Observation Journal — picture to story idea

This little observation journal investigation kept me occupied for a week (you should be able to click on the gallery images below to see larger versions).

I wanted to watch myself come up with ideas, and try to isolate what made gears catch and started a story moving forward (and the continuing usefulness of moods/tones, whether to shape a story or as a point to aim for).

Getting ideas from pictures isn’t a new process — the point was watching myself do it. However, these pages did turn out some very effective ideas. A number of the notes here have got into finished projects in variously unrecognisable forms. However, several stories did emerge almost fully-formed — I’ve redacted some sections until the corresponding projects are published.

The experiment began with a selection of images. I chose a handful of pictures I knew felt story-ish to me (they’re on a Pinterest board called “stories for other pictures” if you want to see — I didn’t upload them, and tracing copyright through Pinterest can either be a delight (if links to the source are correctly made) or a wild Google Image ride — be aware).

Then for each image, I made a note of a possible last line for a story, an aesthetic the image suggested, and any additional ideas/notes that sprang from the picture.

I chose “last line” rather than “first”, because it gives a point upon which possibilities can converge.

So for example:

Last lineAestheticOther notes
“There is, of course, a reason the girls in the photograph are looking up as if they’ve just seen you.”Old tinted photographs, 1920s and uncanny valley, knowing and unsettling.Dangers of exploring abandoned buildings.
“I don’t believe she’s dead, but it will take her a long time to crawl home.”Green mossy, tarry mud, wet grave-clothes.Someone resigned to endlessly re-killing their enemy.
“But in the summer house, if you sleep, you’ll dream of looking up through green water to the splayed palms of lilies.”Translucent, emerald, dank & stagnant & sunlit & green. A clarity.A failure to escape. The promise of a ghost story.

Then I collected some more three-mood story shapes, and tried a few of those images against them.

Here are the three-mood story shapes. They were from stories dimly recalled, and I strongly suspect it includes at least one O. Henry and one M. R. James. Maybe a Henry Lawson? I’m trying to get better about recording the stories! (Currently, via the December 2021/January 2022 thread on Twitter.)

appearancepersistancedismissal (from unexpected quarter)
a nefarious planthe consequences of successan attempt to undo
a careless additionan eerie consequencea lingering discomfort
initial distressincreasing stress reveals worldbrief interaction sealing humanity
odd affectiondual-track distressstrange discomfort

Then I dropped the image into one or more of the story-shapes, to see how it would change as it flowed through.

Finally, I decided to see how the ideas would change if I added a particular character or viewpoint (see By Whom and To Whom and Some Less Common Points of View).

Those two pages above all follow the single image of a boat sunk in a lily-pond, and the question (which emerged on previous pages) of whether the people to whom it belonged actually ever left: “you, the reader”, “boarding school student”, “robust but secretly romantic governess”, “elusive horticulturalist”, etc.

For each, I made a few notes on how the story would might grow to suit it — “you” listening to the story being whispered through a locked door, the stern governess ridding the house of enchantment but secretly grieving its departure, someone who thinks of themself as adventurous but fails to notice what’s going on and leaves before the mystery is solved.

Writing/illustration activites

  • Finale
    • Choose a selection of images — randomly or (for preference) some that feel like stories to you. Public Domain Review usually has some interesting images going on. If your taste is like mine, feel free to consult stories for pictures but note that Pinterest can be pretty rickety in relation to ease of tracking back the original rights holder (some pictures will link to the source, though, and when that works it’s great). Be aware of copyright, etc.
    • For each image, make three notes. What final line (or event) might suit such a story? What aesthetic does it suggest to you (written or visual)? Any other story events that might be needed to get from the image to the story’s end?
    • Sketch out (in words or images) one or two additional scenes for the story, in your chosen style/aesthetic.
  • Three Moods
    • Take one of the images suggested above, choose a three-mood story pattern, and see how the story would flow out to fit that.
    • Sketch an outline in words, or a progression of three images that together might tell a story. (For more story shapes and elaborations on this activity, see: Story Shapes: Three Moods).
  • Points of view
    • Make a list of characters suggested by this image/story. People in it? Characters implied by the topic or the aesthetic? Inanimate objects? (There’s a starter list at the end of the post By Whom and To Whom and a few more in Some Less Common Points of View.)
    • Consider how each would tell/perceive the events above. Make a few notes/sketches depicting the scene from their point of view — not forgetting physical viewpoints: see Viewpoints.
  • Bonus round: Throughout, notice where (or if) stories seem to catch fire for you. Do they? Is there a common spark? Are there bits of the process you’d tinker with? Are there similarities among the images you chose, or the directions you took? What happens if you flip some aspect of that?

Finally, while I tend to use more atmospheric images for inspiration, here are a few sketches from the observation pages above.

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).And/or check out prints and products available at Redbubble and Spoonflower.

Also, I’ve just started a mailing list. It’s not a newsletter — it’s just going to be the occasional email with any major updates (publication announcements, exhibitions, etc) and semi-regular heads-up of things you might not want to miss. If that’s for you, the (extremely early version of) the sign-up page is here:

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3 thoughts on “Observation Journal — picture to story idea

  1. Pingback: January 2022 — round-up of posts | Kathleen Jennings

  2. Pingback: New Story out now: On the Origins of the Population of Wakeford | Kathleen Jennings

  3. Pingback: Observation journal: Building stories out of moods | Kathleen Jennings

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