Observation Journal: The Story Behind The Story

On these pages of the observation journal, I unpacked some feedback I kept giving students on their stories: to look at the story behind the story.

On the first page, I tried it out on a couple of projects I’d been working on — a short story that has never quite got off the ground, and a very old draft that’s since become a place for testing ideas (see The Usefulness of Template Stories).

The idea is, you mentally remove the plot, and see what’s left behind — the world and the currents and relationships that support the story (or fail to). What would we know about the world, and who would the characters be if the plot weren’t happening?

Handwritten notes on stories behind stories

The exercise stirs up sediment, creates currents, pans gold dust — or, to shift metaphors, it creates sudden changes of lenses and focus.

The process certainly paid off indirectly: I can trace several elements and epiphanies about my current manuscript to some notes on this page — and observations on the facing page.

The following week, I tried the exercise again, this time on “Little Red Riding Hood”. I listed major characters/presences, and pulled back to ask what would be there if the story weren’t happening — the sorts of people who live in the woods, the natures of these wolves, how the grandmother came to live where she lives, etc.

Handwritten notes on stories behind stories

If I pulled on these strands, I ended up with a soberer story than usual, and a sequel to previous stories — a brother and sister grown old and still living in the forest, a witch they destroyed who has returned as a wolf and is trying to become human again…

The process forced logic and loops and links, as well as pulling in other recent thoughts and preoccupations. It turns out to be a useful way to expand a fairy-tale plot.

Tiny ballpoint sketch of a rose

Writing/illustration exercise

  • Choose a story — a fairy tale, or a story you like, or one you’re working on or with (see Template Stories).
  • Make a list of at least five key characters, elements, locations, or motifs that exist in the story.
  • Mentally, remove the main plot. What information or questions are you left with about those key characters/elements? What do we know about them, in the absence of Plot happening? Who would they be, if not caught up in the story?
  • How might you fill in those details? Can you link those questions and answers to suggest the fabric of the world behind the story? Or even to find some larger stories behind it?
  • Sketch out (words or pictures) a key scene from the original story, adding that new information in as names, textures, interactions, details…
Tiny ballpoint sketch of a woman holding a Siamese cat
Alex and Obi

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3 thoughts on “Observation Journal: The Story Behind The Story

  1. Pingback: Observation Journal: Swapping characterisations and roles | Kathleen Jennings

  2. Pingback: September 2022 — round-up of posts | Kathleen Jennings

  3. Pingback: Observation Journal — Story Behind the Shapes | Kathleen Jennings

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