Observation journal: Turning observations into (silly) ideas

A very quick look at four pages of the observation journal, all with the same activity (although with rather different slices of life on the left-hand, observation page).

I’ve written a bit about this activity in the past, see e.g. Improbable Inventions.

The left page in these journals is based on an exercise from Lynda Barry’s Syllabus — 5 things seen, heard, and done, and a picture or diagram of something from the day. (I’ve added a fifth box for overarching observations about what I was/wasn’t noticing, etc).

The game

For each exercise, I picked three observations at random from an observation page. (Sometimes from the page I was on, sometimes from a day earlier in the week.) Then I made myself combine them into three new ideas. Usually the ideas are for a story or image, but sometimes they are just for ridiculous innovations.

For example:

  • a boat covered with an old vinyl ad instead of a tarp + hairdryers + feeling sad in the grocery store became, by degrees: a pitch for bush mechanics but in space.
  • chalk thanks + a floor shifting + ordering Thai takeaway became: chalk-drawing powers/generates $ to buy food — kinetic, feet create or complete circuits
  • handbell + marking assignments +shifting a heavy table became: an exploration of a way to outsource assignment marking to the afterlife

But more usually they are for story ideas.

For example a cat bell + lightning + mulberries became:

  • belling the lightning –> lightning as cats or cats playing with lightning –> lightning sets all the mulberries ringing [and then a note that ridiculous as this sounds, you can take mulberries + big wild cats all the way back to Pyramus & Thisbe]
  • trees harvest lightning/storm energy to bake fruit on the branch [with a note to compare this to something in Gulliver’s Travels, although I might also have been thinking of the Big Rock Candy Mountains]
  • electric-purple lightning ringing around the bell of the world
  • and finally a note that asks the very reasonable question: What mice?

(And then I made a few notes teasing out possible connections to other recent fascinations.)

And a fainting couch + the shadow of a man on the roof + machinery roaring like the sea became, among other things:

  • A sickly lady sees the shadows of an angel cast on the lawn from a roof and hears the roar of the absent sea.
  • Someone on bed rest is entertained by a haunted magic lantern that gathers up and spools back.

At the time, I was looking for a next step — something to do to tease out the ideas that sparked. This was before I’d really leant into the three moods approach for quickly outlining and storing ideas until I could grow them into a picture or story.

Revisiting these pages, however, I’m amused to find that some of these did get into stories, occasionally much altered. Aspects of the roar of the sea certainly got into Girl Flees House, and from there into some short story projects. These particular mulberries became a key scene in a large draft I’m editing — they’re currently at risk of getting edited out again, but they did contribute.

Tiny ballpoint sketch of a cat with lightning marks, shining and pouncing.

Purpose & usefulness

I do find this game a way to generate story ideas. But it’s more about the practice, the fun, the silliness, the sifting through the events of the day to turn the mundane into lightning-cats or baby-bouncer powered randomisation engines. And while it’s fun to mash-up any two observations into an idea, adding a third stretches the imagination in different ways.

From experience, it’s also an effective way to get a class (or myself) to come up with an original but ludicrous idea upon which to practice serious techniques. It loosens their (my) hold on my precious concept and lets me learn instead. See also Improbable Inventions.

Tiny ballpoint sketch of a bouquet of flowers

Writing/illustration/invention activity

  • Make a quick list of things you’ve seen, heard and done today — or that you can see and hear right now.
  • Choose three at random.
  • Try to combine all three into a new idea for a story (or a movie or an invention — choosing only one category actually tends to help).
    Then come up with at least two more ideas, using that same combination of prompts. (This takes the pressure off and lets you try different angles of approach.)
  • Choose another three observations and repeat.
  • Bonus 1: What did you notice about how you combined the prompts into an idea? Did you try different methods each time? Did you try to hang them on some fascination or story-shape you like? Did any of the ideas spark, or seem so ridiculous they became sublime? Can you identify where they lifted off?
  • Bonus 2: If there’s a technique (writing or art, etc) you’ve been wanting to try on one of your own projects (or an intriguing exercise you’ve seen somewhere), try it out on one of these ideas first instead.
Tiny ballpoint sketch of a teacup.

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1 thought on “Observation journal: Turning observations into (silly) ideas

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

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