Observation journal: Secrets and preoccupations

On these observation journal pages, I was playing with giving characters and objects a secret or preoccupation. The objects won.

I think this was on my mind because of some conversation with actors or about this approach in acting — not a central, plot-driving desire but some private concern which adds nuance to behaviour and speech.

As usual, I was trying it out on fairy-tales, as handy story-shaped objects. But it felt particularly useful for retellings, adding specificity to elements that have become simplified by time and use.

So I started by listing some stories and characters, adding a secret or preoccupation for each, and considering what that would do to the story.

Tiny handwritten table of notes on secrets.

E.g. if the miller’s son of “Puss in Boots” wants to be a miller, not a Marquis, then he’s going to spend the story resisting while fate forces his hand. If Cinderella’s father was a Bluebeard figure, it ups the stakes for the stepmother. If Jack’s mother (in Jack and the Beanstalk) is just trying to get her son out of the house, then his continued early returns to it become hilarious.

These could be allowed to change the plot. But they also add a little depth to a basic retelling, and help triangulate descriptions and dialogue.

I then selected a series of “secrets, moods, motives and preoccupations” for Puss in Boots, and used them to reframe the cat’s reassurance to the miller’s son, that if he will only do what the cat says, then all will be well.

Tiny handwritten table of notes on secrets.

A self-interested cat, a wearily responsible cat, a cat whose sole intention is to acquire a tall building from which to better catch birds, a cat which can talk but prefers not to — all will have this conversation in different ways.

I tried the original process again, listing various characters and objects from “Little Red Riding Hood”, and possible large and small secrets or preoccupations (is the mother trying to get to work? are the washerwomen of one version actually were-plovers? does the woodcutter’s axe have pacifist tendencies?).

Tiny handwritten table of notes on secrets.

Big secrets deepen and skew plots and connections, and shift the story into other tracks. Small preoccupations affect character, adding texture, tone, friction, etc.

Giving people secrets and preoccupations added to characterisation and plot. But giving preoccupations and interests to things was a delight, much more fun, and skewing easily into story ideas or texture.

So then I played with the door of Little Red Riding Hood’s grandmother’s cottage — giving it an interest in celebrity gossip, in fashion, in piracy, in murder — and seeing what effect that would have on the scene where Little Red Riding Hood arrives.

It added personality to the door, in the case of celebrity gossip (creaking with ill-contained excitement). In the case of fashion, it leaned into personification — a lintel tilted at a superior angle, like raised eyebrows, an appreciation of the gentleman with the nice fur coat. The connection to piracy added a sense of wider worlds and tales — the life the timbers led before, and what will happen to them after, and the place of this story in the scale of things. The interest in murder gave a sense of the world pushing back against the story, of deaths it has seen and perhaps been complicit in.

Tiny handwritten table of notes on secrets.

Art/writing exercise:

  • The secret lives of objects:
    • Pick a template story (a fairy tale, or tall tale, or urban legend, or classic superhero origin story, etc). List some of the key objects in it — specifically mentioned or strongly implied.
      (If you can’t think of any stories or objects, you can use the sketches below: a camera and tripod at a workshop in a conference room, and a cold-drip coffee set-up on a cafe counter).
    • Choose one object, and list 5 preoccupations or interests it might have. Some might be suggested by the story (what if the glass slippers are interested in sobriety and disapprove of dancing?). But look for some unexpected secrets, too — something people you know have been interested in lately, or one of your recent fascinations, or an interest connected to something you can see (well-engineered roads?).
    • Consider how that object first appears in the original story — jot down a simple sentence or sketch of the scene. Then decide how that scene might change, if the object had each of those preoccupations.
    • Make a quick written or drawn sketch for each.
    • Bonus: Note which secrets/preoccupations/moods tend to pull the story away from the original plot, or change the setting, or deepen the scene. Are there any patterns?
  • The secret lives of characters:
    • As above, but for characters in the story. (Personally, I find this approach useful, but the object exercise is much more fun.)

See also “swapped descriptions and descriptive filters” for a related descriptive exercise.

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3 thoughts on “Observation journal: Secrets and preoccupations

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

  2. Pingback: Observation Journal: Five Things to Steal from Porco Rosso | Kathleen Jennings

  3. Pingback: Observation Journal: Structuring Secrets | Kathleen Jennings

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