A Picture Is Worth a Thousand Stories

tumblerWhat story does this picture tell? I was intrigued when I noticed it on A Writer’s Right to Keep Writing and followed the trail to bingobongo’s source image. I challenge each viewer to add a comment with a couple of sentences answering that question, and to do it before reading any of the other comments. I guarantee you that no two stories will be quite the same. Themes may emerge, but each story will have a unique twist. This illustrates that no two people see or understand the same way, and pictures require clear verbal communication to ensure that everybody is on the same page.

Now and then when we have a little extra time in a writing group, I pull out my folio of a few hundred pictures I’ve clipped to use as prompts for a freewriting exercise. Some are as simple as a single flower blossom. Others are complex scenes. Many feature people doing things or interacting with other people. The instructions are simple:

“Look through the pictures and select one that calls to you. Take a couple if you wish. Look at the picture for a minute or two, then start writing whatever story comes to mind.”

If we have lots of time, we may write for fifteen or twenty minutes, but more likely it will be five or six. No two people write about the same picture, so no two stories are the same. It wouldn’t matter if everyone wrote about the same picture. (No two stories would be the same.) People are always amazed at the depth and quality of the stories that emerge from this exercise. They tend to be rich in detail and highly personal. They always go home with dozens of new entries on their story idea lists.

Sometimes I use these pictures to start a story myself. They are great for smashing through a crusty case of Writer’s Block and they always result in stories I would not have thought to write on my own. Family photos are also a great source of story prompts.

If you want to start a collection of writing prompt pictures to use on your own or share with a group, assemble a selection of magazines, ideally with a wide variety of content and heavily illustrated. The pictures may be photos or any other art. I trim all the words. Other people leave words and sometimes incorporate them into the stories. I’ve used pictures from travel magazines and brochures, sports , history/culture (i.e. Smithsonian, Nat’l Geographic), home décor, cooking, parenting, news, and general interest magazines. Any size will do – half a page is ideal.

Another approach is to hit the web and search for pictures on sites like Flickr, Picasa, or Webshots. Select a topic and use Google’s Images tab to find pictures about it. Unless you plan to publish the picture, copyright doesn’t matter.

Write now:  just for fun or two overcome writer’s block, find one or more pictures and write about them. Begin a collection to share with a writing group, or invite a group f friends and neighbors to join you for an evening of writing fun.

Picture credit: bongobingo


SuziCate said...

It's amazing how differently we are each wired. We are given a prompt at writers group and I have never heard anyone go in the same direction...is always interesting to see what people come up with. Imagination, what a gift!

Wayne Groner said...

What a great idea! I will use this in my next memoir writing class. I can see totally different universes coming to mind using pictures as writing prompts rather than word associations.

Sharon Lippincott said...

SuziCate, I've also done single prompt exercises as both leader and participant, and had the same experience you did of no two stories being remotely the same.

Yes, imagination IS a gift!

Sharon Lippincott said...


I hope I've started something here. The more I use my stash, the more convinced I am of its power. People seem to select a picture that accesses stuff they need to write about that might not be accessible any other way.

Outside a writing group or class, we can all be alert to flash reactions to graphics we encounter anywhere and journal about those reactions.

Now that you've decided to make a stash of your own, it will surely grow quickly. You'll find material everywhere!

Linda said...

Thank you for this, Sharon. I am going to assemble a group of pictures to you at my writing group too.

Sharon Lippincott said...

Linda, they'll thank you for it. Take a long a glue stick for those who want to keep the picture with their story.

kathleen said...

The picture prompt(especially the one you displayed) is a fantastic way to get those creative juices flowing. I have bookmarked the picture and will use at our local writer's group next week. Thanks for sharing this. Any ideas for dealing with writer's block are always welcomed!

Anonymous said...

The first thing to come to mind as I looked at the picture is "Life is what you make it."

Sharon Lippincott said...

I hope your writer's group loves that picture as much as I do. I get a lot of Turning Loose, and Writing Our Future messages from it.