurse” of Hokusai’s “100 poems explained by the nurse.” And see also previous posts on Viewpoints and Thinking About Points of View.

Narrators and observers

I’ve typed up the full lists at the bottom of the post, but as with most of these activities, making the list is one of the most useful parts of the exercise.

Art/writing exercise

  • Version 1: Generalities
    • Consider (broadly) the general type of stories you like to work with/read.
    • Make a list of types of possible narrators and audiences (keeping them all in one list is more exciting). Push for 20, but keep adding more if you like. (Or use my list below.)
    • Pick a scene of a story you are working with/enjoy, or choose a fairy tale you might retell/illustrate..
    • Choose two items from the list at random. They are now the teller and the audience.
    • Sketch (a paragraph or a drawing) a scene from the story as it might be told by and to those characters.
  • Version 2: Specifics
    • Choose a fairy-tale you might wish to retell/illustrate (or another story idea you are working with). (If you’re in a hurry, use one of my stories and lists below.)
    • List the characters in the story — include main, secondary, and background/implied.
      • Bonus: Expand the list by adding other significant/necessary/implied/intriguing settings and objects from the story. (Animals can go into either list, as appropriate.)
    • Choose two entries from the list(s) above at random. The first is the storyteller, the second is the audience.
    • Sketch (a paragraph or a drawing) a scene from the story as it might be told by and to those characters.
  • Version 3: Silliness
    • As for version 2, but use a list from a different fairy tale.
  • Bonus
    • Note how the story might shift or change, what secrets and agendas come into play or become possible, what parts of the story drop out of view or become important. What changed about actual physical viewpoint, or mood, or tone? Does it deepen or shift understanding of details of the world of the story?
    • Follow some of those changes through the rest of the story, and consider what larger consequences they might have.
    • If you tried both versions (general and specific), which approach was easiest to work with? Which more vigorously changed how you presented the story?

Birds-eye view of a pigeon

Below are the (personal to me, and not comprehensive) lists of potential tellers and audiences.

General (for a hypothetical fairy-tale retelling — this is largely stream of consciousness based on what I’d been reading, but you can use a list like this more deliberately to explore e.g. power, culture, etc., whether inside the story’s world or outside it.)

  • Literary teller
  • “Old wife”
  • Salon audience
  • Nursery audience
  • Traveller
  • Host
  • Mixed fireside folk
  • Collector of stories
  • Someone who overheard it
  • Friend
  • Enemy
  • Academic
  • Student
  • Singer
  • Correspondent
  • Historian
  • Archaeologist
  • Investigator
  • Biographer
  • Hagiographer
  • Murder
  • Explorer
  • Instructor
  • Gardener
  • Neighbour
  • Cook
  • Nurse
  • Doctor
  • Chronicler
  • Assassin of [someone]
  • Enemy of [someone]
  • Parent of [someone]
  • Children of [someone]
  • Stranger
  • Teacher
  • Student
  • Shopkeeper
  • Servant/staff
  • Detective/investigator
  • Casual observer
  • Artist
  • Antiquarian
  • Omniscient
  • VOICE but uninvolved (i.e. an external narrator with a strong personality and an opinion on events)
  • Balloonist! etc (I’d been reading early ballooning accounts)

And two story-specific lists.

Little Red Riding Hood

  • Characters:
    • Little Red Riding Hood
    • Mother
    • Red Riding Hood
    • Grandmother
    • Wolf
    • Woodcutter
    • Washerwomen
  • Other:
    • Woods
    • House
    • Basket
    • Path
    • Bed
    • River
    • Flowers


  • Characters:
    • Father
    • Mother
    • Witch
    • Rapunzel
    • Prince
    • Twins
    • Mother-in-law
    • Cook
  • Other:
    • Plant
    • Garden
    • Wall
    • Tower
    • Hair
    • Scissors
    • Briars
    • Thorns
    • Wilderness
    • Castle
    • Kitchen
    • Cottage

Note: If you’d like to support art and writing and posts like this about it, I have a Patreon account (patreon.com/tanaudel) and patrons there get behind-the-scenes process and sneak-peeks, starting from US$1, or you could buy me a (virtual) coffee at ko-fi.com/tanaudel (and I get through quite a bit of coffee).

5 thoughts on “Observation Journal: By whom and to whom

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

  2. Pingback: Bird’s-Eye View | Kathleen Jennings

  3. Pingback: Observation Journal: Notes on Kim Scott’s “Taboo” | Kathleen Jennings

  4. Pingback: Observation journal — some less common points of view | Kathleen Jennings

  5. Pingback: Observation Journal — picture to story idea | Kathleen Jennings

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