On this observation journal page I wanted to pull back a bit from the structure and engines of stories and make a list of twenty purposes for a short story. (For the artists: I’ve found this list works pretty well for one stand-alone illustration/vignette or a several linked smallish images.)
As with all the observation journal activities, the aim was to work out which purposes occurred (and appealed) to me. It is a personal and subjective list, and specific to quite short stories. It is also a list that might change if I was thinking about a particular genre or mood.
But it has been very useful for concentrating my attention on several projects. This is one of the pages that has gone into my master list of Lists To Refer To When Stuck.
This is a personal list, and I do recommend making your own (as usual with the observation journal, making the list and noticing what mattered to me — here, beauty and puzzles — was the point). However, for completeness, here is the list:
TWENTY PURPOSES FOR A SHORT STORY
- To fit a novel’s-worth of feeling into one place
- Like Barrie’s pixies, to be completely full of one thought/emotion with no room for others
- To try out an Idea(TM)
- To frame a scene
- To experiment with structure
- To experiment on the reader
- To be a jewelled delight or thrill or horror that fits neatly in the palm of the hand
- To be all imagery
- To be stones in the foundation of a world
- To create a mythos
- To be a beautiful object
- To catch the feeling of one piece of art/illustration
- To conceal a secret
- To pay
- To be a gift for a particular person/reader
- To wreak vengeance on a particular person/reader
- To see if I can solve a puzzle [I do not, as a reader, like being set puzzles]
- To entertain
- To be a door into a wilderness/let a mysterious breeze through
- To call the edges of reality into doubt — to be a haunting in the wallpaper, a shadow in the glass
Activity for artists/writers:
- What is a thing you frequently make (or would like to make)? Short stories? Poems? Illuminated vignettes?
- Make a list of at least twenty possible purposes for that thing.
- If there are any patterns, or reasons which excite you more than others, make a note of that.
- Choose a purpose from the list at random. Think of a project you are working on or an idea you have. If that purpose was the primary reason for you to make this thing, how might you change what you do? Write a few lines or do a quick sketch of the altered/concentrated idea. If it’s clearly the wrong fit, what project might that purpose suit?
Edit to add some examples:
- For example, a story about a haunted chimney that exists to “create a mythos” would be very focussed on the sort of wider world to which this haunted chimney belongs, while if it were to “be a jewelled delight” my concern would be to get really into the rich details of chimney architecture.
- Similarly, if this illustration about a haunted chimney were to “torment a particular friend”, the ghost would be painfully handsome, and there’d be lots of mythology hinted at in the carvings around the fireplace. But if it were to call the edges of reality into doubt, there’d be other ghosts lurking in the corners of the room.
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