Inventing rites and rituals — some lists from the observation journal

I’m planning a post on how rites and rituals show up in short stories, and wanted to refer back to this observation journal page. So I’m posting it earlier than it would otherwise have appeared!

I was thinking about the way rites and rituals — as human an urge as covering surfaces with patterns — can shape a story or be the base for building a world.

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

I wanted to play with these ideas and effects without using the most obvious existing rituals, or ones I didn’t fully understand. So I made a little ritual-generator out of two (non-comprehensive!) lists: purpose and subject. You can expand the lists with your own interests and knowledge.

Purpose of rite/ritual/invocation/ceremony/sacrament/etc

evokeencirclehideconfersevertransform
invokefarewellrecognisetransferseparaterenew
summonwelcomeacknowledgesteadyremoveimprove
avertrememberidentifysupporttransitionreform
banishremindpledgeseekpreventreturn
shamemarksacrificerequestbarreset
removeowngiftpetitionacknowledgebless
honourpossessinvestaccompanyprotectheal
securejoinpartakeharmoniseeasespeed
protectdisguiseapproachbeautifyliminalease

Subject

lifecropsjourneyfreedomfutureholy
deathplantspartnershipseasonspastunholy
agesvehiclesmarriagedayspresentphenomena
roleshousesrelationshipstidesmeteorologylegend
humantoolsadoptiontimesdisasterdeities
animalutensilsdisowningcelebrationshopeshealth
birdendeavourroleseventsaspirationsprocesses
fishjobsteachingmemorialsdepartedindustrial
weathercallingrulinghistorychildrenwar
landcommissionservinggovernmenteldersdomestic
businesscontractvowpromisephysicalabstract

The writing/illustration exercise

  • Take one or two items at random from each list and combine them (e.g. gift/legend or renew/own/animal).
  • Then expand them into a rite or ritual, getting more specific (e.g. a generational ritual to pass ownership of a community’s founding legend or an annual rite to renew ownership/stewardship of draught-animals).
    (Note: Keep an eye on where these brush against or trample on rites and rituals actually in use, and on places you might want to push against expectations, use discretion, avoid stereotypes or come down hard on (or redeem) a ceremony you’ve suffered through.)
  • If you know the world in which this story will happen, you can draw details and aesthetics for the ritual from it — weaving it into the substance of the world. Or you can start with the ritual and add details and aesthetics from things you like or notice around you (art deco/modernist!), and discover more about the place and people that way.
  • Then, if you’re using this to build a world or story, ask what could go wrong (or more right than was anticipated!), and follow the implications. (Control, enforceability, cost and benefit are some other interesting if cynical questions to ask — or consider e.g. the evolution and varied iterations of the ritual, and what it means to different people.)
  • Make a quick sketch (written or drawn) of a scene.
  • Bonus round: Note where the story or world started to grow, or where it didn’t. Repeat the process, and see if there’s a pattern, or if there are questions that helped grow it. Is there a echo among the ideas that resonate for you? Are there more entries you’d add to the lists?

More to come when I post about rituals and story structure.

Observation Journal: Swapping characterisations and roles

On this observation journal page, I was playing with more ways to look at a story (written or drawn) with fresh eyes.

It was a process I wanted to use on my own sketches and drafts, but as usual, I tried it out on a fairy tale first.

Double page spread of observation journal. Tiny handwritten observations on day and a drawing of a strand of leaves getting caught in a cafe fan. Notes swapping characterisations

I used “Little Red Riding Hood”, because I’d just spent a couple pages on it in another context (The Story Behind the Story).

First, I kept the characters in their established roles (Little Red Riding Hood playing herself, the Mother playing the Mother, the Wolf… well, you know). For each, I listed their obvious/easy/common traits. This is easy and fun — leaning into stereotypes and cliches in order to use their strength against them is usually a good time (see e.g. The Caudwell Manoeuvre).

Then I mixed them up.

CharacterUsual personality
LRRinnocent and plucky
Mothersolicitous but hands-off
Wolfwily & ferocious
Grandmotherfrail & vulnerable
Woodcuttertaciturn & pragmatic
Washerwomencheerful and in solidarity
(I like the version with the helpful laundry ladies at the river)

I then moved each characteristic up by one. Now it’s a story about a cool and capable Little Red Riding Hood, sent by her ferocious mother to visit her taciturn, pragmatic grandmother. On the way, she meets a frail, vulnerable wolf…

Next, I pushed things further by keeping the story the same, but having the characters play each others’ roles. Now it’s a tale of a washerwomen sent into the forest by a wolf to visit a child, and on the way they meet a treacherous woodcutter…

You could use either approach to shake up a story for retelling. But I’ve found it useful as a thought exercise when working on projects — drawn or written! I mightn’t ultimately make these changes, but playing through these exercises can highlight where I’ve made easy instead of interesting choices with a character, or identify where my original choice was correct but needs to be done with more deliberateness or flamboyance. And it’s an interesting way to break open someone else’s story in order to analyse it, or to have fun with it.

Writing/illustration exercise

  • Choose a story (written or visual). It can be someone else’s or your own.
    • List the characters. Next to each, briefly describe their obvious/default personality. Keep this simple. If it seems stereotypical, that’s fine.
    • Now, swap the characteristics around. Either randomly, or by shifting them all along one space.
    • Do a quick sketch (drawn or a paragraph) of what the story might now look like. (And make a note of any new ideas it gives you.)
  • Make a table with a list of roles (key characters) from the story. In the next column, put the same characters, but shuffled.
    • Pretend each character now has to play the new role to which you’ve assigned them.
    • Do a quick sketch (drawn or a paragraph) of what the story might now look like. (And make a note of any new ideas it gives you.)
  • Bonus, for each: Make a note of what worked, and what you liked, and see if you can identify why. Identify where the changes broke the story, or how robust the original idea was.
Tiny ballpoint sketch of leaves getting caught in a cafe fan.
Bird and man watching plastic leaves get caught in a cafe fan

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Observation Journal: more swapped descriptions (gilded)

Here’s a recurring observation journal page, with one of my favourite activities: mixing up descriptions. This forces a closer look at ordinary things, from slightly unexpected perspectives. Sometimes it creates miniature poems, at others it builds an image that pulls away into a story. Almost always, it’s an engrossing little mental exercise.

For related posts and other examples, see variations on descriptions, and other posts under the “descriptions” category.

Double page spread of observation journal. Tiny handwritten observations on day and a drawing of a bowl. Notes swapping descriptions

On this page, I chose four things from the day, and paired them: picnic bench and youth, chooks and gold leaf (it was Inktober — see below for a related illustration). For each word, I then made a list of descriptions using words and metaphors I associated with the other word in that pair.

Notes swapping descriptions

Picnic bench

  • youthful
  • springing
  • slatted with spring light
  • sifting flowers
  • curled/curved like a fern frond
  • ribbed like a fern
  • slim-legged/nimble-limbed
  • unsteady as a lamb
  • stubborn

I noted a “push to metaphor”. Now, I notice an organic vivacity and lightness.

Youth

  • four-square on the earth
  • curved and up-springing
  • youth on which all else rests
  • youth on which age depends
  • barred with strength and air
  • the promise of birds
  • knee-deep in greenery

The note says “sentiment”. But there’s a solidity, here, that the idea of the bench brought to the prettier language I was using before.

Chooks

  • square and bright as gold leaf
  • metal-tipped
  • ruffled like soft foil
  • scattering/scattered in light
  • in a cloud of glittering dust/insects

“Tricky but ennobling”. I really like these ones — it was more of a reach than the reverse (below), but I think that paid off.

Gold leaf (imitation)

  • fine-feathering
  • soft and enveloping as [illegible]
  • brooding on size
  • nested in corners of container
  • flocked

“Personifying”. I’m struck by how textural these are (very particular to the textures of metal leaf in use), and also that the staticness (brooding and nesting and enveloping) implies some readiness to movement.

Brush-and-ink and imitation-gold-leaf illustration of a hen looking at a radio.
For Inktober 2020 prompt “Radio” plus “The cowardly hero deceived the hen.” (This was VERY TINY and also a birthday card for my father and something of a riff on His Master’s Voice.)

Writing/illustration activity (originally posted, at greater length, in Variations on descriptions)

  • Pick two words at random. Concrete nouns — especially ordinary things — tend to be easiest to start with (especially for art).
  • Consider the descriptions/visuals you associate with each. You can lean into cliches and stereotypes here.
  • Describe (or sketch) each word using descriptions that belong more obviously to the other word.
  • Repeat.
  • Bonus: Note any tendencies or difficulties. Can you lean into or pull against or leverage those? Are there any broader patterns in your approaches?

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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Observation Journal: Five Things To Steal From A Cafe

I was being silly on this page of the observation journal, choosing Five Things to Steal from a cafe I was in (Bean — now closed, alas).

(For background, see previous Five Things to Steal posts and an explanation of what it means, drawn from Austen Kleon’s Steal Like An Artist.)

Double page spread of observation journal. Tiny handwritten observations on day and a drawing of a backpack with a box of books in it. Notes on a cafe I was in

I began this flippantly, although I was curious to see what else the activity might work on, and how ideas pinched from a setting could be reworked into art or writing or life.

The answer was: very well. I had to moderate a strong inclination to turn everything into a metaphor. But very interesting things happened when these points of inspiration were applied to or ran up against other patterns and fascinations I’d been noticing recently.

Handwritten notes on things to 'steal' from a cafe

Here are the five:

  • Shrine to the mundane / honouring the ordinary (old furniture, paintings of little things)
    • as an image, as a concept, as a reminder when writing, as a way to arrange my bookcases
  • Trellises (being used in the cafe to display art)
    • as a practical solution, as a metaphor for showing the underpinnings of a world etc, the use of lattices to connect worlds (Deep Secret, etc)
  • Cheerful / cosy bunker
    • a reminder (since my house isn’t arranged for looking out of easily) that it can be done by having lots to look at inside and many small spaces, as a story setting/mood/aesthetic, in art as a cavern drawn with no reference to externalities (an inversion of the little groves)
  • A particularly vivid blue/green in some paintings — in the background, in pupilless eyes etc
    • a reminder of some people I’ve known with vivid/striking/unsettling eyes, a pattern of outlining things with other things and/or outlining an absence (with a Midsomer Murders connection, of course)
  • Fake leaves everywhere — kitschy but oddly cheerful
    • a reminder to put more foliage more deliberately into images, and to consider plants as part of various aesthetics

Writing/illustration exercise:

  • Think of a space you’ve recently been in (the less obviously inspiring is sometimes better) or look are the place where you are right now.
  • Find five things about that space that you would like to steal — textures, colours, shapes, approaches to interior design, noise, atmosphere, etc.
  • For each, list at least three different ways you could incorporate it into an illustration or story. Try pushing past just representing an object/using the setting (but do that, too!). Could you approach it as a metaphor? How would you insert it into an existing idea?
  • Choose a few of those ideas and do a quick treatment/sketch (written or drawn).
  • Bonus: Do you notice any habits/patterns in what you chose, or how you adapted them? Make a note — you could try leaning harder into those tendencies, or flipping them. Did some of the ideas spark more than others? What did they have in common, and can you actively pursue that when coming up with ideas in the future?
Tiny ballpoint sketch of a backpack with a box of books in it
Here is my backpack with a box of Flyaway in it.

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Observation Journal: Five Things To Steal From The Art Gallery

This page of the observation journal is a reflection (nefarious) on a visit to QAGOMA (the Queensland Art Gallery & Gallery of Modern Art).

Double page spread of observation journal. Tiny handwritten observations, a drawing of a running lizard, notes on things seen at the gallery

The Five Things To Steal exercise is a useful way to quickly make notes on and tease inspiration from specific books, movies, etc. But I’ve also found it a lovely way to approach a broader experience — in this case, an art gallery.

It’s a good way to capture a substantial (but not overwhelming) handful of impressions, and speculate on what to do with them.

(Related: previous Five Things to Steal posts and an explanation of what it means, drawn from Austen Kleon’s Steal Like An Artist.)

Handwritten notes on 5 Things To Steal From QAGOMA
  • The sense of being parachuted into someone else’s visual memory: a sense of slowly descending into a landscape belonging to a particular artistic vocabulary.
    • This was in relation to a Mavis Ngallametta exhibition — I’d seen the paintings in small reproductions, but that was nothing like the experience of simultaneously looking up at and floating down into their enormousness. And simultaneously being reshaped to fit into them.
    • I wrote a bit more about this vs writing in my post about Travelogues: All the shapes of the land.
    • It’s also something that I’ve been thinking about again more recently — it seems like it should relate very much to map illustration, but I love it as an example of lowering readers into a world.
  • The scrolling effect of the repetition of a long cabinet full of ceramic forms like water plants and coral and fungi.
    • This is for the reminder to use repetition, but also the appeal of long decorative bands.
    • (Like the notes on the camp dogs, below, this fascination continues to get into the calendar patterns.)
  • The mundane writ large, gaining weight and honour and importance.
    • This is about the value of the everyday, yes, but also of the contribution detail and texture and focus have to making something feel mythic.
  • Sunken garden, mirror pool, bronze figures, water dragons — a particular enchanted aesthetic.
    • (This is a description of the gallery cafe.)
    • I’ve noted it as a potential aesthetic for a large project I’m just now editing. It managed to completely flow off the back of that story, but I’m hoping it will pool in the next project.
  • The Aurukun camp dog sculptures, for a large number of repetitions that are entirely individual and have very distinct personalities. (And I mean, look at them.)

I enjoy looking back at these five-things-to-steal posts, finding my way back into an experience of something, turning over fascinations to see how they’ve grown or what’s grown under them.

I also like this little list of things seen on the same day (from the left-hand observation page — that structure is based on a Lynda Barry exercise, see more on this page: observation journal).

Handwritten list of things seen during the day, including wildlife and art exhibitions

I like the specificity of it, the way that makes the everyday remarkable, the way the list of disparate things forms into an impression of a day, the weight of wistfulness of the absence of jacaranda flowers under the painting where they are sometimes scattered.

Illustration/writing exercise:

  • Go to an exhibition or art gallery (in person or virtual). Roam around it idly.
  • Then think of five things you would like to pinch from it.
  • Then ask yourself why — what about that artwork or approach to curation or unexpected lighting appealed to you?
  • Then make your heist plan: how would you steal each of those effects for your own art/writing?
  • Do a little written or drawn sketch of a way you might incorporate that aspect.

Terrible tiny ballpoint sketch of running lizard
terrible lizard sketch, water dragons do not look very like this

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Observation journal: Building stories out of moods

On this pair of observation journal pages, I was still thinking through the three-moods approach to short fiction. That’s described in more detail here: Story shapes — three-mood stories, and has spun off into its own series of very large short-story reading posts and quite a few short stories (mostly rolled into some larger projects, such as Patreon stories and sub-stories in a current manuscript).

These pages helped me by:

  • clarifying the usefulness of a three-mood structure in:
    • coming up with a story-shape
    • coming up with and developing ideas
  • reminding me of the usefulness of having a clear final note towards which to aim (see also e.g. picture to story idea)
  • confirming the power of adjectives (somewhat flippant but I do like them)

There is (as usual) an exercise at the end of this post, if you want to try it out yourself.

On earlier pages, I’d been breaking down existing stories into broad moods/vibes. See e.g. story structures and story patterns.

Here, I started trying to build up a story shape in the other direction. First I made a list of emotions. Then I picked three at random and looked at what sort of story that progression would suggest.

Handwritten notes on moods and stories and an illustration of one idea.

Here’s the initial list of moods (non-exhaustive):

surpriseinstigationseething
horrormomentumaggression
suspiciondoubtantagonism
anticipationfearactive
dreadterrorrevulsion
delightbewildermentrepentance
desireknowledgeemotive
greednaïvetémelodramatic
affectionplaciditysupportive
incorrigibleirrepressiblebereft
jaunty

After picking three at random, I looked for the sort of story which that progression of moods might suggest. For example:

  • greed — doubt — aggression
    –> acquisitiveness and wanting leads to falsity and the fear of potential failure which then leads to destruction (of self? of the object of desires? indiscriminate?) in that pursuit
  • naïveté — desire — placidity
    –> ignorance/innocence being swept up in honest pursuit of its desire, and then achieving its happily ever after having successfully learned no lesson.
    (I’d already written an earlier draft of “Merry in Time at this point, but it was a structure I wanted to lean into on those edits. Arguably lessons ARE learnt in that story, but not — I hope — the obvious ones for that shape of story.)

These clearly suggested story-shapes. I also liked the way that, taken together, the moods definitely implied an end state — a final note towards which to aim.

Here’s a little sketch of an idea:

Tiny ballpoint drawing of a shed labelled "surprise: secret door" then (inside) "horror: skeletons", then "suspicion: cemetery-like garden beds"
SURPRISE (secret door) —> HORROR (skeletons!) —> SUSPICION (cemetery-like garden beds)

Parts of this one (although not quite identifiable) have 100% got into parts of a subsequent large project (yet to be announced). The idea also contains concerns taken up in”Not To Be Taken” (in Bitter Distillations).

On the next page, I tried combining two moods (at random) for added nuance.

Handwritten notes on moods and stories.

For example:

  • suspicious bewilderment –> seething greed –> surprised revulsion
    be careful what you wish for / dreams of avarice
  • affectionate instigation –> knowledgeable horror –> doubtful anticipation
    succeeding too well
  • melodramatic delight –> greedy fear –> antagonistically supportive
    lives(?) for the drama

I also tried rearranging positions of the moods to see what would happen.

The main additional lesson from this page was the power of adjectives, and how much they modulate the expression of a mood.

A tiny ballpoint drawing of a tented arrangement of sticks
Minimalist cubby down by the creek — this has also appeared in another project

Writing/illustration exercise:

  • Make a list of Big Moods (emotions/vibes/driving concerns). Try for at least 10, although 20 is usually more profitable. Think of moods you like from stories, emotions you’ve felt recently, etc. Or use the list earlier in this post.
  • Pick three at random.
  • Imagine they form the beginning, middle and end of a story. Make some notes as to what sort of story they suggest.
    • For example, if I chose “delight –> bewilderment –> repentance”, that might suggest an “all that glitters is not gold” story.
  • Think of a possible situation and character for that story — if nothing comes quickly to mind, pick a character and setting from a fairy tale or other template story, or just someone/thing you’ve seen today.
    • E.g. if I used the stick cubby picture above with “delight –> bewilderment –> repentance”, that could become a story about someone finding a cubby in the trees, and being charmed by it, and getting inside it, and then… well, all is not as it seems (and you’re in season 1 of Stranger Things).
  • Sketch out (in words or pictures) a tiny scene or moment for that possible story, capturing part of that vibe. If you’re having trouble choosing, consider what the final scene might be.
    • E.g. a kid scrambling delightedly into an ominous hiding place — or scrabbling desperately to get out.
  • Bonus: Repeat this a few times. Notice anything that particularly works for you — or doesn’t. Are there story-shapes or ideas that particularly spark? Moods that resonate for you, or which you have to struggle to like or capture? Story types or genres you tend towards? Make a note — that’s all useful information for things to try (or evade) in future.
A tiny ballpoint drawing of a beagle sleeping on a square cushion
sleeping beagle

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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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Observation Journal: Five Things to Steal from Porco Rosso

This page of the observation journal features five things to steal from that delightful Studio Ghibli film Porco Rosso, which at the time of these notes Grace Dugan and I had just been to see again.

Porco Rosso poster — pig with goggles, scarf, flight suit in a red plane, giving a thumbs-up

(Related: previous Five Things to Steal posts and an explanation of what it means, drawn from Austen Kleon’s Steal Like An Artist.)

Double page spread of observation journal. Tiny handwritten observations, a drawing of crow on a McDonalds sign. On the right, notes on Porco Rosso.
everything lit golden, then frosted with blue light

I made these notes the day after the Five Things to Steal from Midsomer Murders post, so you might notice recurring characters.

Tiny handwritten notes on Porco Rosso.
  • Reliance on/use of very particular visual language to carry weight of story forward, while story is doing finer work.
    • (Language of Casablanca, etc, here — and I compared this to Sunshine on Leith which lets expected cliches do a lot of quick lifting for characterisation.)
    • I really liked the idea of making a choice of a very distinct aesthetic pay its way, and also to use it as misdirection to conceal a secondary story which is happening in the clues.
    • I made a note to practice writing scenes from different aesthetics (which I was already doing — see posts on aesthetics).
Tiny ballpoint sketch of feet in heeled shoes walking away from a wine glass on the floor, and a mouse running past it with a coin
Adding an era and setting aesthetic to the previous page’s mouse
  • A story that subtly passes a baton — the role of main character gets passed over and someone else ends the story.
    • Here it’s Fio, who was always the narrator — and it’s worth comparing to Nevil Shute’s No Highway (filmed with James Stewart as No Highway in the Sky), which ends with the narrator’s attention already being turned to new safety complications, and taken away from the winding-up of the main story.
    • I like the potential for combining this with an apprentice/journeyman/master transition (as noted on the previous page).
    • And also a connection to stories where a minor character gradually increases in importance, with a note to play with that in pictures.
Tiny ballpoint sketch of two people fighting with "somewhere they still..." written above.
somewhere, they still…
  • At some point, heroes and villains being rolled together to be allied in gentle nostalgia, and bundled away together into the past as time accelerates.
    • There’s a note here about the passage of a time/dream being the plot rather than the characters.
    • The trick of playing with this is not to be too easily merely sentimental.
    • That sense of the focus of a camera receding on (ex-) main characters.
    • And then the eternal charm of an entirely isolated independent hotel/island/refuge. The last homely house, little groves
Tiny ballpoint sketch of (possibly) a shadow among trees on a tiny isalnd.
  • A character exists who is, incidentally, probably something significant (e.g. a spy), and that is never addressed by the plot.
    • Such a good trope.
  • Two characters from separate strands of plot who only meet at the very end of a plot, and become instant friends.
    • (Or instant-ish, with respect to Oscar Wilde.)
    • Another variation: where their later relationship has been hinted (allusions, or the story is in flashback), but because they still only meet at the very end you never get to see any of that later connection.

At the bottom of the page, you can see I’ve made a little list of ways to explore some of those fascinations further.

Art/writing exercises

For general five-things exercises, see the end of the previous Five Things to Steal post.

Here is one way to turn a fascination into an activity of your own — basically a situation generator or a make-your-own Mad Libs:

  • Pick a story mechanic you find fascinating/a trope you like. (I find it easiest to limit myself to a certain genre).
    E.g. here, the baton-passing between two characters.
  • Identify the variables.
    Here, two characters/roles and a metaphorical baton.
  • Make a short list of possibilities for each variable. I usually try for at least five of each, often limiting it to the genre, but not always.
    With the example above, it would be two sets of five character roles/jobs (apprentice, journeyman, journalist, head of guild, patron, etc), and then five ‘batons’, which could be e.g. pursuit of justice, delivering a message, investigating a mystery, etc…
  • Mix and match.
    By the end of this story, a wealthy patron who has been investigating a mystery eventually passes responsibility for that to an apprentice cabinetmaker. Or vice versa.
  • Make a few notes (drawn or written) of characters or scenes this suggests.
  • Rinse and repeat.
Tiny ballpoint sketch of a crow sitting on one arch of a McDonalds sign.
Crow at McDonald’s

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Observation Journal: Five Things to Steal from Midsomer Murders

This page of the observation journal features five things to steal from Midsomer Murders. (The show has shown up in this category before — see Five Things to Steal: Cosy Crime Edition.)

(Related: previous Five Things to Steal posts and an explanation of what it means, drawn from Austen Kleon’s Steal Like An Artist; also Midsomer Murders TV sketches)

Double page spread of observation journal. Tiny handwritten observations, a drawing of a person listening at the door. On the right page, notes on Midsomer Murders, with some sketches.

(Also a continuation of vaguely Minoan-inspired border design.)

As ever, this exercise was both useful and soothing. And also as ever, I enjoy murder mysteries for the narrative hijinks they permit far more than for either the murder or the mystery.

Handwritten notes on Midsomer Murders, with some sketches.

The sense of someone being gradually taught (and learning) the next stage of their profession, and being somewhat supervised but also getting to be clever occasionally. Why? The charm of the learning-of-a-craft and the romance of the acquisition of competence. (Related: The Romance and Horror of the Navigable World.) (There’s a note here that says “nb also ducklings” and I’m not sure what the context of that was.) This was also connected to previous notes on the charm of listening to apprentices inserted into the ceiling of my house: Sparks and Navigable Worlds and Improbable Inventions.

Ballpoint drawing of man in coat demonstrating magic to short apprentice while woman with apron looks on assessingly
master & apprentice stories vs journeyman & apprentice stories — with magic

Endlessly stable central family never entirely uninvolved. I’d already been thinking about this more broadly (see Favourite Tropes About Families) and it would show up again.

ballpoint sketch of people at a table, formless figures looming in background
a family calm in the heart of chaos and/or ghosts

Good Guys defeat main Bad Guys but minor Morally Questionable Guys get away with a small windfall easily overlooked by the other parties. E.g. Sackville-Bagginses.

Ballpoint sketch of mouse carrying coin and "secondary story in details of image gets richer over course)
a tale of one bad mouse

Someone whose tall stories/colourful background turns out to have been completely true. (Less Big Fish and more flashmob society funeral). The opposite of secrets — the truth not believed/credited.

Everyone has a secret and not all is murder. I’d also recently read Kate Milford’s Greenglass House, so it’s cited here.

As usual, most of these include notes on how to adapt/adopt an idea. The “why” dot-point in the first entry was worth doing, and I’d like to do it more. And several points of fascination would show up in other entries.

Art/writing exercise

Basically, this is a way to take contained, useful notes about something you’ve seen/heard/watched/read. But it’s also an excellent way to identify fascinations, activities, and creative puzzles that you want to pursue (and to always have something to say about a topic).

  1. Think of something you’ve seen/heard/watched/attended/read etc. You don’t have to have liked it.
  2. Think of five things you could steal (i.e. learn, adopt, adapt, try, not plagiarise) from it.
  3. For each, if you want, dig a little deeper. Why this?
  4. Then for each, make a note on how you’d ‘steal’ it — how you’d adapt it into your work or life or a particular project. You don’t have to follow through on it, as the thought exercise alone is quite useful. But you might!
Ballpoint sketch of person listening at a door
Listening? In my living room, anyway

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