Observation Journal — Getting meta with story shapes

On this observation journal page I had intended to play more with previous thoughts on story structure, treating them literally as the story. The idea becoming the thing.

It’s not uncommon, of course — consider the Discworld’s Narrativium — but I suspect I had been thinking in particular about how Diana Wynne Jones occasionally literalises some aspects of genre her books (see e.g. aspects of the Gothic in Time of the Ghost and Aunt Maria, and of course the mythosphere in The Game).

Left page: “A scrabbling in the ceiling”. Also, the diffuser has fallen off the bathroom skylight, so sometimes on full moon nights it projects a perfect circle of moonlight onto the bathroom floor.

That was the plan.

Instead I got distracted by some theories of narrative that were working for me, and wondering what they would look like AS a narrative.

It has similarities to the pick-three-pictures-and-match-them-to-a-movie game (for a more involved version of that see: The Deal with Dixit). It’s a way to shuffle stories I already know into new configurations, as well as to draw out directions I’d like to pursue.

So:

  • Story takes shape of its container” becomes… well, at it’s mildest it’s just “grow to fit circumstances”, but actually it becomes several VERY GOOD books I have read since writing this page. But I can’t tell you what they are because this would be a spoiler. Impressionable things that become good (or feared) because of who took them in, and all the violence and generosity and assumptions involved.

The main lesson: Nearly anything can be a story-shape if you’re deliberate enough about it.

Writing/art exercises: Made-up rules

  1. Theory into story: If you’re familiar with theories and guidelines in your field, pick one theory of writing or art composition that you often work with (the rule of thirds? the rule of threes?).
    • Alternatively, pick some personal beliefs about what makes a good story/picture (velvety moss? forward motion? girls with swords?) and rephrase it “all stories/pictures should do XYZ”.
    • Treat that theory TOO literally. To what extent can you make it become the story? Does alluding to something three times have an actual magical power known to people in your story? Is this a painting of a world in which all girls MUST have swords, whether they want to or not?
    • Do a quick written/drawn sketch.
  2. Found theories: Or instead, pick an object lying nearby A bowl of receipts? A fork?
    • Convert that into your new theory of story/composition. “All stories/books should be like a bowl of receipts”. “A good painting should comply with the Fork Theory of composition.”
    • Now see if you can (a) work out what that might mean and (b) sketch out a story/image adhering to that theory. (An ornamental framing device for a found-text piece?)
    • (NB I think it’s Loomis’ Creative Illustration that deals with randomised compositions.)
  3. Bonus:
    • Did you think of any existing stories/pictures that fit that theory?
    • Make a few notes on what went hilariously wrong, and if anything worked unexpectedly — to what extent do formal guidelines vs freedom vs deliberateness suit you?

Observation Journal: Tinkering with story engines

Around this point in the observation journal, I spent quite a few pages tinkering with how ideas worked — which ones appealed to me, and where they might come from, and if I could deliberately recreate the process. I wasn’t so much trying to write a story as watching myself work, looking for the little epiphanies that make a story emerge, and tricks I could use if I got stuck on something I was writing.

However, some of these exercises led directly to projects which aren’t finished (or aren’t published) yet, so I haven’t posted the pages. Others, like the blue page below, led to stories which have evolved into something unrecognisable. And some (like the pink page) didn’t work, for reasons which were also interesting.

This first page combined several previous exercises, and revealed a bit more about the aspects that were useful (for me) and the ones which didn’t work the way I do.

Here are all the stages/exercises, with links to some related posts (I’ll add more if I find them):

  • Idea: First, I picked three things at random from preceding observation pages (here: arcane symbols, working blocks, using a laundry rack as a laptop stand — pic). Then I used those three to come up with a base concept (using household objects for arcane [vibes?]).
  • Aesthetic: I then picked an aesthetic. The three objects themselves suggested a down-at-heel contemporary tone, which I wasn’t feeling. So I flipped that into something smokier and Victorian. (On the second page, I chose both a colour key and a place-aesthetic.)
  • Swapped stereotypes and cliches: Next, I chose some of the obvious stereotype pairings (mundane/magical and wizard/housewife), listed some associated words, and swapped them. So the housewife becomes mysterious, aloof, and robed in velvet and the house is a site of arcane ritual and (apparently) carpets, while the wizard is cheerful and stout with a clean apron and magic is associated with domestic work.
  • Contrasts and impetus: Then I started feeling for where the pressures behind the story might be — where the points of tension and conflict come from. In this case velvet-draped darkness and sunny good-humour seemed an amusing contrast at least — perhaps one hires the other and must deal with the unexpected consequences. A cheerful wizard takes on a morose relative as housekeeper, or a Gothic housewife hires an inappropriately upbeat necromancer to reanimate someone who died.
  • More flipping: I also tried looking at what they might want and what could stop them — picking the obvious goals and obstacles and inverting them. This was fun but the standard question of a character’s goals and motivations has never felt instinctive for me (and generally aggravates me) — I’ve tinkered more with that question since.
  • Structure: It wasn’t quite shaping into a story yet — there are some notes there reaching toward story-shapes and styles of humour that might match the idea. Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day and The Enchanted April and Lolly Willowes. On the second page I more deliberately chose (at random) a sequence of story moods and used it to suggest how a story might take shape, which helped a lot, and when I came back to expand the (unrecognisably altered) version of this idea, I used that approach to expand it.
  • Finally, the point of this exercise was not to write a story but to watch how I work. (See e.g. the questions at A tremor in the web.) So I made a few notes on where the idea sparked or why perhaps it didn’t. The main lessons were:
    • I continue to enjoy mixing/matching/flipping in order to come up with an idea. This remains consistent, and fun for roadtrips.
    • An idea isn’t enough without a story shape to flow into.
    • The aesthetic has to appeal to me (or be made to appeal).
    • An idea, story shape, and attractive aesthetic aren’t enough (without e.g. extreme outside pressure) if it isn’t a type of story/genre I care to write. This was in relation to the second page, which turned into more of an experimental romcom idea.

Observation Journal: More mixed descriptions

I love this picture because while it is objectively not an accurate drawing of a crow, generally speaking, it absolutely catches the attitude of this specific crow

Here are a few more observation journal pages playing with mismatched metaphors and shaken-up descriptions.

I very much like these exercises — swapping, exchanging, flipping language (and images) and finding unexpected connections is an enjoyable game, but also a way to discover little worlds and the hints of stories, and to stay in the habit of reaching for very specific and carefully callibrated descriptions — training the ear as well as the hand. (Here are some related posts, with exercises: Variations on descriptions, More swapped descriptions, Similes and genre flips.)

This first page is a repeat of picking two things at random from the observation page and making them fit each other (with an occasional genre flip):

Trees lit like caffeination, champagne like metal dye in the veins. A person whose approach to computers is like the wary abandon of the amateur chef. A sense of clammy inevitability, like washing left forgotten in the machine.

In the next, I changed the approach slightly (it’s a combination of the original and the Caudwell approaches). First I made a list of terms I associated with cold weather and hot weather and noted patterns in them (the aloof, brittle, beautiful, festive terms for winter, the physically oppressive and vigorous associations of summer).

Then I swapped these and wrote some descriptions.

So hot weather could be described by way of salt-white light, the shiver you get from the heat, puffing out hot breath, the numbness of warmth. And cold weather could be all brilliance and gold light, green shadows, the humidity of damp clothes indoors, etc.

There are a few lines borrowed from the previous technique: winter like a crow at the window, summer like a pomegranate — and then the question of what would happen if you switched those. The answer is quite a lot, actually. Of course winter is like a pomegranate, it’s a whole thing — and summer is all about getting woken up by the crows on the fence outside.

On a subsequent page, I went back to those twin lists and directly swapped the terms (pale to vivid, biting to either aloof or caressing, greenery to fibre matting, balcony to underhouse).

The “summer” paragraph that resulted was quite similar to the previous one. Winter, however, gained movement and intent — winter with its clicking claws, its smell of old rugs, its cold nose pressed without warning against bare skin…

Here are some previous related posts, some of which have writing/illustration activities.

Sleeping on my sister’s sofa, woken by her dog

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Musical werewolves — a game for one or more players

Recently I was driving while feeling disappointed in a werewolf movie, and tried to distract myself by imagining every song on the radio was over the end credits of a better werewolf movie, and attempting to reconstruct it from there.

This works with almost any song. I’ve played it with friends in cafes with a Korean jazz playlist, and again alone today, reading Terri WIndling’s Tunes for a Monday Morning over on Myth & Moor, and later listening to Triple-J in the car.

So, for example, Martha Tilston’s “The Sadness of the Sea“.

This would be an elegaic story, in which the werewolf families sadly assume wolf forms permanently and retreat into the receding wilderness.

Declan McKenna’s “Beautiful Faces“, however, would clearly suit a story in which a group of youngish monster hunters, after some high-key-colour adventures, patch themselves up and head out for a dangerous/glamorous night on the town.

I find the game works best if you only listen to (and don’t watch) the videos, and is the most fun if you choose the songs at random.

Story shapes and extrapolation

Recently, I’ve been revisiting this three-mood approach to story patterns (last posted about here Observation Journal — Story Patterns). I will probably continue to do so. [And later edits are indicated with a note and/or italics.]

Current thoughts are that breaking a short story into three big moods has proved useful in several ways. These include:

  • Recording my impression of a short story I’ve read.
  • [Edited to add:] Understanding story structure.
  • Borrowing a cage to trap a story idea, or a frame to train the story to grow on.
  • Guided extrapolation.

I’ve outlined these more below:

(A caveat, as ever, that I use “moodvery broadly, to include mood, texture, tone, trope, attitude, posture, allusion, reaction…)

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New story: The Wonderful Stag…

Once, not so long ago, a marvellous stag lived in the forest at the foot of our mountain, on the other side of the little bridge you must still cross when you leave our village…

My (very) short story “The Wonderful Stag, or The Courtship of Red Elsie” has just been published on Tor.com — with this gorgeous and luminous illustration by John Jude Palencar.

Art by John Jude Palencar

That lit crescent of its antlers! The strange wise oddity of its face! The texture of its fur! The ears!

A fun fact about this story is that it actually began as an illustration — one of the earliest of the ink-and-gold Inktober fairytale illustrations I did in 2019.

A silhouette of a man in medieval garments offering a gold ring to a stag with rings on its antlers.

The story I imagined behind this illustration was a little different (although it survived as one of the narrator’s asides about possible origins). It was prompted by a @fairytaletext tweet “Before long, the suitor fell in love with a mischievous stag.”

A silhouette of a stag with gold rings on its antlers leaping

I couldn’t shake the image of a stag running through the forest, hung with rings with which it had made off. When I sat down to write that, however, the consequences became rather deeper-reaching, and George-the-Wolf emerged to listen to the rumours, and Red Elsie flickered into being, and all the courtship arrangements of the isolated village…

But you can read all about that here: https://www.tor.com/2021/09/01/the-wonderful-stag-or-the-courtship-of-red-elsie-kathleen-jennings/

Observation Journal: By whom and to whom

On this observation journal page, I was thinking about by whom and to whom stories are told (whether in words or pictures).

(A quick note: The examples in this are pretty light: just me riffing on fairy tales. The exercise does, however, also lend itself to thinking more deeply about who gets to tell a story and who listens — and to remixing that.)

The page
(I’ve transcribed the lists — see the bottom of this post)

I’d been thinking, recently, about points of view, and the voices of slightly unexpected narrators. This was mostly because I had been reading Kim Scott’s Taboo and Maria Dahvana Headley’s The Mere Wife (a really interesting pair of books to read against each other). I’d also just reached the section about narration in Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer.

First, I made a list of 20 people who could be telling or listening to a story (keeping it fairly general, but with a fairy-tale retelling in mind). As usual this got out of hand and escalated to 45. Then I made two story-specific lists, for Little Red RIding Hood and Rapunzel.

After that, I mixed and matched entries from those lists to end up with, for example, “What the washerwomen at the ford told Little Red RIding Hood’s mother” (my favourite LRR is where she runs over the river on sheets held by washerwomen), or “What the kitchen told the prince” (which would turn the extended attempted-murders version of Rapunzel into a crime scene investigation).

The typed versions of the list are right down at the bottom of the post.

Use

It was a lot of fun doing this, both seeing the potential immediate impact on story and purpose, but also how well it worked for editing — suddenly contracting and clarifying a story, suggesting a form it should take or a hidden (or overt) agenda. Even if I don’t change the narrator, referring back to this exercise is useful for strengthening my commitment to what I have written or sketched. (Tangentially related: reversing the (ideal) audience). The exercise has also made me more aware generally of the possibilities and ramifications of considering point of view and purpose. And it’s remained a useful exercise for new and ongoing projects, even (or perhaps especially) where I want the narrator to remain largely behind the curtain but still have a bias, either for subtle drama or my own amusement.

Art application

All this applies to illustration, equally. There are obvious art/point of view overlaps, of course, but there are also deeper narrative impacts: Consider the focuses in the stories told by the ” nurse” of Hokusai’s “100 poems explained by the nurse.” And see also previous posts on Viewpoints and Thinking About Points of View.

Narrators and observers

I’ve typed up the full lists at the bottom of the post, but as with most of these activities, making the list is one of the most useful parts of the exercise.

Art/writing exercise

  • Version 1: Generalities
    • Consider (broadly) the general type of stories you like to work with/read.
    • Make a list of types of possible narrators and audiences (keeping them all in one list is more exciting). Push for 20, but keep adding more if you like. (Or use my list below.)
    • Pick a scene of a story you are working with/enjoy, or choose a fairy tale you might retell/illustrate..
    • Choose two items from the list at random. They are now the teller and the audience.
    • Sketch (a paragraph or a drawing) a scene from the story as it might be told by and to those characters.
  • Version 2: Specifics
    • Choose a fairy-tale you might wish to retell/illustrate (or another story idea you are working with). (If you’re in a hurry, use one of my stories and lists below.)
    • List the characters in the story — include main, secondary, and background/implied.
      • Bonus: Expand the list by adding other significant/necessary/implied/intriguing settings and objects from the story. (Animals can go into either list, as appropriate.)
    • Choose two entries from the list(s) above at random. The first is the storyteller, the second is the audience.
    • Sketch (a paragraph or a drawing) a scene from the story as it might be told by and to those characters.
  • Version 3: Silliness
    • As for version 2, but use a list from a different fairy tale.
  • Bonus
    • Note how the story might shift or change, what secrets and agendas come into play or become possible, what parts of the story drop out of view or become important. What changed about actual physical viewpoint, or mood, or tone? Does it deepen or shift understanding of details of the world of the story?
    • Follow some of those changes through the rest of the story, and consider what larger consequences they might have.
    • If you tried both versions (general and specific), which approach was easiest to work with? Which more vigorously changed how you presented the story?

Birds-eye view of a pigeon

Below are the (personal to me, and not comprehensive) lists of potential tellers and audiences.

Continue reading

Pandora’s Box — A Spell for Returning

Pandora’s Box, one of two Light Grey Art Lab art swaps, has arrived, very full of postcards, stickers, pins, tiny sculptures, bandannas…

You can find the collections on the Light Grey website, and throughout the show, works will be available on the online shop as special mystery packs. You can check out the mystery packs here! And select pieces will only be available at Light Grey Art Lab in Minneapolis. 

I posted, before, about a design I didn’t use for my contribution. I still like it very much, but it didn’t work for what I wanted to experiment with, which was stickers (I used StickerApp, because they print on the backing paper as well).

Hand holding cut-paper skull, in black paper, crowned by strawberries

After cutting out the silhouette skull above, I redrew the concept with a brush pen, with a looser wreath of strawberries, and a coin in the eyesocket.

Drawing of skull crowned by strawberries, with a coin in its eyesocket.

I coloured it digitally, for the sticker.

Sticker of skull crowned by strawberries, with a coin in its eyesocket.

And on the back, in keeping with the theme, I put a tiny hint of a story — a little braiding of superstitions for going back to enchantment (and obliquely part of a true story).

Reverse of sticker, with writing

A Spell for Returning

I knew the strawberries were enchanted, so I ate them.

I promise —

I threw the last coin into the stream between night and day.

nothing will bar my way.

Observation Journal: A good sentence

This page of the observation journal is a return to sentence analysis — and specifically, to one of my favourite lines from Pride and Prejudice. (See previously: Staring at Sentences and First Sentences.)

Two page handwritten observation journal spread. On the left page, 5 things seen, heard, and done. On the right, notes on a sentence.
Dogs with dancing feet and girls with rabbit ears, gum trees glittering silver in the afternoon light. 

This is not a first line, but it is one of my favourite sentences in a book. It comes from Pride and Prejudice (Jane Austen), when Elizabeth and her aunt and uncle return from a visit to Pemberley:

“They talked of his sister, his friends, his house, his fruit — of everything but himself; yet Elizabeth was longing to know what Mrs Gardiner thought of him, and Mrs Gardiner would have been highly gratified by her niece’s beginning the subject.”

This is such a fun line: low-key but central to so much of what is happening in the book, and linking several very important relationships (the Gardiners, after all, get the last line of the novel).

Here are some of the elements that came to light as I worked through it this time (starting by selecting word types — pronouns, nouns, verb strings, etc):

  • Possession and reference — Mr Darcy is never mentioned but everything in the sentence is circling that topic.
  • Domesticity and affection — the nouns (sister, friends, house, fruit, niece) focus on relationships and responsibilities, but also very kindly relationships. The tone is aloof but the undertones are deeply personal and affectionate.
  • Desire, pleasure, intensity — there’s complexity and strength here, and a sense of big emotions being held in suspension, conditionally.
  • Staccato, then flowing rhythm — awkwardness of speech (which is very sympathetic) vs the impulsive flow of emotion
  • Two views of the same thing leads to sympathy — there’s no doubt about people’s thoughts here, because we know what both Lizzy and her aunt are thinking. That puts the focus on why/what is not being discussed. But also because I’m not wondering what the characters are thinking, it makes it safe for me to feel for them, as they think it. There’s a sort of benevolent dramatic irony here, and a sense of little people moving on a board that I like very much in (for example) both Georgette Heyer and Stephen King (see Sympathy for Characters). [Also a lesson for me, as I tend to leave descriptions of emotions out of early drafts.]
  • [A more recent observation] The role of the em-dash and semi-colon — each half of this sentence is composed of two ideas (house vs man; Elizabeth vs Mrs Gardiner), but all these features are finely balanced and inextricably linked. The em-dash brings the breathless recitation to a sharp halt by focussing on what is missing. A full-stop instead of semi-colon would break the very clear point that the conversation aunt and niece are extremely conscious they are not having threads its tension through the words they do speak.

I’m particularly interested in that idea of it being safe to care for characters. Not because nothing bad will happen to them, but because of a sort of benevolent dramatic irony. It’s the opposite of a twist — the sense of things that will remain constant even if the unexpected happens. It’s also something I’d like to explore further in images, as well as writing.

But whatever practical and theoretical benefits this activity has for telling stories, it’s a wonderfully indulgent exercise to do as a reader.

For a writing/art exercise see Staring at Sentences.

For more Pride and Prejudice see (among many other posts) Mix and Match.

Note: If you’d like to support art and writing and posts like this about it, I have a Patreon account (patreon.com/tanaudel) and patrons there get behind-the-scenes process and sneak-peeks, starting from US$1, or you could buy me a (virtual) coffee at ko-fi.com/tanaudel (and I get through quite a bit of coffee).

Observation Journal — sympathy for characters

These two sets of observation journal pages are considering why I find some characters sympathetic.

Short version:

These are three ways for creating sympathetic characters that I found particularly interesting:

  • Authorial kindness for (although not necessarily to) characters.
  • Characters who value each other. (This demonstrates why the reader might care, but also creates something new to protect.)
  • Villains on their worst days. (Unwilling sympathy.)
Three pen drawings of a moustachioed villain, one with an arm-cast, one in pouring rain.
Moustache-twirling villain on (a) moustache twirling and (b) and (c) on bad days

Long version:

I’ve broken down the notes in more detail below (and there’s an art-or-writing exercise at the end).

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