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: 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.)

Viewpoints

(This follows on from yesterday’s post Thinking about points of view).

My only clear memory of reading Tirra Lirra By The River as an undergrad is of a scene where a character following the narrator up a staircase observes her new haircut:

'If you look at the underside of the cut,' said a man named Wallace Faulks, 'you can see the grain. Look, just like in a section of wood.'

It lingered. One reason is because it is so true and keenly observed, and every time I see a friend with freshly bobbed hair I think of this line. But I think it also stayed with me because it was such a wonderful example of viewpoint.

In writing, “point of view” usually refers to whether a story is told in first/second/third/omniscient point of view (“I”/”you”/”third”/godlike). But here I was thinking more about viewpoint in the artistic/perspective sense — literally where the viewer (whoever they might be) is physically standing, and what they can see from there.

For writers, in a broad sense, it can apply to temporal points of view, too (past? present? future? “The Present Only Toucheth Thee” was kind of all about that).

But to keep it simple: If I’m describing (or drawing) a person climbing a staircase, I can describe the scene several ways, including:

  • From their eyes, travelling with them: how the wallpaper gleams olive in lamplight, and where the carpet on the stairs is faded, which stairs creak, what is lurking on the landing.
  • From the top of the staircase: seeing their shadow climbing ahead of them, their eyes flicking from stair to stair, their expression as they get breathless, the way the buttons on their cardigan pull, the point at which their feet come into view.
  • From the foot of the stairs: the scuffs at the back of their shoes, the way their calves disappear in curved shadows under the hem of a skirt, the marks on the back of the cardigan, over the shoulderblades, where they leaned against a dusty wall, the way the lamplight pulls away from them as they ascend into darkness.

It’s easy to get into habits of describing things all one way, or from the most obvious viewpoint. I try to consciously play with this when I’m sketching, even sometimes building a reference piece that I can move around (e.g. the model library in this post). I do it when writing, too. Occasionally I will write out a scene from the other side of a room, or the level of the ceiling fan. Quite often the original viewpoint was sound (and style and purpose create their own restrictions), but seeing it briefly from another viewpoint will tell me more about the setting, and sometimes the character: Is there dust on the ceiling fan? What’s stored behind the door that was just flung open?

Writing/art exercise

  • Pick a scene (written or drawn). If you don’t have one in mind, choose a classic (for example, here, Cinderella running down the stairs) and do a super-quick stick figure or dot point sketch of it, as it first leaps to mind.
Sometimes it’s a classic for a reason. Cinderella front and centre, the prince in the distance, a shoe between them.
  • Identify where your viewer (the “person” describing the scene or holding the metaphorical camera) is located. In the sketch, they’re at the bottom of the stairs, or perhaps even driving her carriage.
  • Then consider some other potential vantage points — obvious or surprising.
  • Sketch those out quickly (words or drawings), and see what you find out about the scene.

The lower picture is from inside the palace, over the prince’s shoulder. Now the scene (and Cinderella) is running away from the viewer. There outside is dark, inside here is bright. Shadows stream away, opulence is everywhere, perhaps there is startled laughter nearby, or the clinking of glasses in the sudden silence of the orchestra.

The upper image is from the shrubbery below a curve of the staircase (might someone be lurking there?). Cinderella is obscured by balustrades — their design would now become important (a specific architectural era? carved with past legends of the realm?), as would the design of the gardens (ominous groves? brightly lit topiaries?). It also provides a particular staging: at least three distinct and separated levels of picture plane, story, and society.

Chickens and stories

This is where ideas come from:

You mention on Twitter that you don’t know how you started following the local Hereford Breeders society but that you find it soothing. A friend asks for recommendations for chicken fancier accounts.

The search is unsuccessful, but when you sit down to warm up for some other projects with some watercolour painting, you have chickens on the brain.

Fancy chickens.

Fury Road but with chickens

 

You are taken by the idea of Fury-Road-but-with-chickens. But also you were thinking about eighteenth century dresses, because of Tremontaine, so you give a fancy lady a chicken.

Lady with hen

But you aren’t sure you got the jacket quite right, although you want those sleeves, so you get into bodice construction and bowls of eggs because those are also hard to paint pleasingly. Since this is clearly a Cinderella-type, she gets a fancy dress too. You are quite pleased with these Daniel Smith colours and also with that shoe.

Cinderella with chickens

It seems likely Reynolds would have painted her godmother at some point, so another dress happens. Your dad was watching Pride and Prejudice in the next room so a bit of Catherine de Bourgh gets in there.

Godmother

She’s a little too straightforward, and also accidentally stepping on her hem, although that is an effect you might go for deliberately another time. You like her skirts, however.

You are now enamoured of two half-seen fabric designs, and decide to sketch them out in more detail. A costumer friend would like to make one of the dresses, so these plans may coincide. You have the beginnings of a chickenful fairytale idea, and also that first dress just about captures the feeling of a story idea you had last night when you started transplanting the bits you like of Supergirl into assorted historical contexts. This is now half-outlined and has about 1000 words of test-scenes.

An author friend points out that the first lady should be wearing clogs, which leads to a discussion about pretend chicken farmers, and although you meant to refer to Le Petit Trianon, somehow you are led astray into talking about “fake cheep girls” and everyone agrees you should stop talking for the day.

Books and Movies – March 2015

Cinderella

Books

  • Burial Rites – Hannah Kent: A historical novel about Agnes Magnusdottir, the last woman executed in Iceland. Such a small, slow, bleak, beautiful book and history. Also some interesting Anne of Green Gables parallels, which is not at all to say that if you like Anne you should read this (you should read it, just not for any similarity!). I’m curious, however, to know if anyone else thought this.
  • A Darker Shade of Magic – V E Schwab: (One of several I grabbed from Tor based on the cover) The structure of the beginning of this novelreminded me of Diana Wynne Jones. It didn’t unfold or particularly explain, just… started, and then went on, so the whole book felt on the cusp of Telling You What The Plot Is And Tipping Into The Middle. This gave it a sustained, off-balance momentum which I always find both puzzling and enjoyable (it’s something that’s usually discouraged but high on my wish list). Schwab also starts with the point of view of someone not of our world looking at our world (or something like it) and just assumes the divided state of the worlds is normal. This is something else DWJ trained me to like.
  • Thus Was Adonis Murdered – Sarah Caudwell: The first and, as I read them out of order, the last. Alas. Such a delightful balance of classic mystery/comedy, and unexpected, understated messing-with-stereotypes.
  • Am I Black Enough for You – Dr Anita Heiss: Part memoir, part musing on identity (and how others perceive it, particularly the Aboriginal identity of an academic city girl), part story of the growth of an academic and author. Both this and Palmer’s book (below) had some interesting intersections on the themes of (a) speaking up and (b) listening.
  • The Art of Asking – Amanda Palmer: I really enjoyed this, and have recommended it to people for very different reasons: as an account of controversy (whichever side of several you fall on), as an artistic memoir, as biography, as a bohemian fantasy, as a crash-course in creative business, to read as a novel, for some unexpected Sayers parallels in the themes of growing up and negotiating adult relationships.
  • Gobbolino, the Witch’s Cat – Ursula Moray Williams: A classic. I may have cried at the end.

Movies

  • Cinderella: Just nice, in the nicest way. Terri Windling pointed out this review by Grace Nuth, “Have courage and be kind”, which points out the charming kindness and politeness. It sounds like a small thing, but as KHR Smith pointed out, we didn’t realise until we came out of the cinema that we’d been missing it.

The little gouache Cinderella painting above is available as a print on RedBubble.