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: A suite of ideas

On these observation journal pages, I was again playing with ways to tease a central concept out into a cloud of ideas.

I refer to “suits” here, as in a deck of cards, because I think my original concept was to try for 13 ideas for each quadrant.

However, what was primarily on my mind was the maps I illustrate, with their unconventional compass points. I picked a central idea to play with, and four objects that felt highly thematic/mythic. Then I filtered the idea through each of those — their possible meanings and aesthetics and colours.

So here, for example, I took “Little Red Riding Hood” and passed it through each of “leaf”, “stone”, “sprocket” and “rose” to see how the idea would refract into green men and grandmother oaks, red pebbles that bring down brigands, the rose’s perspective on “Beauty and the Beast”, and a girl wandering the woods with a wrench.

Observation journal page with notes on story ideas.

It was a very pleasing way to scatter a number of ideas — and also entertaining to track some of the influences on my ideas & associations, e.g. Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s Das Versprechen and Charles Causley’s poems.

Two weeks later, I tried it again, shining “Ghosts” through “ibis”, “coriander”, “spider-web” and “cat” (chosen, this time, from things I’d seen that day).

Observation journal page with notes on story ideas.

This yielded ideas such as a genetic predisposition to taste ghosts as a soapy presence, ghosts scavenging from cafe tables, and ouija-webs.

Quite a few of the ideas from these pages have, in one form or another (mostly unrecognisable), got out into current projects, including a story scheduled to be published soon. When those projects are public, I’ll tell you how they link back to these pages.

Tiny ballpoint sketch of an ibis
ibis

Writing/art exercise

  • Pick an idea you’d like to play with. It doesn’t have to be complicated. It can be an image, an object, a word, or a classic story (see Template Stories). If all else fails, a fairy tale is a handy place to start.
  • Then pick four other objects or words. They can be ones you feel have mythic weight. Or they could be four different things you have seen today.
  • I set these out by putting the main idea in the middle of the page, and then four little nodes around it, one for each “suit”.
  • Now, combine the central idea with each of the four “suits” and see what ideas they suggest. Try to come up with at least 3 for each quadrant. Jot the ideas down as words or images. (I’ve done some image-only versions of this which I’ll post when I get to that part of the journal.)
    Here are some ways to think about this process:
    • force the main idea through the secondary word (or vice versa)
    • use the secondary word as a lens to see what it reveals about the main idea (or vice versa)
    • think of the two words together — do they suggest other stories/images you know and could riff on?
    • squish the main idea and secondary word together into a mash-up
    • knock the two together until sparks fly
    • where are they jagged against each other? where do they fit neatly?
    • what sort of things does the secondary word do? what if the main idea did that?
    • could you borrow the patterns/textures/aesthetics of one to reskin the other? or drape one over the skeleton of the other?

Observation journal: improbable inventions

I just… really like “X meets Y” formulations. They frequently amuse me immoderately, and of course they’re very useful for triangulating specific interests. The more unlikely they are, the more interesting is the space they create for possibilities.

I also find this sort of remixing a very useful habit to have — if nothing else, it’s a useful skill for all sorts of problem-solving.

A series of tweets:
"The Net" meets "The Secret Garden"
"Nightvale" but for productivity
Picture "The City and The City" as a scavenger hunt
Uber Eats but for succulents

I’ve written before about mixing & matching and shuffling ideas. A few examples:

On the observation journal page below, I was developing this approach a bit more, while looking for a way to deliberately incorporate the left-hand page observations into an activity that could be useful for my class.

Double page of observation journal, densely handwritten. On the left, 5 things seen, heard, and done that day. On the right, ideas drawn from combinations of those elements.

The left-hand page in this case includes pigeons-in-training, the porousness of houses, and apprentices in the ceiling.

The right-hand page activity involved:

  1. Picking an element at random from each of the three main boxes on a left-hand page (things seen/heard/done). When we did this later as a group, it was splendidly various, and also tapped into the things people hadn’t really noticed they were noticing.
  2. Using those three elements, combined, to come up with at least three business/product ideas (in my case, with digressions into story ideas). Doing multiples helped push the ideas a bit further, but it also lets you turn the selections around and solve different problems. See also: Observation Journal: Reflections and alphabetical order, and Observation Journal: Werewolf conferences and colour treatments.

You can combine the elements in any number of ways, e.g.: by just seeing what springs to mind, or seeing if they suggest particular problems to be solved (how to catch icecream trucks), or if there are commonalities (a focus on ceilings), or perhaps they suggest other themes and obsessions.

Close-up of densely handwritten pages of the observation journal.

Incidentally, if you frequently have to sit through long meetings, I’ve found being in this sort of training makes it a lot easier to come up with unexpected contributions. It’s always paid off directly for me, in terms both of not falling asleep and of earning a largely undeserved reputation for being a thoughtful contributor in a very uncreative environment.

Here, for example, is the second exercise from the page: The second example is from the previous page‘s observations:

  • The observations were from the previous day’s observations: Feet scuffing carpets; a single light in the trees; ruthlessness with a timer.
  • This suggested capturing/rerouting energy/static electricity from incidental daily activities (timers, institutional carpeting) to power ambient lighting.
  • Or automated lights left on for security purposes could be triggered/randomised by a motion detector in an unrelated location.
  • Or a register or app for calling in someone to be a ruthless secretary/chairperson in meetings that drag on.
  • Or an unexpected/ominous timer system “a la Nightvale but for productivity”.
  • And, because this was me and it’s my journal, nearly every idea links back to (a) other things I was thinking about and (b) picture/story ideas.

In the narrative context, there is a very tiny note there about Tim Powers, who said at a Readercon that he picks unrelated topics, invents a conspiracy between them, seeks evidence to support it and, once he has convinced himself it’s true, writes the book.

The ideas aren’t blindingly novel, and that isn’t the primary point — in fact, finding out that the most unlikely things already exist is a fascinating way to discover the currents and contours of the world. The exercise, as with most of the observation journal activities, had two main purposes, with a third advantage for a class:

  1. The exercise of getting the mental exercise, and staying used to following odd paths and making unexpected connections. This has been one of the biggest effects of the observation journal for me — a slightly indirect but very visible effect on various aspects of my work (and how I talk about it).
  2. Creating a stockpile of ideas which could be used to try out other ideas. Sometimes I find it difficult to experiment too wildly with an idea I’m already committed to. Having something silly, which never will get off the ground, is excellent source material for practicing techniques. For this reason:
    • I have continued to do variations of this activity in the observation journal when I wanted something fresh to practice on.
    • I have a few old story ideas around that never quite flew, but which I trot out, resection, restyle, renovate, reinvent, and so on, whenever I want to test a concept for another project.
  3. Easing group work. For classes — and especially for group work — having a way to quickly come up with an idea everyone contributed to and was amused by, but to which no-one was committed was very useful. The class had a business plan component, and it was fun (and therefore informative) and liberating to take one of our unlikely inventions (a teleportation device for dog walkers was a memorable one from class) and using that to experiment on, instead of precious nascent personal projects. And that in turn gave us a stock of examples we could refer back to, tinker with, rearrange, mock, enliven, etc, without overworking an actual project.

Observation Journal: Reflections and Alphabetical Order

The observation journals at this point (late January) were a clear mixture of testing ideas for classes, testing the journal for my own purposes, and overthinking things in the margins.

Making a list of twenty things (problems, uses, solutions, etc) is a classic way to come up with ideas (my dad used to use it to entertain us on long car trips, and I posted an example in Werewolf Conferences and Colour Treatments where I was working on ideas for a book cover).

This is a variation: Choose a topic/idea/theme and come up one idea for each letter of the alphabet. It’s good for observation exercises, too (basically a self-directed I Spy, like using the spectrum: Observation exercises). However, for coming up with rough ideas, it’s a useful way to (a) force a wide range of associations and (b) take the pressure off any individual idea. It’s also suprisingly fast — a race to the end instead of a wrestling with possibilities.

However that was not the most interesting part of the exercise.

An observation journal page. On the left are things seen, heard and done that day, as well as what I noticed about how I noticed things. On the right are a list of ideas for a "Poison story", one for each letter of the alphabet, and reflections on the process.

The unexpectedly useful bit was the patterns that emerged — pulling back and including another layer of reflection about the thoughts and reflections on the page:

  • Looking at this many ideas at once, and where they came from, I can see the range of things that were floating in my mind that day (from Victo Ngai illustrations to bushfires).
  • There was a distinct leaning (you can see the note in green at the top of the close-up below) towards the mythic-gothic or comic-Midsomer Murders. This is useful to know, whether to avoid it (the final story ended up being described by the editor as “a very strange piece”) or to better play to things that appeal to me.
  • Although most of the ideas had some charm, I could feel a difference between the ones that were still just a situation/character/incident looking for a plot, and some that already had momentum or traction. I hadn’t quite identified what it was here, yet, but I began to explore that tipping point more on future pages.
Hand-written reflections on things I noticed about the creativity exercise, how I got things done that day, the textures of watercolour, and things I wanted to do as a result.

There are a couple of other notes on what I noticed about the pages, too:

  • How things got done that day (it was a headachy day).
  • The usefulness of parameters.
  • The fact that ruling up the pages in advance encourages ideas onto them (see also Narrative Theory #1).
  • An appreciation for the variability of watercolour (using the pages to appreciate materials has been wonderful, both for getting better at using them and for enjoying them).
  • And also the recurring appearance of this type of cart (below), which finally made its way into one of the monthly stories for patrons. (Making tiny objects is a great way to catch and store — or exorcise! — small fascinations).
A sketch of a woman with a child beside her. The woman is pulling a folding cart with a box and a baby in it. There are written notes around it such as "Box!" and "lawn again already".

Art/writing exercises:

  • 26 ideas: Think of something you need to make/write. If nothing springs to mind, then imagine you have to write or illustrate a reimagining of a classic tale — “Little Red Riding Hood”, for example. As quickly as you can, come up with twenty-six ways you could rewrite/illustrate it, one for each letter. E.g. “A” suggests a red apple and a kinship to Snow White, and a blended retelling; or visiting an aunt instead of a grandmother — or Red Riding Hood herself is in fact the dashing outcast aunt of the family, visiting a repressed niece….
  • Patterns: When you get to the end, look back over the list and notice any patterns. Were your ideas affected by particular podcasts or the sound of construction outside? Do they trend to psychological horror, or action-adventure? Which ones feel like they’ve got a spark to them — do you know why?
  • Existing ideas: Or make a list of ten pieces of writing/art you’ve done (or love), and look for patterns between them (see also: When in doubt, make lists; and The Key to all Mythologies). Are there particular fascinations you’d like to keep, or enhance, or question?

Observation Journal: (Too) Many ideas

Or: Overdoing things — a self-portrait

This little piece of excess from the observation journal was intended as a sort of timing run (as you can see from the yellow notes on the right). Any one square of it, in the event, would have been about as much as I’d expect from my students, but I was having fun, and dinosaurs, and avoiding something and, since it was still January at the time, surrounded by people to half-watch.

The basic idea was to list 5 Problems To Be Solved down one side (based on previous observation journal pages, i.e. traffic on the Walter Taylor bridge, the general indignities of medical procedures (I was getting scans of and needles in my spine about this time), a story I was struggling to write, something to do with card games, and the eternal battle of momentum vs inertia.

Across the top, I listed five current preoccupations/things noticed, which that day were Egrets, Dinosaurs, Antique Bottles, Ground Rocks and Watercolour.

Then I tried to move very fast, and come up with five solutions for each problem, using each preoccupation (or some aspect thereof).

Here’s a bit more detail from the “story about poison” row. Left is the Ground Rocks column, right is Watercolour. As with most exercises like this, the ideas immediately start picking up on other notes and ideas — a bit of writing I did on a visit with friends to MassMOCA, environmental rules around paint at a workshop, conversations, etc.

Even a basic dalliance with the maths would have suggested this would take some time. On the other hand, a time limit (even if it is just daylight) and a ridiculous number of cells to fill can encourage invention, if not legibility. But it passes the time.

My favourite entry is still the concept of “Jurassic Park meets And Then There Were None“, although of course considered on some levels they are almost the same story.