January 25, 2013

A Picture Requires a Thousand Words

Lace UmbrellaYou know the old saying, “A picture is worth a thousand words.” That may be true if you already know what the picture is about. Otherwise a picture is a prompt for you to write a story, if only a fleeting one, in your mind.

Consider the picture above. Two things are obvious: A woman wearing a fancy white dress and gloves is holding a lacy white parasol. Anything beyond that is pure conjecture. Right now I invite you to join an experiment. Skip down to the comment section and spend a minute or two writing a mini story about what you see in this picture. Write your own before you check to see what others have written. Check back later to keep track.

I guarantee that no two readers will write the same story. With a dozen responses, three or four may be similar, but even those will differ in detail. I’ve used this exercise with various pictures countless times in classes, workshops and writing groups, and I never cease to be amazed at the variety of stories that pour out, especially when the pictures are more complex.

Nobody is surprised when different stories emerge from the same picture. You almost expect that, and after you hear the additional stories, you can see them too. But do you realize that the same thing happens with stories? Each reader reads a slightly different story, colored by personal experience. If it matters to you that readers clearly understand your point of view, it’s important to explain details with the most vivid description you can muster.

Including action and emotion in those descriptions builds strong connections with readers. Although my understanding of them is foggy, our brains have mirror neurons that cause us to have a sense of following along and doing or feeling what we observe others do or feel.

Observe feelings? Even when we don’t articulate feelings verbally, they tend to leak out the edges with subliminal hints others pick up. Become a sleuth and develop a writing vocabulary to describe how bodies and faces betray emotions and use these in your writing to elicit empathy from readers. These descriptions are especially valuable in portraying emotion in others when you are writing lifestory or memoir, because when you write in first person, you can’t report what’s going on in someone else’s mind – you can only write what you observe or they tell you.

Paint your word picture with vivid, finely tuned details and description, then pair it with a graphic. The combination of story plus graphic will double the value of each.

Write now: write a story in a comment about the woman in the picture. Include details of what she’s thinking, how she’s feeling, what she's about to do, and anything else you can think of. Then find a picture of some event or place from your past and write a story about that, including more details from your memory. Don’t skimp on feelings, reflections and action. Whether or not it activates mirror neurons, that’s what draws readers in.

10 comments :

Samantha White said...

"Look happy!" the photographer was shouting at her. "Is that the best you can do?"


The photo shoot was for a bridal magazine. She was modeling a vintage off-the-shoulder wedding dress with an equally old-fashioned matching parasol, but she couldn't bring herself to look at the camera. "Maybe if I look hopeful," she thought, "it can pass for happy."


But her heart was breaking and she wanted to cry, and to be anyplace but here. Because the dumbest thing she had ever done in her whole life was get married – to the creep who beat her up two months later and had been stalking her since she left him.


She felt the tears start up again and looked away, trying to hold onto the remnants of a smile. If she cried now, she'd lose this job. "Tears," she said, "don't start now. Stay away just long enough. 'Gotta look happy."

Sharon said...

Congratulations and thanks to both JoAnn and Samantha for writing stories. I appreciate the thoughts and fine writing and look forward to many more as others join these two. Remember, write before you read!

Shirley Hershey Showalter said...

I love this idea. It's the opposite of the way I used photographs in my last two posts, but it is equally evocative. In sixth grade our teacher gave us black and white photos to look at and then write stories. My photo was of a barn, and I wrote from the perspective of a mouse that loved its home because of a never-ending supply of corn and wheat.

Sharon said...

Shirley, yes, I'd noticed how our posts compliment each other, like two sides of a coin. I wrote about that other side some time back. What a creative little girl you were, thinking of a cute little mouse living in a barn. I'll bet no other child wrote a story remotely like it!

Herm said...

All eyes were on the bride as she stood atop of the ornate winding staircase. The opulent crystal chandelier above scattered light like a jeweled royal crown. Ellen was elegant. Her goddess like body was accented by an expensive designer gown. The rubies around her neck coordinated with the deep red carpet beneath her feet. Even rubies were just a sprinkle of spice. She could have worn a blue light special and yet been stunning. A rare beauty indeed with a gift of charm as a highlight.

The twenty piece orchestra sweetened the atmosphere with romantic music. Bejeweled ladies in silk and sequins, of the town’s upper crust, dabbed the corners of their eyes with white lace handkerchiefs, so moved by the sight and sounds.

Ellen, was my sister and I felt she deserved the best of everything on her wedding day. But my sister Florence had a different outlook. She sat aloof beneath her fancy white parasol. She was dressed at the lower end of lovely. No dazzling eye makeup or rosy cheeks. Just enough lipstick to give a hint of color. Not even small diamond stud earrings. White mid forearm gloves covered her hands and a white satin shawl with two large pleats her shoulders.

I know my sisters and their competitive nature. Florence, had met Dawson at cousin Margaret’s wedding. After several phone conversations and a luncheon date, she invited him to a pool party at our house. He and Ellen met and here we are one year later.

Far be it from her to let on she wasn't filled with joy. She’d walk with the other chosen ladies before the bride in step smiling to the music. Perhaps only I'd realize to her it would seem like a dirge on a muddy path.

I could just about read Flo’s mind. ‘This isn’t real life long love. No more than is a rose garden of silk flowers. She had to have him because I wanted him. Well, sister, I think you’ve charmed yourself into a life of misery.’
I’m sure there’s no love lost between these two. What I mean is, Flo truly loves Ellen and wants her to be happy just the same.

I love ‘em both. Bless their hearts.

Sharon said...

Oh my, what fascinating stories this picture inspires. Fun that the white theme seems to uniformly evoke thoughts of weddings. That's worth making note of for future reference in writing description.

SusanG. said...

Oh, god...isn't this shoot ever going to be over? I have so much to do and if I don't pick up the kids on time it's going to cost me.
Who the heck wears white anyway? I have never been able to wear light colors without getting dirt on them..and, now, with the kids...
Wait, wait..you're finished? Thank goodness. Yeah, thanks. Sorry, I gotta get going, get changed. Do you have the info for payment?
Bye.

Sharon said...

Ah, so not everyone sees weddings in white. Thanks for sharing.

SusanG. said...

From the POV of a phototographer/feature writer.

[BTW, my husband looked at the picture and responded with: "I hope that pigeon doesn't crap on me. It's a good thing I have this parasol." More of a caption than a story, but...I suppose it was a response. *sigh*]

Sharon said...

LOL!

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