Observation Journal: Structuring Secrets

This page of the observation journal carries on from some previous posts about characters’ secrets and occupations. But this page — although about fairy tales — was prompted by watching a whole string of Agatha Christie adaptations.

The exercise highlighted something I like in that style of mystery — the way that, in answering the main mystery, the inner workings and closely held secrets of a contained world are exposed. It’s like when a log is lifted up, all the jealously guarded nests and paths beneath are revealed. The secret processes that make a world work.

Double page spread of observation journal. Tiny handwritten observations. Notes on Rapunzel

I looked at Rapunzel through the lens of possible secrets.

I listed characters and potential characters (inanimate objects included) and started thinking of secrets for each to keep (the desert might hide the dust of kings; the prince’s horse once killed a man, etc).

Then I started pulling out questions that might be fun for structuring a retelling (who was really the witch, who preserved the plant cuttings from Sleeping Beauty’s briars?).

This created a fun tension between secrets to structure and secrets to keep, much like in the sort of murder mystery I enjoy. In answering the first, the story unearths and unravels and entangles the second.

So, for example, this exercise suggested biosecurity officers investigating the illegal briar trade uncovering a network of witches preserving their own culture…

Handwritten notes on Rapunzel

Writing exercise (illustrators: you could also use this as a story prompt for an illustration)
(see also the exercises in the previous preoccupations post).

  • Choose a fairy tale (or other template story you want to play with retelling).
  • List the major characters and a few key animals, objects, etc.
  • For each, jot down one or two secrets they might be keeping, within the world of the story.
  • Then pull back and choose one or two that might be big enough to be plot-structuring, story-inciting mysteries. (Or which would make the silliest mystery, or be the biggest puzzle for you to make work, etc.)
  • Now consider how and when some (or all!) of the other secrets might come out in the course of answering the big question.
  • Bonus: turn this into a quick story outline, or follow the questions out further to create the world, or try flipping all the characters and roles you’ve assigned.
Small ballpoint drawing of a leaning tree

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1 thought on “Observation Journal: Structuring Secrets

  1. Pingback: February 2023 — round-up of posts | Kathleen Jennings

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