Writing a Story, What Pictures Tell Us and What They Leave Out

Photographs help us remember what something looked like when it becomes hazy in our mind. They can be powerful writing prompts. Multiple times I’ve been in writing workshops where old photographs or pictures clipped from magazines were used as a launching point for a writing exercise.

Look at the picture and describe what you see, the instructor will say.  Then, imagine what you don’t see.

It doesn’t matter whether you’re writing science fiction or memoir, a photograph can get you started because often it’s what’s unsaid that gets you going.

Photo by Suzy Hazelwood on Pexels.com

If it’s a photograph of a person, describe who they are, their desires, their passions. Were they secretly wishing they could scratch their ankle or daydreaming about a trip to the mountains? If it’s a photo of a place, what is going on inside the buildings or behind the trees?

Photo by Karolina Grabowska on Pexels.com

A picture can become a starting point for inquiry. You look at a photo of a flower and wonder who planted the flower.  Or how long it basked in the sun, before its petals began to unfold.

Start with a picture, but don’t limit yourself. A prompt is defined as an act of assisting or encouraging. A writing prompt is like a launch pad. Maybe you’ll like what you’ve written and maybe you won’t.  Maybe you like one sentence.  Take that favorite sentence and start again from there.

Memories can be faulty. Our recollections from early childhood are often reinforced by our parents and grandparents telling us stories of what we did and showing us pictures from when we were young. I don’t remember being particularly close to our family dog, a beagle named Goliath that we called Golly. But multiple photos of me with Golly at age four and five, show something different.

We live in a visual society where the amount of attention a beautiful picture receives, far exceeds the audience reaction to well chosen words. Just post something on social media and note how many more reactions you’ll get when your posting includes a dynamic photograph. This is sad news for a writer. And I am a writer who experiences the world in a very visual way.  An image provides immediate messaging, but prose or poetry can convey a sensory experience that engages cerebrally all five senses.

If you are wondering which of the five senses dominate your perceptions, try this simple exercise. Quickly without editing, spending no more than 10 minutes, write down a description of a place you love. Read it over and take note of how many times you mention what you see, what you hear, what you smell, what you taste, and what you feel. The majority of humans primarily focus on the visual, but add in odors, tastes, textures, and sounds and your description becomes more engaging.

Instead of a photograph for a writing prompt, try using a piece of music. What stories does a particular melody evoke? I love writing about food because I can draw on taste, smell and texture all in the same paragraph. Write about an activity that focuses on the physical, such as hiking or swimming. Push yourself to experiment and you’ll discover new ways to express yourself.

Pre-Pandemic, I had the opportunity to travel abroad and took extensive photographs to document our adventures. After showing off the photograph albums a few times, they sat on the bookshelf collecting dust. The next time, after returning home from Tanzania, I decided to write stories inspired by what I’d experienced. Every so often I’d remind myself of visual details with the photos. Works of fiction, they intermixed visual observations with spiritual and cultural issues.   

The possibilities for writing prompts are endless. Writer’s block can afflict anyone at any time. Sometimes a pause from writing is helpful. But when you’re looking to begin again, consider gazing at a photograph.

Follow me on Twitter at SN Maril. Check out one of my fiction pieces “Perfect Picture” in Potato Soup Journal.

Published by Nadja Maril

Nadja Maril is a communications professional who has over 10 years experience as a magazine editor. A writer and journalist, Maril is the author of several books including: "American Lighting 1840-1940", "Antique Lamp Buyer's Guide", "Me, Molly Midnight; the Artist's Cat", and "Runaway, Molly Midnight; the Artist's Cat". Her short stories and essays have been published in several small online journals including Lunch Ticket, Change Seven, Scarlet Leaf Review and Defunkt Magazine. She has an MFA in creative writing from Stonecoast at the University of Southern Maine. Former Editor-in-Chief of What's Up ? Publishing, former Editor of Chesapeake Taste Magazine a regional lifestyle magazine based in Annapolis, and former Lighting Editor of Victorian Homes Magazine, Maril has written hundreds of newspaper and magazines articles on a variety of subjects..

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