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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Observation journal: remixing good art

On this observation journal page, I used previous notes on my creative habits in order to remix an image.

Double page spread of observation journal. Tiny handwritten observations, a drawing of a birds nest in a tree.
I’m still amused by the little seen/heard/did icons on the left (observation) page

In a previous post — Points of Habit and Resistance — I did an activity where I listed some of my creative patterns and habits (good and bad) and then flipped them. (See also Paired Points, for more on that).

So e.g. “whimsy” flips to “violence” or “grotesque”.

The aim was to not correct habits, but to be aware of them and see where I wanted to adjust them and where I wanted to double-down.

I’ve been working that list up into a larger project, about which more soon!

On this page, I just wanted to play with some of those prompts.

For the purposes of trying them out, I chose an image I already liked — in this case, Ryo Takemasa‘s Water Lily illustration (see it here on Ryo’s portfolio or buy prints on Society6).

Screenshot of Ryo Takemasa art print of waterlilies in shades of blue-green on black water with a crescent moon above
Those blue-greens, the DEPTH they give the darkness, the shimmery yellow fingernail moon…

(A few other water lily images I’d been looking at recently also got into these ideas.)

Trying an exercise with someone else’s picture is a great way to:

  1. study how and why that picture works for me,
  2. know I’m working with something I already like (I’m sometimes too close to my own work), and
  3. relieve any pressure I feel to make something out of the exercise — this is Ryo Takemasa’s picture! I’m just conducting an exercise.

I then ran that image through a number of my prompts, and made quick drawn and written sketches of how they might change the scene.

A set of smaller sketches varying a drawing of lilypads.

It was interesting to note which gave rise to new ideas, and which suggested a treatment for a related topic.

There are close-ups of the exercises below:

Continue reading

Observation Journal — rearranging scenes

On these observation journal pages, I was playing again with “Cinderella” — see previously: Mapping movements in stories.

(Noting the observations on the right: it was a windy, glinting-winged spring week, and my first copies of Travelogues had arrived.)

I was giving feedback on and marking creative writing assignments for a creative writing subject in the UQ Doctor of Medicine program (such a great subject) so I was sitting in on the lectures. Charlotte Nash gave a lecture on classic story structures (beginning/middle/end) — more or less the classic three-act structure.

I’ve mentioned before that while I find this sort of approach to structure very useful for editing — especially for diagnosing problems I suspect exist — I don’t find it particularly intuitive or organic. So I wanted to play around with this structure on a story I knew well (see: the usefulness of template stories).

First, I fitted that structure onto “Cinderella” — more or less the version with three nights of dancing, and the birds attacking the sisters at the wedding.

Next, I scrambled the scenes, and forced them to fit that structure in their new order.

On the right, notes on scene placement in Cinderella, with some coloured sketches.

I wanted to see how the scenes would need to change if they appeared in a different position — not necessarily in the internal chronology of the story, but in the order in which they were told. E.g., if the story opened on the delight of the prince rediscovering Cinderella, what introductory work would that scene need to do?

Here’s the randomised list of scenes, with the turning points between the acts (beginning, middle, end) marked.

delight of discovery — godmother’s appearance — to the ball — [gear change — story really gets going] mystery of identity after the second ball — the shoe — the wedding — the search — the mystery of identity after the first ball — [central tipping point] final revenge on step-sisters — the third ball — Cinderella reveals herself — attempts by the step-sisters to mislead the prince — [gear change — end becomes inevitable] the first dance — the early mistreatment of Cinderella — happily ever after — the second ball — Cinderella’s initial bereavement

But it was also interesting to see how it changed the emphasis of the story itself — in this case, a concentration on vengeance and/or filling a loss.

Ballpoint drawing with pastel marker colours of women in elaborate cloaks and hats.

I repeated the exercise a week later.

On the right, notes on scene placement in Cinderella, with some coloured sketches.

Here is how the scenes fell out this time:

dance #1 — misleading by step-sisters — dance #3 — turning point: initial mistreatment — you shall go to the ball — wedding — reveal identity — mystery after second dance — [central tipping point — happy ever after — initial loss — the prince’s search — dance #2 — turning point: delight of being found — revenge — appearance of godmother — shoe! — mystery after first dance.

Breaking “Cinderella” down this way suggested a story that went: joy! –> oh no! bad things behind it –> sense good things in the future –> fight for good things (in knowledge will get them) –> gentler fairy-tale business to wrap it all up.

That is, a story told in the confidence that evil will overcome, but in the knowledge that goodness must still fight in the meantime.

Breaking the story down this way highlighted a clearer separation between the character‘s journey and the reader’s journey — whether the two experiences run in harness, and where they play off each other.

Ballpoint drawing with faint watercolours of two people dancing over bones, and a girl in a ballgown rubbing a sore foot

I also kept a little sketched list of events and lines that occurred to me as a result of the exercise, for a story, if not for this one.

Ballpoint drawing with faint watercolours, of a person clutching a monster with "who transforms" and a fairy-tale wedding with "that's the story we'll tell them"

It was a very interesting exercise for:

  • Understanding classic structures a bit better.
  • Thinking through what scenes do and can do.
  • Approaching a retelling.
  • Shaking up my understanding of a story, even after I’ve put it back into order.
  • Coming up with little stray ideas.

Writing/illustration exercise:

  1. Choose a story you know well (fairy tales are usually quite useful and relatively short). List the scenes.
  2. Pick a common narrative or dramatic structure you want to play with (three-act structure and Freytag’s pyramid get talked about a lot, but if you’ve taken any writing courses, including in school, or read books on narrative, you’ll have been exposed to some version in detail).
  3. Line the structure up against the story. You might have to force it to fit in places. It’s interesting to note what might need to change in the story to make an Official Structure fit neatly, and what lets the story work in spite of not fitting some classic mould.
  4. Now, mix up your scenes randomly — cut them out and shuffle them, or roll a dice, or close your eyes and point.
  5. Again, line the structure up against the new order of scenes. Note what new work some scenes might do, and whether the new order suggests new meanings for the story.
  6. Pick the new first or final scene. Do a quick written or drawn sketch of it, letting it take on the new emphases, and making it do that new work of e.g. opening up the world or introducing characters or closing off the narrative and themes.

Ballpoint sketch of two women — one sitting, one standing — throwing food to a magpie.
Housemates and magpie

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Observation Journal: Mapping movements in stories

On these observation journal pages, I was thinking about the way stories interact with the space in which they take place. (This was because of a comment about Travelogues, which is very much about moving through landscape.) But the exercise turned into another way to break apart and consider stories, and find new ways in.

I began by quickly noting down the main locations in some favourite fairy tales, and tracking how characters moved between them (see also: The Usefulness of Template Stories).

Below, you can see Little Red Riding Hood (the version with the river and the washerwomen), Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Rapunzel (the one with later attempted murders), Beauty and the Beast, and Snow White.

Handwritten page with diagrams of locations and movement between them in a series of fairytales

Charting stories like this highlighted some interesting patterns. The shuttling activity of Cinderella, the concentric, narrowing focus of Sleeping Beauty. The increasing distance from home and outward movement of Rapunzel, the ring-road of Little Red Riding Hood.

It also highlighted the places where other locations were implied but not revealed, and the difference between story movement and that of individual characters. For more on that, see Plotted: A Literary Atlas by Andrew DeGraff and Daniel Harmon and Cinemaps: An Atlas of 35 Great Movies by Andrew DeGraff and A. D. Jameson.

Cinderella in particular amused me.

Ballpoint diagram: home and palace, and arrows going there, back, there, back, there, back, back and there

Looked at this way, the focus of the story became the road between home and palace. So a few days later, I took a closer look:

Handwritten notes on movements between locations specified and implied in Cinderella, with some ballpoint and watercolour sketches

There are several nebulous implied locations (where the stepmother and godmother originate from, for example) — they could be expanded, ellided, or conflated.

Ballpoint and watercolour scribbly sketch of a cottage

And while the road is a key location, there is rarely much time spent on it. What would the story look like from the point of view of observers along the way?

Ballpoint and watercolour sketch of farmers leaning on a gate watching a carriage go past, saying "there they go again"

What about the tension between the landscape passing outside the carriage and the anticipation of the person within it? (Tangentially connected post: bored teens in cars.)

Ballpoint and watercolour scribbly sketch of a carriage crossing a bridge and a woman in a pink dress looking out of a carriage

The next day, I was just playing with tiny maps of Cinderella, for fun:

Handwritten notes on locations in Cinderella, with some maps drawn in ballpoint and coloured marker

But while the earlier charts open up the story, the map forces decisions, from aesthetic and style to the details of the world, the number of bridges the carriage should go across, and therefore the waterways and surrounding geography. At least, they do so if you build the world out from the events of the story.

If you fit a story to an existing geography, draping it over a landscape or running it along known roads, it is mostly the story that changes (and, perhaps, the meaning of the landscape). “Gisla and the Three Favours” (published in Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet last year) began as an exercise in draping the story of Cinderella over a volcanic landscape, and letting the story change. When writing Flyaway, the process involved introducing several fairy-tale elements to an ill-suited climate and watching them shift — but also letting the mythic weight of those stories become a lens through which to view landscape often written about more cruelly. And Travelogues explicitly involved attaching fantastic and fairy-tale imagery to very real geography and journeys.

I’ve also used this approach when planning and editing a current large project. Here’s a slightly redacted chart of the key locations, to see where movement was concentrated, and where the story opened up or was bottled in.

Map of many messy multicoloured loops between various redacted locations

Here is the same for an early version of an house from the story:

Tiny ballpoint house plan with coloured lines tracking various paths through it

Writing/illustration activity

  • Pick a story (a fairy-tale, a movie with mythic weight, something you’re working on — see The Usefulness of Template Stories).
  • From memory, do a quick rough chart of the key locations, and how characters move between them.
  • Notice and consider:
    • If you notice anything new about the story, or a new angle of approach to it, make a quick note of that.
    • If you wanted to open the story up, make it more claustrophobic, more cosmopolitan or focussed on logistics, what changes could you make to its locations?
  • Write or draw:
    • Are there any locations that don’t get a lot of focus? Implied off-page points of origin (or destination) — where was the woodcutter cutting wood? Heavily trafficked but almost unmentioned roads or driveways? Important outbuildings or waterways (did Sleeping Beauty’s castle have a moat, and what water fed it, and what became of it when everything was overgrown)?
    • Do a quick sketch — written or drawn — of a scene set in that place, or viewed from that point of observation.

Some related posts:

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Ballpoint drawing of a small wheeled suitcase fallen over
From one of the observation pages: my suitcase full of art books for a workshop

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?

The usefulness of template stories

In a lot of the writing exercises and art exercises on here, I recommend trying techniques out on someone else’s existing story, rather than only on your own ideas and works in progress. (Note, those writing and art links go to almost exactly the same posts, because most exercises work for both).

This is for a few reasons. For example:

  • Using an existing story saves time. I don’t have to construct a new one before I can try the exercise, and I know that this story already works as a story.
  • It lets me play in a style I know I enjoy (or, occasionally, one I detest).
  • Using someone else’s story can be freeing. If I use an idea I’m working on or wedded to, sometimes I’m worried about breaking the idea, or else the idea is so strong it doesn’t let me go wild with the exercise.
  • Transforming a classic story is a good way to create retellings, and new ideas in conversation with existing stories.
  • It makes use of the things I already know, that otherwise are just rattling around in the back of my brain.
  • If I need to come up with a new idea in a hurry, reskinning the basic structure of a story I know well is a shortcut (the whole three-moods project is related to this).
  • Changing something in an existing story makes it very clear what the ripple effects of that change are. It can reveal all sorts of things about structure and style and choices, whether about that story (if you’re interested in analysing it) or about narratives generally.
  • Consciously using a template story can sometimes reveal and shake up my default stories — habits I have and structures I lean on.

Here are some of the types of template stories I like to use (and it is nice to use a variety for variation and for different purposes):

  • Fairy tales. This is partly because I personally like working with them, and partly because of the mythic weight (see below). But a lot of fairy tales exist in versions that have been heavily condensed and pared back and boiled down to parts that can be used as archetypes or armatures for all sorts of purposes — shifted in time, dressed up in different costumes, etc, etc. Or you can pinch their ornaments and textures and put them onto something else. I like having a few in rotation; you’ve probably noticed I use Cinderella and Little Red Riding Hood pretty heavily, at least in examples.
  • Stories with mythic weight. When I get people to choose these template/reference stories in workshops, this is what I tell people to look for. By “mythic” I mean personally mythic — stories that loom large in your life, that you know well, that you recommend to others, that you refer back to. It could be Jurassic Park or a historical event or a memorable sports story. The only real rule is that it has to be a story, not a theme. You can’t say “death” but you can say “Hades & Persephone”.
  • Classics. Either stories culturally well-known, or ones I personally know well. (If you’re doing an exercise to share in public, e.g. as an example or in a workshop, the former is useful.) I’ve read Pride & Prejudice a lot, usually out loud to my dad, and it’s also pretty well known, so it shows up a lot, along with Jane Eyre.
  • Works with cultural resonance. Some of these are classics, others are familiar in certain circles — even the idea of a movie I’ve seen too many previews for but have no wish to watch can be the base of an exercise.
  • Stories I actively want to mess with. Sometimes it’s less about the exercise than the template story — maybe I want to see how I could fix something that irritated me, or work out what made me like it so much by changing elements until I identify the key components. (For a lot of people, these are also source urges for fan fiction and fan art.)
  • “Testing ground” stories. I do have a couple stories of my own I use as test cases. They are old manuscripts based on ideas that never quite worked, from long ago, and have been so handled and worn out and outgrown that I don’t mind doing terrible things to the base material.
  • Images. Illustrators can use all the stories above exactly as for writing. But sometimes there’ll be a single image or classic illustration that you can use in the same way as a template story.

I’ve posted a lot of writing and art exercises on here. (Note: exercises are usually at the end of the relevant posts — follow either the writing exercise or art exercise link, as almost all exercises work for both.) But it’s also worth trying other exercises you encounter out on a template story. Or try making your own exercises.

Here are some uses for a template story, as a starting point:

  • Playing around:
    • Doing scales
    • Aesthetic tests
    • Fanfiction
    • Messing around and having fun.
    • Test driving concepts
    • Distraction and procrastination
    • Play-writing
  • Working though:
    • Examples and demonstrations of concepts (e.g. for workshops)
    • Watching what happens to a story when you make a dramatic shift
    • Feeling for the levers and gears of a story
    • Tweaking visuals
    • Understanding what an existing story is doing, and how (in order to better understand that story, or the technique)
    • Learning to read as a writer/look at stories as an illustrator
  • Mythic palette:
    • Borrowing powerful narrative structures and approaches
    • Leaning on metaphor
    • Guiding choices in an unrelated story/image (e.g., using the characters in a fairytale to suggest the character and placement of chimneys on a skyline, or using words from Rapunzel to describe vines)
    • Lifting aesthetics and imagery
    • Ransacking for material/inspirations
    • Retelling
    • Using to strengthen or provide a point of comparison to another story

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