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Photographs As Inspiration For Writing

A few months ago I led a workshop on writing, which was a challenge, since I hate giving writing advice. I just think it’s a bit awkward: what works for you might not work for me, and I only had one hour, which wasn’t long to be of much use. So I decided to talk about good ways to avoid rejection (not a money-back guarantee).

I remember my editor telling me how so many of the novels on her slush pile were so similar – with stock characters and plots. I thought a great way for new writers to around this, a great way to challenge yourself, and one of the techniques I often used in place of people watching, was to pair up two photographs: one of a unique person and one an unusual setting. Any images would do, but the more interesting, the more inspiration.

So I ran with this concept, and in the workshop I showed the writers several pairs of images: for example, one pair being a plague village and a photo of two business women. Another was a child soldier and a church. (I would post the images here, but I would almost certainly be breaking copyright law.) Then I asked the writers to very quickly jot down what those people might be doing in that setting, what their thoughts were, where they were going, and – voila! – they had the start of a story. In fact, a lot of stories can be boiled down quite simply to characters and setting.

It was more an exercise of thinking differently, of not doing the same-old same-old story, and piquing an editor’s interest (and let’s face it, you’ve got about five minutes of their time, and that’s it). Also, it was a good challenge at thinking up wild story ideas quickly.

So I was delighted when, on Twitter, one of the writers in the class (you can find her on Twitter as Journeymouse) actually ran with one of the photo pairs (the child soldier and the church) and wrote a story, which you can see here. It’s fascinating to see what she’s come up with from those original photos.

Why not have a go yourself? Just hit Flickr until you come across some interesting pairs of people and settings, and write down what you think is going on. It’s the forced pairing that does the trick. Or why not challenge someone else to a pairing?

By Mark Newton

Born in 1981, live in the UK. I write about strange things.

9 replies on “Photographs As Inspiration For Writing”

Great idea this – an online livejournal writing group does this: using pictures as writing prompts as does the author group The Deadline Dames.

It is always easier (for me anyway) to focus on writing a character or setting if I know what he/she/it looks like and where it’s taking place, even if it is a dreamed up pretend place.

Flckr is a great resource, as is Getty Images, but yes, be careful about copyright infringement if you do decide to use them on your site etc. Always best to email.

Ah yes. That workshop was not half has bad as you had anticipated was it? 😛

I found it a useful tool as I am sure we all did. Your approach was certainly insightful Mark 🙂 It encouraged us to think outside of the standard creative box. It is amazing what can be born from 2 different photographs.

They say a picture tells a thousand words… but some can tell a whole novel!

Liz – you know, I always assumed people would keep the photos to themselves and never need to publish it, since it’s just inspiration! Getty is okay, but I like the personal nature of Flickr – much more interesting creatively don’t you think?

Andy – glad you found it useful, and it was all rather simple at the end of the day!

This is very similar to a creative writing exercise I sometimes use in my English classes.

I show a series of photographs of people and ask the students to pick one and write a short paragraph describing that person. Then I show a series of different photos and ask the students to pick and describe another person. Next, there is a series of pictures of settings. I ask the students to pick one and describe the two people from the previous rounds meeting there. In the last step, there is a list of possible plot twists (it starts to rain, a man with a gun appears, etc…).

The kids always enjoy doing the exercise and the results can be surprisingly good for 7th and 8th grade non-native speakers.

[…] Mark Charan Newton posts about a writing exercise using photos for inspiration. His exercise is very similar to the Instant Story Machine exercise I sometimes do with my students. Though of course Mark Charan Newton’s aims (getting people to think out of the box) and his target audience (aspiring writers) is very different from mine, which is basically getting the kids to write at all. […]

Hi Stephen – hurrah for the workshop not totally sucking! 🙂

Cora – thanks for stopping by. And it’s good to see that you’ve used a similar technique. I have done one workshop with children, and found that pictures (this was SF artwork, not photographs) were a great way of grabbing their attention. They seemed to engage with it very quickly. I did try to go down the ‘who is this character’ route, and some of the younger ones didn’t go past the surface details of what they saw, but the rest really seemed to respond pro-actively. Then they were away, writing their stories…

In my experience, young writers (mine are 7th and 8th graders, i.e. between 12 and 14) start out describing the person on the photo in detail and sometimes the background as well. Next comes character stuff like “This is a policeman who just found a dead body” or “She’s sad because her boyfriend left her”. Nothing really deep and original (though one or two really surprised me), but they’re moving beyond the surface details into the character.

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