Observation Journal: 30 descriptions of a tree

This observation journal activity is one I’ve mentioned before (see: Sketching with words) — looking at one thing and finding ten or twenty ways to describe that particular object. It’s good for long drives, and also for sitting still, and for breaking open the world a little bit. (And for very famous poems.)

In this case, I’d gone down to the creek at the bottom of my street in the late afternoon. I’d been too twitchy to simply sit (this must have been after a deadline), but it was a lovely way to look long and deep at just one tree, and relax, and play with words.

And it didn’t matter if the descriptions wouldn’t work for a given context, or felt overwrought. That was part of the game.

Thirty descriptions of a eucalypt, late afternoon

  1. A tower with many windows
  2. A ticker-tape parade
  3. Stands of people cheering
  4. A spun stick of cotton-candy
  5. A rattle
  6. Soft-bodied, sharp-boned sky scraper
  7. Clusters of a thousand long eyes
  8. “An army with banners”
  9. Tamborinists, fluttering ribbons
  10. A dream of washing lines
  11. A map pinned with a thousand flags
  12. A paintbrush, gold-dipped
  13. A duster, web-spun
  14. A distant cumulus
  15. A fire hoop for birds to leap through
  16. A height chart, thick with measurements
  17. A river delta, fanning out into the currents of air
  18. Clustering tributaries, pouring down towards the earth
  19. A tide of leaves
  20. A gown of soft-clattering spangles
  21. A rococo candelabra, silver rubbing off the brass
  22. A net cast, unfurling
  23. A spray of fish scales
  24. A sheet snapped against the wind
  25. Largesse, upflung
  26. A rise of streamers
  27. A branching lung
  28. A conspiracy [of leaves]
  29. A cloud of witness
  30. Thick-clustered tinsel

(And, added a few days later, 31. A lagerphone)

balancing act

Writing/illustration exercise

  • Go sit somewhere and look at an object (or pick something you drive past).
  • List 5, or 10, or 20 ways you could describe it. You could:
  • Bonus round: Note if any descriptions stand out, or were very unexpected (and when they start to become so), and whether any particularly spark your interest (and if so, can you explain why?)

As mentioned in the post Sketching with words, I used this approach in working out some of the descriptions in Flyaway (available through Tor.com (US), Picador (Aus), and through all good bookstores).

But if you like even less narrative, and particularly if you like poetry that is lists of descriptions, my Travelogues: Vignettes from Trains in Motion (available from Brain Jar Press and other good book places) is just such a visual sketchbook:

Also, I’ve just started setting up a mailing list. It won’t be a newsletter — only the occasional email for any major updates (publication announcements, exhibitions, etc) and rare round-ups of things you might not want to have missed. If that’s for you, the (extremely early version of) the sign-up page is here:

Mailing List Sign-Up

I’ve only just set it up, so definitely please let me know if anything goes wrong!

Observation Journal — more Caudwelling

On this observation journal page, I revisited the Caudwell Manoeuvre. The first time, I deliberately picked opposites. This time, I played with pairs.

Flowers falling / falling into flowers

For each word, I wrote down the first/obvious/cliched association — or my current association with it. Then I swapped those associations, and tried to write new descriptions accordingly.

So, for example, watercolour seems thin, erratic, unforgiving. Whereas oil paint is thick, has a strong smell, and is forgiving. If I swap those associations, I need to describe them as follows:

  • watercolour: describe unwieldy, heavily-pigmented applications of watercolour, concentrating on all the smells of water (and paper and pigment).
  • oil paint: describe the slippery, staining, spreading, ineradicable nature of it.

Or bread and water in the classic dungeon sense; bread dry, tough and coarse; water dank and green. Swapped:

  • bread: dank green bread, dark and mould-tinted.
  • water: dusty, muscular and gritty.

Or sense, all calm, practical, dependable, self-abnegating, vs sensibility that’s flowery, effusive, impulsive, melodic. Flipped:

  • sense: dramatically pragmatic, theatrically logical
  • sensibility: calm, quotidian sentimentality, a self-effacing sensitivity

(What I like about that example is that it goes from being Elinor and Marianne Dashwood to Mrs Bennett and Jane Bennett).

Fruitbat hanging head-down in blossoms

You can use this to come up with ideas, of course. But it’s also a fun way to shake up the obvious view of something, and find surprising but no less true ways to look at it (the crispiness of old, much-washed socks).

Writing/illustrating exercise (as per the Caudwell Manoeuvre post)

  • Write down things that occur in pairs — either in the wild or in your mind. Dungeons and dragons? Meat pies and tomato sauce?
  • Pick a pair. For each item, write down some brief obvious descriptions and associations (including texture, colour, lines etc — this works for illustration as well as writing).
  • Now swap those notes. Use that list and work out how to describe (or illustrate) the other half of the pair in those terms. (Weirdly lumpy and chewy tomato sauce, with the dried bits around the top of the bottle flaking off? A stone-and-moss, cavern-dwelling dragon with a voice like the echoes of dripping water? Or, more literally, a dragon full of unfortunate individuals and a few skeletons?).
  • Try leaning into it to varying degrees — seeking a new thing that blends the old, or seeking new ways to see the old.

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).And/or check out prints and products available at Redbubble and Spoonflower.

Observation journal — getting meta with story structures #2

The observation journal has been well-suited to testing and revising theories and approaches (as well as coming up with ideas, practising scales, etc). This is another reason the reflection/conclusion panel at the bottom of these journal pages is so useful!

This page was a continuation of a previous exercise — using story structures as ideas (see: Getting meta with story structures).

I looked at frame stories (e.g. having characters explicitly move between different levels of story; frames that call stories into existence), 3(+) act structures (e.g. an explicit staginess/interaction with the format of a play), and turning points/gear changes (stories about velocity, etc).

Experiments which don’t go as planned are still informative. Things I realised:

  • Deliberateness is really the thing.
  • I found it easier to literalise principles (as previously) than specific structures (as here).
  • However, it’s an AWFUL lot easier to literalise structures in art than writing: frames and triptychs, sequential art, etc.
  • A while ago, I used to like reading Rules of Story Shapes, strict principles of narrative structure, etc, probably trying to find a shortcut. Now, those structures feel too static and rigid as a guide to writing. They feel more like splints (and perhaps training wheels) than organic structures. That might be why I find it difficult to literalise them into stories. (This is personal! Lots of writers I know plan to a structure and do so very effectively.)
  • Nowadays, broad principles feel more natural. They are flexible: guidelines to steer by, the voice of experience, the instinct that shapes a story. (This is why I like three-mood story shapes.) And they’re usually more metaphorical. This is perhaps why it’s easier to make them into literal aspects of stories. (Diana Wynne Jones does this brilliantly, especially in her more Gothic stories, such as Aunt Maria and The Time of the Ghost.)

Art/writing exercises (there are several activities at the end of the previous post on getting meta)

  • Find an interesting narrative structure outside the field you’re working in. E.g. if you’re a writer, find an intriguing painting; if you’re an illustrator, ask around for a book with an unconventional approach.
  • Then sketch out a story/picture that translates that approach. Can you take a narrative framing device or peculiar approach to time and create that effect in an illustration? How would you structure a story in a way analogous to a Renaissance altarpiece?

Finally, here is Lulu (not mine). She is an Irish terrier, and you might be familiar with her from Angela Slatter‘s Instagram.

Story shapes — three-mood stories

This post is a running list of three-mood (or three-note) short story shapes I’ve found interesting (for writing and art). I’m gathering the list here for future reference and extension.

I will update & refine this from time to time. There are further explanations at the bottom of the post, along with links to related and previous posts. Let me know if you have any questions.

humorous sketchelements clash/conflagrationfall out
worlddeeperdissolve into it
unsettlementdeepening horrorthe cusp of annihilation
ominouscompoundedtwist (of plot or knife)
formation of goalquiet progression towards goalachievement of goal
inklingred herringsolution
foreshadow doomproceed towards doom[evade] doom
meet cutecomplicationhappily ever after/for now
doorsomething throughpushed back
suspicionpeel backtruth & consequences
awkwardnessproliferation of optionsharmony
discoverygrowing up[vigorous/defiant?] acceptance

More information and ways to use this

Background/caveats: I find “beginning — middle — end”, three-act structures, etc, more useful as a diagnostic tool than as a starting point for storytelling. Your mileage may vary — I’m used to thinking about stories through stories, and biting my way out of them from the inside. This three-mood approach to understanding stories is better suited to how I think and it’s helped me understand structures better. But it might not be for you!

Couldn’t this be distilled down to One True Story Shape? Sure? I enjoy looking for the Key to All Mythologies as much as anyone, but I don’t personally find it particularly helpful for making new stories. You do you. (Also problem — attempts — solution is commonly cited as a standard story-shape, but I’ve turned it up very rarely in this exercise).

Novels? Short stories. (I mean, go for it — so far I’ve only used this in reading, writing and drawing small stories, and trying to understand how they function as discrete objects.)

What does “mood” mean? Anything I want it to. Mood/note/vibe/point/aesthetic/gesture. But broadly, I mean the feeling of that section of the story, which carries the story along and changes into the next mood. Decadence flowing inevitably into resignation, or an appreciation of a world leading someone to dig deeper (perhaps too deep). That implied movement from one mood to the next is vitally important, but also fairly self-evident.

Are there only three moods in a story? No. You could granulate it even further. But three is easy to hold in the mind, and tends to make room for most of the short stories I’ve tried it on, and implies enough transition of some sort (of action, emotion, experience, etc.) to create movement through a short story.

Here are a few ways to use this approach for writing and illustrating (and possibly other shortish forms of storytelling):

  • Analyse a story: After reading a short story, try to distil it into three big moods. These will be subjective, and you could quite easily do more than one version. It’s a useful way to compress both the story and your personal reaction to it into something you can examine.
    • Sometimes this is easier a little while after you’ve read the story, when the details have softened with distance.
  • Make your own list: Keep repeating the step above. This way, you’ll also have a deeper understanding of what you mean by the moods (and why), and why you like particular story-shapes.
  • Develop an idea: Take an idea (or image/object/aesthetic). Pick a story-progression you like.
    • Drop the idea into one of the three slots. See what ideas that suggests for the other two slots.
      • E.g. say you choose “fragments — facets — whole” and your idea is a bicycle courier on a penny-farthing bicycle.
        • Does that idea feel like a fragment? In that case, what else is going on in the world — other anachronisms? And then why — what’s the whole story? Time travel? These are the last bicycles built to last? This is likely to be a world-building story, widening out from a glimpse of an individual.
        • Or is the anachronistic (but jaunty) bicycle courier a larger facet of the story? What are the original glimpses which are made sense of by this magnificent personage? And how does their world fit them? This is less character-focussed, and personally it’s the idea that attracts me least.
        • Or if the solution and reward of the story is the realisation of the reality of this tweed-clad courier, then the first two sections might be about building up the puzzle, the oddities and idiosyncrasies of this person (an ever so slightly jarring day-in-the-life), before letting the reader know what they’re actually riding. This is more of a twist ending.
        • (This approach work equally for an illustration — either a three-panel story or a way to choose a scene to illustrate).
    • Once you have images to match those three moods, you’ll probably need to consider the links and impetus, how each connects and moves on to the next. This is fun and fairly self-explanatory.
  • Strengthen a story: Think of a story you are working on. Look for a story-shape that appeals to you and/or resonates with the draft. See where you could strengthen the story by enhancing (or being more deliberate about) some of those moods.
    • Note: Some of these story shapes are more common in certain genres. You can pick a shape that obviously suits the type of story you’re working with. “Door – something through it — pushed back (with lingering knowledge)” is a very common old-school ghost story structure (it fits most of my favourite M.R. James stories).
    • But you don’t need to find an ‘appropriate’ shape — it’s fun to work against the grain. You could, for example, tell/illustrate a fairy-tale romance with a mood of gathering horror.
  • Reinterpret/riff on a story: Pick an existing story (or one you’re illustrating) and choose the WRONG mood progression, and retell/illustrate it according to that.
  • Remix: Randomly select three moods and find a story-shape you want to play with (resolution — horror — meet cute?). Or randomly select three images to drop into a particular story-shape, and try to make them work as a story.
  • Shortcuts: This has been useful for getting people who aren’t used to thinking in terms of narrative structure to quickly develop a story.

Which short stories are these based on? I haven’t included the reference-stories in this post because some of these progressions are spoilers and a few are very vague memories, and some of them are extremely subjective interpretations — my personal reactions to a story I knew was intended to create a different effect, but had an unintended but intriguing impact on me. Further, many shapes are distilled from or common to a genre or style. I’m trying to keep a better list — if you’re interested in seeing more of a specific breakdown, let me know.

Some related posts:

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).And/or check out prints and products available at Redbubble and Spoonflower.

Observation Journal — ways of walking

This observation journal page is about how characters walk.

Earlier in the year I heard David Suchet talking about the importance of voice and walk when creating/conveying a character (see Act Like It). On this page, I wanted to play around with that in writing and drawing, vs acting. (Incidentally, I’ve been listening to a lot of Make It Then Tell Everybody, on which cartoonists and graphic novelists frequently discuss working on the on-page acting of their characters.)

Left page: Laundry in need of being done but remaining undone

I started with some stick figures, mocking up a few silly walks. Then I elaborated them into a character. (Putting a specific costume onto an idea is generally a quick way to create the feeling of a personality.)

Then I jotted down a written description of each hypothetical walker — led by the hips, flouncing and sauntering, setting each foot down smartly as if stamping a particular bug, trailing sullenly away, etc.

Finally, I wrote a sentence describing how each would move in a hurry: borne on a tide of consequence, leaping off the second-last step and landing with both shoes together, and so on.

It was an interesting little exercise, and a good way to think through and condense/amplify aspects of physicality. (Related: observing hands in cafes.) It’s also good for exercising related vocabulary.

Writing/illustration exercise

  • Jot down some stick figures with exaggerated walking styles OR pick a few letters of the alphabet and imagine how they would walk.
  • For the artists: Sketch that letter/stick figure as a character. I like to do this by picking a favourite era/style of clothing, putting it on the person, and going from there.
  • Try describing the style of walk — dot points of good adjectives and verbs are fine. (Z with a slashing sashay, D leaning slightly back to support their magnificent weight, etc).
  • Pick one of the following (or another mood). Consider the walking style you’ve just described. How would that person move in this situation:
    • haste
    • showing off
    • swooningly romantic
    • sneaking
    • trying to outpace someone else to a goal
    • with extreme distaste and reluctance
  • For the artists: Now sketch that scene.

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).And/or check out prints and products available at Redbubble and Spoonflower.

Observation Journal — much-used words and symbolism

Usually I post observation journal pages chronologically, which is why I’m still working through last year. These three pages, however, are very current. (I’ll scan them eventually).

I am editing a draft of a story this month. This means I am confronted by words I regularly overuse. Sometimes this is simply because I think they’re neat, or get in a habit. But some words I use because I like them and they mean something to me. When I use the word “green” it’s less about description than about trying to invoke some nebulous, numinous green-ness.

So I finally sat down to work out what I actually *mean* when I use some of my most overused words.

Here is “green”:

This approach is a work-in-progress, but it has already been useful both for edits and for clarifying my thoughts on a story.

For example: Is this person wearing a green coat because I wanted a sense of growth? An engulfing quality? A lichenous texture? Is the sea glinting like bottles or iridescent with decay? Would I even paint the trees as green, or was I trying to capture a bilious or purple effect that belongs to greenness and the wild? Is a hedge dense and velvety with blue shadows? Is it springing with new leaves and sharp with the scents of herbs? Is this very green story about decay or wildness or dissolution or new growth, or several of those things?

This exercise is, of course, partially about specificity. But it’s also about reaching for the meanings behind the word.

Here are “Shadows”:

And it turns out, half the time I’m thinking of shadows as luminous and vermilion-flecked, and almost always as less about concealment than about deeper or distant truth (thanks, Robert Frost and George MacDonald). And so maybe I should occasionally say that.

Here I took it a little sideways, to look more at an object than a word — coats:

I like writing coats more than cloaks, as a general rule. This page is less about breaking up the description of them, and more about looking at the habit: are there symbols I could clarify, or things an audience might not realise I’m using a coat as a shorthand for? And if I know that I’m using a coat as a sort of Swiss-army-knife of a garment, which stands for practicality and adventure and records the story on its surface, could I use (for example) an actual Swiss army knife instead? Or could I play with forcing those roles onto something unexpected, like a spangled scarf?

(I’m going to try this exercise again soon with my most overused word: “and”.)

Writing/illustration Exercises (I’ll probably refine these by the next time I post about it)

  • Choose a word (or for artists: an images/object/colour/treatment) you know you overuse, or suspect you might overuse, or have been scolded about by editors. Even — or perhaps especially — if it’s something you like using, and suspect you keep coming back to for a reason.
  • Start breaking down why and how you use it. You’ll find your symbols and shorthands are different. And even the high-level categories might change. But as a starting point, here are some of the ones I used (for fairly free associations) — once I had these, I started getting into more detail.
    • colour (not just other words for it, but if — for you —it contains other colours, scarlet in shadow and mustard in green; or if the default colour of a coat is green — if you don’t think visually, look at some pictures that feel particularly that colour to you, and see what other colours are in them)
    • temperature
    • texture (actual and what you think it should feel like)
    • actions
    • body language (even if you don’t describe it, what’s your default for character interaction with this thing: frolicking? cowering?)
    • movement
    • smell
    • things
    • sounds
    • opposite of
    • associations/influences (“if your mother mends a coat cut about and tore“)
    • symbolises/means
    • places
    • weight
    • decay (this was specific to green, then I tried it on “shadow” and it was intriguing)
    • conceals (this was shadow-specific but it got into “coat” as well)
    • role (of the object, or of the people associated with it)
    • necessary components (coats, when I write them, need buttons and pockets and linings)
  • Take a scene or sentence in which you use the word, and see if you can use these new lists to adjust and specify the description, or simply strengthen it. (Red hat or jaunty hat or the fragile defiant headgear of someone about to meet a wolf?)
  • Could you give another colour/object/movement the same symbolic meaning? Could you make violet feel like orange, or high-heels or a serving spoon serve the purpose of a fedora?
  • Could you flip the symbolism of that word, and make a leather jacket mean giddy flamboyance or restlessly drumming fingertips mean peace?

Observation Journal: Mixing and matching stories and imagery

This observation journal page is a continuation of previous thoughts on in-world surface patterns.

This time, I was remixing/mixing and matching stories. I’ve written about that previously, too: Mix and Match (contains a lot of Pride and Prejudice).

This time I listed some key characters from Rapunzel and Little Red Riding Hood, and looked for similarities (warnings of risk, insufficient information, victims of predators, wily carnivores), and for ways to link the stories (misguided/rash actions, trapped by other’s choices, manipulation and threat, innocent third parties).

These suggested some possible stories that I could combine with various aesthetics: an innocent in high society; vanishing or seeking revenge; victims working together.

Then I started adding the visual elements, pushing the Little Red Riding Hood elements into the high society version (hothouse flowers, fur hoods, red gowns).

And vice versa (magnificence, ropes of flowers like jewels, beautiful hair).

And then just following the ideas and the lines — food and home, a red wolf, a beastly woman, until I ended up with the first line of a story to play with another time, that “Once there was a woman who accidentally changed her daughter for a wolf”, which feels like it asks enough questions to start a tale.

You can see in the final note that I was still working out exactly what I was trying to do with these exercises, although I knew I was chasing something (and would continue to). But it was very helpful for working on retellings and riffs of existing stories, and a way to clarify ideas into something “vivid, coherent & deliberate”.

Writing/illustration activities (adapted/abbreviated/extended from previous posts: mix & match and surface patterns).

  • Pick two stories at random (fairy tales, favourite movies, etc — the least like each other, the better, e.g. Pride & Prejudice and Jurassic Park). Then find at least 5 similarities between them (forcibly and improbably, if necessary).
  • Concentrating on those similarities, how could you edit one of those stories to be more like the others? Try a quick paragraph or sketch.
  • Look only at the list of similarities. What sort of new story you could build out of them?
  • Finally, make a list of the key imagery from one story. How would adding those elements to the other change it? (Try a quick paragraph or sketch seeing how it would work in practice).

Observation journal — some less common points of view

On this observation journal page, I was again playing with points of view from which a story could be told.

I’d made a list previously (it’s typed up at this post: By whom and to whom — there are some exercises there, too). But after reading Kim Scott and Maria Dahvana Headley close together, I wanted to add a few more to the list.

Here are the main categories of narrator I wanted to play with (I’ve listed them in detail at the bottom of this post).

  • Oracular/prophetic
  • Predecessors/ancestors
  • Land/elements of landscape
  • Plural (a group in the story’s present)
  • Plural (a group at some other point in time)
  • The tales themselves

I ran a few stories I was working on through each category. It was illuminating. The shift in perspective could be subtle or bold, playful or elegiac, but it usually revealed new angles and possibilities. This less-conventional (for me) points of view also made me consider the purpose of the story more, and created some interesting ways to riff on omniscient viewpoints and unreliability. There can also be a lot of charm in glimpsing the actions of characters/narrators who aren’t strictly individual players on the stage.

And several angles suggested shapes for future stories, once I find narratives to put in them.

Writing/illustration exercise (see also Viewpoints)

  • Choose a story you are writing/drawing, or one that you’d like to (a fairy-tale usually works in a pinch).
  • Consider briefly how the story would be told/viewed if it were framed by each of the perspectives listed above. How would “Little Red Riding Hood”, for example, look if it were illustrated from the point of view of the forest or the path, or told by all-grandmothers-after, or the-wolves-who-were-watching, or prophesied to occur at some future date?
  • Quickly sketch out (words or pictures) a quick treatment of a scene from a couple of these perspectives. Where does it shift the story for you, how does it change the emphasis or the imagery or the frame?

The full (but by no means exhaustive) list

I’ve typed out the full list below, for reference. If you want to play with another long list of potential tellers/audiences, see also the post By whom and to whom.

Continue reading

Observation Journal: In-world surface patterns

This observation journal page features a little exercise in thinking through some thematically appropriate in-world surface patterns for fairy tales.

I’d been making notes, on and off, reminding myself to pay attention to the surfaces of things (in writing as much as drawing), not to forget the human urge to ornament surfaces, the narrative usefulness of surface ornament, and had played some sketching and writing games varying surface detail in stories. (It ties a bit to thoughts on staginess and strong aesthetics too, of course.)

On this page, I picked a couple of fairy tales, and just leaned into what might be story-appropriate ornaments.

First, for Cinderella: pumpkin-coloured brocade, silks hand-painted with vines and doves with beaks the colour of blood, jacquard in gilt & grey like the scales of a lizard, wigs fantastically styled into bowers and coaches, or featuring a real clock that struck the hour.

The second half shifts through several stories:

A deep blue overdress stitched with a full of snowflakes, thickening towards the hem so that no blue remains visible. A bed carved by a master-carver with castles and briars and a girl going off sturdily on some adventure. The back of a rocking-chair carved with a comfortable-looking wolf.

It is all self-referential, but to an extent that adds to the depth and concentration of a small world — and the details could be swapped out where breathing room is needed.

I discovered my default mode was direct references to the story, or foreshadowing. But as I pushed it further, it became wider references to the shape of the world (the importance of glass to fashion at that moment, the tales told within the world). And that of course lets you push further to ask: Who makes these things? What fashions prevail? Who is responsible for the glass, with or without enchantments? Who put these stories in the carvings?

Writing/art exercise

  • Pick a fairy tale (or another story you know well), and a key (or favourite) scene from it.
  • Make a list of important objects and colours and themes from the story as a whole. (Pumpkins and glass and lizards? Newspapers and bicycles and dogs?)
  • Consider that key scene. Where could you add surface ornament? Wallpaper and clothing? Graffiti and paint jobs? Jewellery? T-shirt logos?
  • Make a quick sketch (drawn or written) filling those surfaces with story-appropriate designs, as thematic or literal as you like.
  • Where do they add to the story? Where do they raise questions about the world? Where do they overcomplicate things, or make the world too small or self-aware? Do you like that artificiality, or want to open the world up? (There’s not a wrong answer here, but it’s interesting to feel out the edges of your preferences.)

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.


  • 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.

Edit: This has now been continued: Getting meta with story structures #2.

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?