creativity

4 Ways To Use Pictures As Writing Prompts

Picture source: #Adapt , a portrait by Imogen Schwarz,  Ian Potter Centre , Melbourne.

Picture source: #Adapt , a portrait by Imogen Schwarz, Ian Potter Centre, Melbourne.

“A picture is worth a thousand words.”

It’s a phrase we’re all familiar with.

But a picture can also produce a thousand words - if we choose the right one.

Never before have images enjoyed such ubiquity.

We capture life’s moments as they happen. And share them instantly with loved ones around the globe. Even our messages can feel incomplete without an emoji or three.

But behind every picture is an idea waiting for words. 

A feeling. A memory. A realisation. Or a story. 

What if we found those words? Gave the pictures we love a voice?

In this post, I’ll look at four ways you can use images to help you write (even if it’s not a thousand words!)

  1. Expressing your thoughts

Every so often, we come across an image that stops us in our tracks. 

Like the portrait at the top of this blog post. A girl in a gas mask poses for a selfie. 

In case you’re curious, an Australian high school student painted it. It was her response to China's air pollution after a trip overseas. As she writes on the wall plaque: 

“Fuelled by self-obsession with social media, we turn a blind eye to environmental problems. We would much rather adapt to a dystopian world than stand up and fight for action.”

That picture stayed with me long after I’d left the gallery. But that doesn’t mean it will have the same effect on you. 

You’ve got to choose an image that moves you. When you react strongly to a picture, you’ll have plenty to write about. 

Are you on Facebook or Instagram? If so, you’re exposed to dozens on images everyday. Most of the time, you scroll through and give your friends’ photos a quick like. But when something really grabs your attention, you comment. 

You’re already using images as writing prompts to express your opinion. Save them so you can go deeper and write more later on.

When you’re writing, think about the response the picture triggered. Why did it move you?

Writing ideas

Choose a compelling or provocative image, and try one of these:

  • Journal about the picture to explore your views. 

  • Write a short piece of creative non-fiction inspired by the picture.

  • Write a blog post about the topic or issue it raises.

  • Express your opinion through a personal essay.

2. Telling stories

Think about the world’s most well-known paintings.

The Death of Socrates. The Last Supper. Guernica. The Rake’s Progress.

So many of them tell a story.

People have been using pictures to depict narratives for thousands of years. The Aborigines didn't have any written language until Europeans arrived in Australia. So they shared their cultural stories with the next generation through rock painting. 

This works just as well in reverse. Pictures can also be a rich source of inspiration for stories. 

Tracy Chevalier based her novel Girl with a Pearl Earring on the painting with the same name. Here’s how she described her initial idea:

“A poster of this painting has hung on the wall of my bedroom since I was nineteen and I often lie in bed and look at it and wonder about it. It's such an open painting. I'm never sure what the girl is thinking or what her expression is. Sometimes she seems sad, other times seductive. So, one morning a couple years ago I was lying in bed worrying about what I was going to write next, and I looked up at the painting and wondered what Vermeer did or said to the model to get her to look like that.” - Tracy Chevalier

Children’s writer Ransom Riggs is another example. Riggs had been collecting second hand photographs since he was a boy. As time went on, he noticed a common theme among his shots. In an interview with Writer’s Digest, he described them as “Edward Gorey-esque Victorian creepiness.” Eventually, they led to the creation of his popular fantasy novel, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children. 

Wondering how to give this a go? Start with portraits or action scenes. When you look at the picture, imagine you’re out with a friend. You’re at an art gallery or looking through a photo album together. Ask your imaginary friend questions about the people in the picture. Who are they? What are they doing? What are they thinking? Why are they there? You can do this in your head, or on paper. Or if that sounds too weird, take a real friend to an exhibition and bounce ideas off each other!

Writing ideas:

  • Use a photograph to inspire of piece of flash fiction.

  • Write a letter from the point of view of a person in a portrait.

  • Write a short story based on a painting.

  • Choose a picture of a real event and write a diary entry from the perspective of someone involved.

Source: Copy of  Girl with the Pearl Earring  painting by  Robert Waghorn  on  Pixabay

Source: Copy of Girl with the Pearl Earring painting by Robert Waghorn on Pixabay

3. Reflecting on your experiences

Have you been away recently? 

Chances are that your camera is full of photos. Visual souvenirs of the things that caught your interest. Or encounters that moved you in some way. 

Writing gives you the opportunity to process your experiences by recording more details. It forces you to slow down and consider your reaction.

Begin by zooming in on the moment in your photo. Where were you? You can already see how it looked. Now describe it in words. Next think about the other senses. How did it sound? Smell? Taste? Feel? How did you feel while you were there? Has your perspective changed?

Travel photos are my favourite type of writing prompt. The possibilities are endless. Here are a few to get you started:

Writing ideas: 

  • Explore a new side of yourself through a personal journal.

  • Start a memoir of your expat life.

  • Set up a travel blog to share your adventures.

  • Write for travel publications to help others.

4. Exploring your creativity

Not all writing needs to have an end goal. You can also use images to stretch your creative writing muscles. If you’re new to writing, you can use them as training sessions. Even if you write regularly, picture prompts make great warm-up exercises. Use them before you get stuck into your other writing. They’ll keep you sharp and stop you getting bored. 

And, as we’ve seen, they might give you ideas for future projects.

Recently I decided it was time to get out of my comfort zone and explore a genre I don’t usually write in: poetry. You can read about my haiku-writing experiment here. It challenged me to think about my travel photos in a different way and go back to a beginner’s mindset. 

Here’s how you can play (or push yourself) with photo writing prompts:

  • Write a character sketch for a person in a photograph or portrait.

  • Select an interesting photo and write a one-sentence caption for it.

  • Write a paragraph describing a place in the photo, but choose an unusual perspective.

  • Find a photo and write about it in a style you don’t usually use.

Conclusion

So where can you find good images?

Instagram and Pinterest are good starting points. You can also use online photo libraries such as Pixabay and Unsplash.

Out in the real world, visit art galleries and museums for inspiration. If you’re waiting for an appointment, take advantage of coffee table books, magazines and wall posters. Even advertisements can stimulate ideas.

Images are everywhere. If you choose the ones that speak to you, you’ll never run out of things to say. 

***

Want to delve deeper into this topic? Download my free writing guide. You’ll also get story samples showing how 4 different writers responded to the same photo prompt. 

Changing Your Inner Narrative About Writing

Do any of these thoughts sound familiar?

I’m not creative enough to tell stories. None of my ideas are original.

I haven’t got the right voice to start a blog. I’ll sound like I’m lecturing.

Writing poetry is too difficult for me. I should stick to prose.

That last thought used to be one of mine. I’ve always liked reading poems. But I didn’t think I had the kind of brain to write them.

I put poetry into the same category as music. Not my strength either. As a kid, I never got past the recorder. When we did school productions, my friends played in the orchestra.

I donned black clothing and waited until the lights went out. Then I’d dart across the stage moving sets and props until it was time to retreat into the safety of the shadows again.


To me, poetry was just as mysterious as music. Something that required a deep understanding of the rhythm of language. Finding rhymes. Counting syllables. Figuring out where to put punctuation. It seemed to constrict. A barrier to creativity rather than a way to express it.

It’s only recently that I’ve begun to challenge my beliefs about writing poetry.

I didn’t plan it that way. It started when I was going through an extra busy period in my day job. Although I still had time to write, I didn’t always have the energy to work on my fiction. I felt frustrated that I wasn’t finishing anything. So I decided to begin experimenting with haiku.

After all, they were only three lines. How hard could they be to write?

What is a haiku?

Haiku (singular and plural) originate from Japan. Traditionally, they focus on the natural world. In English, they’re 17 syllables long. The first line has five syllables, the second seven and the last five. And best of all, they don’t have to rhyme.

How I approached haiku writing



I decided to use travel photos as inspiration. When I was living in England, a friend and I went on a four-day camping trip to the Cotswolds. It rained the entire time, but we loved every minute of it. It was all so different from back home. I was especially taken by the stunning historic buildings everywhere. In New Zealand, the oldest house you’ll find dates back to 1822.

My first haiku was about the Chilean flamingos at Birdland Park and Gardens in Bourton-on-the-Water. Such an exotic sight to see in the English countryside! It took a day to write this haiku, but I wasn’t thinking about it all the time. I let the image float around in my mind between tasks. At the end of the day, I jotted down all the phrases that had come to the surface. The words had spent all day in my head. So it only took about 15 minutes to get them onto the page and arrange them the way I wanted.


Spindly legs splashing

English flamingos forage

Highlights in the grey.


My second haiku was about a thatched cottage we came across in one of the villages. Rather than feeling too tired to create, ideas were coming thick and fast now. I looked at the photo and wrote the whole thing on my phone during a tram ride to work.

On tiptoes we peek

over topiary. Wonder

who calls this place home?

Cottage in the Cotswolds, England

Cottage in the Cotswolds, England

When I started my third haiku, I ran into trouble. I wanted to capture my feelings about a ruined abbey that we’d visited. I struggled for two days. Flicking through a thesaurus, I tried to condense my thoughts into 17 syllables. So much for believing that writing a haiku would be faster than writing a story! I couldn’t get anything to fit.

It was only when I stopped and asked myself a question that I started to make progress.

Why does it need to fit?

I wasn’t writing these haiku for publication. I was writing them for myself. To remember my travels. And to experiment with a new form of creative expression.

So I made my last haiku five lines.

In empty archways

Grass threads through stonework.

At sundown, each blade quivers

To the distant toll

Of long-ago bells.

13th century Hailes Abbey, Gloucestershire, England

13th century Hailes Abbey, Gloucestershire, England

Two ways to change your thoughts about writing

Changing your attitude to writing is all about tricking that little voice inside your head. The one that’s telling you it’s too hard. You can shut it down by making things easy for yourself.


1. Break it down

Instead of writing a poem, try a haiku or a limerick. Or go even smaller and write a poetic caption for a photograph.

Want to start a blog? Begin with microposts on Facebook or Instagram. Not confident about sharing your work straightaway? Change your settings so only a few close friends can read your post.

If you want to write short stories, choose something that happened to you or a friend. Describe it in a single scene without worrying about what comes before or after.

2. Bend the rules

New writers are often told “Don’t break the rules until you know how to use them.”

Why? Because it's best to stick to the guidelines if you're writing for other people. Other people could mean a publication, a writing competition or a particular audience.

But if you’re writing for yourself, bending the rules can give you creative space. It also stops you from getting overwhelmed when you're trying out a new genre.

Haiku are short. But that doesn’t mean they’re going to be quick and easy to write. By allowing myself to use more than 17 syllables, I took the pressure off and finished my last verse.

If you read Japanese haiku in English, they’re not usually 17 syllables either. We're dealing with two different languages here.

Traditional haiku focused on the seasons. But there’s also no limit to the topics covered by modern day haiku writers.

Conventions are constantly evolving.

Creativity comes when we stop seeking perfection. Confidence grows when we allow ourselves to experiment and make a mess.

The results may not always be our best work, but they’re the start of something more important.

They’re the start of a shift in mindset. The start of a realisation.

We’re capable of more than we think.

Find Your Lost Child: 5 Prompts to Reconnect With Your Writing

“What’s your favourite book and why?”

I’m at a city writers’ group and this is the icebreaker the organiser has given us to get to know each other.

Without hesitation, my partner launches into a passionate description of a French existentialist novella.

I’m a writer. I should have a clear answer for this, I think.

My hamster mind treads the wheel of classics from my English lit classes at uni.

No clear answer.

I spin through the myriads of other titles I’ve stumbled across. Treasures in libraries and second hand bookshops. Epiphanies in the various cities where I’d lived as an adult.

But it’s only when I go back further that the wheel comes to an abrupt halt.

Peter Pan.

What is it about our favourite children’s books that stays with us so long?

With Peter Pan, it’s certainly not the narrative style. Rereading it is an adult, I find J. M. Barrie’s interjections condescending; his tone sometimes smug. I’m not impressed with the gender stereotypes either.

But Peter Pan is a product of its time.

Children don’t notice these things. They’re too absorbed with the characters and the story. When you’ve only been alive for a few years, there’s something fresh and magical about any new world.

That’s not to say adult books can’t have the same effect.

But it’s often much harder.

The closest I’ve come as an adult is when I travelled overseas for the first time.

The fact that I settled on Peter Pan as my favourite got me thinking. What impact had it had on me? Could I use it to tap into future writing projects?

If you’re struggling to move forward with your writing, try looking back. Our favourite books are often the inspiration behind our current desire to write creatively — even if we’re not interested in writing for kids.

Take a moment to think about the book (or books) you loved as a child.

Below are five writing prompts to help you get started. At the end of each section, I’ve included some extra questions to encourage you to dig deeper.

Peter Pan statue in Kensington Gardens. Image by  Stevebidmead  on  Pixabay

Peter Pan statue in Kensington Gardens. Image by Stevebidmead on Pixabay

1. Why did you love it?

Which aspects of your book intrigued you when you were a kid?

For me, it was the character of Peter. I was especially taken with Peter’s description of how he ran away the day he was born:

“It was because I heard father and mother,” he explained in a low voice, “talking about what I was to be when I became a man.” He was extraordinarily agitated now. “I don’t want ever to be a man,” he said with passion. “I want always to be a little boy and to have fun. So I ran away to Kensington Gardens and lived a long long time among the fairies.” — Chapter III, Peter Pan by J. M. Barrie

My 7-year-old mind didn’t seem to take any issue with a newborn baby setting off to Neverland on its own. I was too impressed by Peter’s fierce sense of independence.

Another scene that made a strong impression on me is when Peter and Wendy are trapped on Marooners’ Rock in the Mermaids’ Lagoon.

The tide is rising.

Michael’s kite drifts by, its tail dangling in the water.

But it will only hold one.

Peter gallantly offers it to Wendy, claiming that:

To die will be an awfully big adventure.
— Chapter VIII, Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie

As an adult, I see a scared kid trying to put on a brave face. As a kid, I was awed by his apparent fearlessness.

I always identified more with Peter than with Wendy.

There was a part of me that wished he would fly through my window and take me away on adventures.

But I wanted to help him fight pirates. I had no interest in being his mother!

It wasn’t only Peter. I was in love with Neverland itself. My first copy of Peter Panhad a colourful map featuring all the locations in the story.

Questions to explore: What part of your favourite book had the biggest impact on you as a child? Was it a particular character? A scene? The setting? Why did it leave such a strong impression? Which qualities, behaviours, situations or places did you identify with?

2. How did it influence your past?

For this question, start with your childhood. Then think about your adult past too.

My love of Peter Pan led to lots of make-believe games with my little brother. One involved leaping off the couch and trying to fly. In another, we would re-enact the final dual between Peter and Captain Hook with garden stakes.

It also sparked a love of drawing maps and writing my own fantasy stories. This continued into my teenage years.

As soon as I finished university, I tried a different kind of flying. Heading overseas, I sought adventures in new countries. I trained as an English Language Teacher. Spain, with its romantic language and exotic culture, became my own Neverland for a while.

Questions to explore: Think about the strongest feelings and desires you experienced as a child. Sometimes these stay with us. How has your favourite children’s book shaped your life? Think about your life experiences, decisions and interests.

3. What values from this story can you bring into your adult life?

In Peter Pan, the lost boys are the children who fall out of their prams in Kensington Gardens. If they’re not claimed in seven days, the fairies send them to Neverland to live with Peter.

If you responded to the last prompt, you might find that mixed feelings resurface. There might be things you wanted to do in your life, but you suppressed them because, well, adult life happened.

In a way, many of us become lost boys and girls when we grow up.

I went through periods when I became consumed by self-doubt and stopped writing.

Even now, although I write regularly, there are still times when adult life gets in the way. I find that the best strategy to push through this is to recultivate Peter Pan’s sense of play.

We don’t have to be adults all the time. We all have responsibilities and we all have to grow up, but sometimes it’s OK to escape for a bit in between. It’s not about being self-indulgent. It’s about self-preservation and finding ways to reconnect with the creative kids we used to be.

Here a few things I do to ‘run away’:

· Hang out with my friends’ children

· Explore new places in and around my city

· Revisit childhood activities

(At the moment, my favourite one is walking barefoot along the beach).

Questions to explore: What values from your favourite book could you bring into your life now? These could include activities, behaviours or experiences.

Image by  jjduncan19  on  Pixabay

Image by jjduncan19 on Pixabay

4. How has this book informed your writing so far?

Think about the plots, themes, settings and characters that you loved. There’s a good chance that these have found their way into your adult work without you realizing. Consider any non-fiction you’ve written too.

My passion for adventure stories led me to experiment with travel writing for a while.

The theme of overcoming fears features in a lot of my blog posts.

And when I write fiction, I’m a big fan of strong, independent characters who go to great lengths to hide their vulnerability.

Questions to explore: What keeps turning up in your writing? Go beyond creative writing and think about any kind of writing you do. For instance, if you comment on a social media posts, what really gets you fired up?

5. How could it inform your writing going forward?

Revisiting your favourite children’s books can energize any kind of creative writing project. Perhaps you want to pen short stories, write your memoir or put together inspiring blog posts.

Questions to explore: Think about your answers so far. Can you see any patterns or common themes? Could you use any of them to revitalise a piece of writing you’re struggling with? Or could they be the inspiration for a new project?

8 Reasons To Explore Creative Writing (Even If You’re Not An Aspiring Author)

“Creative writing (noun): The art of writing literary works such as poems, novels, plays, memoirs, or biographies.” –
— The Free Dictionary

Have you ever felt curious about creative writing, but been put off by descriptions like this?

These kinds of definitions seem to be written for all the aspiring William Shakespeares and Jane Austens out there.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m a big fan of these authors. I’d love to write works as well-loved as theirs. But it’s not my main motivation for writing.

If it was, I might never have started.

When we think of creative writing, we often feel pressured to create an entire story, play or poem. But the definition is more fluid than that. Try googling it. You won’t find a consensus.

Instead of trying to define creative writing, why not think about what it means to be creative?

When we’re being creative, we’re doing more than presenting information. We’re using our imagination to express our emotions, create original things or use existing ideas in new ways.

Now that covers a lot more than just poetry and novels.

Let’s take a look at eight reasons why you should consider creative writing.

1. It has something for everyone

If we’re going with this interpretation, creative writing becomes limitless in its size and scope.

If you want something highly structured, you could try screenwriting. If you prefer to let your thoughts wander, freewriting or journaling might be a better match.

You can choose to keep your writing private or share it with the whole world.

We’re all capable of creativity. We just need to find the right outlet.

It doesn’t matter whether you’ve only got a few minutes or a whole afternoon. You’ll always find something that fits your time, interests and ambitions.

Creative writing is open to anyone who can write.

Here are some things you could try that go beyond novels and poetry:

Journaling, blogging, haiku, creative non-fiction, flash fiction, speeches, vignettes, anecdotes, character sketches, lyrics, skits, jokes, reflections, personal essays, game narratives…

You get the idea.

2. It makes other types of writing less scary

Creative writing can take the pressure off when we’re writing more functional pieces such as job applications, reports and academic essays.

If you have to write a job application, try freewriting about your previous experience. Why would you be a good fit for the position? Set a timer for 10–15 minutes and write whatever comes into your head. Avoid trying to structure it like a cover letter and don’t worry about using formal language. Let it all out. The idea here is to brainstorm and have fun without being overwhelmed.

You could also experiment with writing dialogue. Imagine you’re in the interviewing room answering the panel’s questions.

When you’ve finished, read back over your writing. Highlight any parts you could use when you write your application.

Next time you have to write something for work, try freewriting. You might be surprised by what you come up with.

3. You can share your experiences

Not every creative writer started out by dreaming of being an author.

Many published authors transitioned into creative writing when they discovered it was the best medium for telling their stories. Others took it up as a way to promote their businesses and help others.

Last month I attended a symposium for writers. I met several presenters who didn’t set out to be authors, but have used creative writing in the form of books and blog posts to share their passions with others.

Clare Dea was born with Poland syndrome, which meant her left breast never developed. She couldn’t bring herself to tell anyone about it for 28 years. Her book The One Breast Goddess was part of the process that helped her overcome her shame and appreciate her beauty. By sharing her story, she has encouraged others to express their authentic selves.

Solène Anglaret started off in the corporate world, but her extensive travel experiences inspired her to write her memoir Where to Next? . She has built up a business around promoting multiculturalism and providing advice on international mobility. You can read more of her writing on her blog Be Beyond Borders where she shares the stories of international travellers.

Take a moment to think about your personal history, interests and knowledge.

Is there anything you would like to share with others?

4. You can capture memories and experiences

Creative writing is how I make sense of the world around me.

My husband does this by taking photos and making videos. This is great because when we’re visiting a new place, my phone stays in my bag. But I still come home with visual memories of our trips.

In the meantime, I’m free to observe and absorb what’s going on around me, so I can capture it later in writing.

Sometimes my writing makes it into a story. But often it’s my own way of taking photos and preserving special moments.

Keeping a journal doesn’t mean you have to write in-depth summaries of everything you do each day. You can be as selective as you want. You may choose to focus on someone new you met or an activity you tried for the first time.

Alternatively, you might want to record your memories of life-changing events such as getting married, having children or moving to a new city.

5. It’s relaxing

One of the great things about creative writing is that it can help us get away from the stress of everyday life. I actually find it more effective than meditating because it’s easier for me to stay in the present moment. My mind is far less likely to wander if I’m absorbed in a character’s thoughts and problems rather than my own. Creating stories gives me a chance to escape to another world. After a creative writing session, I always feel much calmer and happier.

If you’re not into writing fiction, you can achieve the same effect by sitting in a public place and describing what’s going on around you. Let’s say you’re lying on the beach. A family next to you are having a barbecue. What do you notice? Try zooming in on small details — sights, smells, sounds, tastes and texture.

Dad flips the sausages, revealing a lizard tattoo running down his left arm.

The scent of charred onions drifts over.

There’s a soft thud of a spade going into the sand as Mum helps the kids with their sandcastles.

Your mouth tastes salty from the swim you had earlier.

You wriggle your toes, feeling the grittiness of the sand stuck between them.

6. It can lead to personal growth

Sometimes we may want to confront difficult feelings rather than try to avoid them.

Diaries are one of the oldest forms of creative writing. They give us the freedom and privacy to explore our darkest fears, greatest desires and deepest shame.

Psychologists use similar techniques to help patients work through problems and heal from trauma.

Creative writing can be a valuable tool for personal development in other areas of life too.

Get to know your own strengths and weaknesses by doing some reflective writing after your next performance. By performance, I mean any situation where you have to demonstrate your skills in front of others. That might be giving a presentation, attending an interview or sitting an exam. Make sure you write about both the things you did well and the areas you need to work on to avoid being too critical.

You can use reflective writing as an opportunity to set learning goals. Try brainstorming strategies for working on your weaknesses.

7. It can improve your language skills

Because creative writing is so different from other types of writing, it heightens our awareness of language and challenges us to use it in new ways.

This is also true for those who are studying English as a Second Language.

Writing stories, whether personal or imaginary, is a great way to practise using new vocabulary and sentence structures.

When you’re writing pieces like essays or business emails, you’re usually working within a more rigid structure. Perhaps you’re slotting in set phrases you’ve memorised.

But when you write creatively, you’re expressing feelings closer to your heart. This will help you form a deeper connection with the English language and develop a unique writing voice.

If you want to keep learning, it’s vital that you get feedback on your writing. Choose someone who is supportive, but can also give you constructive criticism.

One option would be to hire a tutor or coach. Or you might prefer a more informal arrangement such as meeting with a language exchange partner or sharing stories at a writers’ group.

8. It will challenge you

Creative writing can be challenging in other ways too.

Some people do crosswords or Sudoku. I write fiction for the same reason. I love the puzzle of fitting together different parts of a story. I get to be creative when I’m inventing characters. And working out a storyline pushes me to think logically and analytically.

Earlier this year, I wrote a historical fiction serial set over two time periods. I tied myself up in knots trying to map out the plot. But once I untangled it all, the end result was incredibly satisfying.

It doesn’t have to be stories if that’s not your thing. I know other people who get the same kick out of writing poetry, creative non-fiction and stand-up comedy.

The most important thing is to have fun!

Creative writing can be anything you want it to be, so why not give it a go and see if it’s for you?