WiHM 2023: How to Find a Thousand Words in a Picture
A picture’s worth a thousand words.
So the centuries-old idiom goes, implying that a picture is more valuable, more eloquent than words could ever be.
No wonder, then, that so many writers feel intimidated by picture prompts. What on earth should we do with them? What if we choose the wrong approach? Who decides what the right approach is anyway?
Three years ago I felt the same – any writing challenge involving picture prompts reduced me to a state of dread-tinged bewilderment.
The turning point for me was joining the Ladies of Horror Flash Project in May 2020. I was a regular reader and was desperate to join as a writer – the prompts were beautiful, the writing so well-crafted and the ladies themselves seemed so cool. But joining them would mean facing up to picture prompts, as each writer is assigned one of four different prompts every month with a 10-day deadline to produce a flash piece – prose or poetry – up to 750 words.
I was absolutely terrified the first month that I took part. I was daunted by the prompt and overawed by the talent of the other women taking part. But as time progressed, discomfort turned to confidence. I now look forward to the new prompt arriving in my inbox – it kick-starts my writing and shakes off any lingering inertia as I tackle the rest of my writing goals for that month.
I am not a plotter, but I am a thinker. Behind every piece I write is a subconscious process driven by bits of information that I’ve gathered on my writing journey along with a solid foundation of trial and error…lots of errors.
This article brings that subconscious process into the light and explores some of the questions you may want to ask yourself when faced with a picture prompt. But remember, be kind to your brain – this series of questions is not an interrogation – have fun and allow your imagination to free the words locked in the image.
Working with picture prompts: engaging with the image
What’s your first impression?
Apparently, we make decisions about whether or not we like people within sixty seconds of meeting them. As in life, so it is in writing.
Try glancing at an image and write the first thing that comes into your head. But while I’d question my snap judgment of a person, I’m quite happy to sit with my first impressions of a prompt. Why overthink it when the image has already ignited your imagination?
How are you feeling?
This is not a trick question.
How are you feeling, generally? What’s your initial emotional reaction to the idea of working with a picture prompt? What’s your emotional response to the image itself?
This is your ambient emotional landscape and can be a useful starting point to engaging with the image.
Of course, we’re writing horror, so any feelings of doom and dread can be transferred straight to the page. If the image is dark and creepy, the words may leap out – though the challenge then is to look past the obvious.
If you’re feeling upbeat and chirpy and the image is benign and lovely, then it can be harder to find the horror. My process then involves rubbing my hands together with glee and having a righteous cackle as I look for the twist that will turn the image to darkness.
Between ticks the silence sounds,
hangs around; within the light
shadows writhe; death’s heartbeat pounds;
smiling lips surround the bite
Not forgetting, of course, the importance of making our characters suffer.
What’s happening here?
Look at the image as a whole and ask yourself “what’s happening here?”.
Now extend that to “What chain of events led to the moment shown in the image”?
Then think about “What might happen next?”
Allow your mind to wander around different scenarios.
What do you see?
Are there any objects of interest in the image? Are there any missing objects? Try picking one object and writing around it. What is it? Why is it there? What’s so fascinating about it?
Are there any people in the image? Are they interesting enough to write as characters? If there are no people, then where the heck have they gone?
What colours have you observed? How do the colours affect the mood or intent of your thoughts?
Try changing your focus – does that make a difference to what you might write about?
How about changing your perspective? One of these images is upside down – could the sense of ‘wrongness’ inspire some words.
Do I want to know more about the image?
So far we’ve asked questions that allow us to take an image at face value. But you may choose to do a little research and find out some background information, such as:
- Who is the artist/photographer?
- Does the image represent a real location or event?
- What was the originator trying to say/portray in this image?
The facts you discover may influence your writing.
For example, in June 2021, one of the Ladies of Horror Flash Project prompts was a simple image of a bronze boot with a flower, sitting on a riverbank. I initially imagined the boot being worn by a free-spirited girl in the 19th century being branded a pirate and suffering a terrible fate at the hands of an uptight society (this IS horror). But I had an inkling that the bronze shoe was part of an art installation and did a little research. The shoe is one of hundreds cast and embedded on the river embankment of the Danube flowing through Budapest. The installation commemorates an awful massacre in the latter months of World War 2. I couldn’t ignore that history and wrote a second poem around that theme.
Have a look at this image. Does knowing a little bit more about it influence your thoughts around what you might write?
South Wales, UK
Heathland in an area once dominated by coal mines
The path connect two coal mining villages – Brynamman and Tairgwaith
The view is of the Black Mountain on the western edge of the Brecon Beacon mountain range.
The photographer is always awed and inspired by the wild beauty of the place and how small mankind’s influence is in this landscape, though it was once dominated by the mining industry
Working with picture prompts: going for publication
If I’ve managed to persuade you that writing to picture prompts is a great idea, then you’ll end up with a pile of words, be they fiction prose, poetry or creative non-fiction, all looking for new homes.
The next stage is to consider some of the issues around sharing those words. Once again, I’ve posed a few questions that you might like to ask yourself.
Do my words work without the image?
The extent to which your words and the image that prompted them are intertwined will depend on which approach you’ve taken to your writing. If you’ve just rested your eye on the image while your brain was working, then the piece may be entirely stand-alone. When it comes to publication, this is arguably the easiest option – the words belong to you and you can submit them as you would any other piece of writing.
Where the words are linked to the image – either directly or indirectly, you have a few options to consider:
- Are there any edits that you can make which will allow your piece to stand alone without the image? This might include more description of the scene or the mood that you’re trying to capture.
- can you submit the piece with a written acknowledgement – this works particularly well for images that are well-known and available in the public domain. Ekphrastic works (those involving descriptions of visual art) will often have the words “After title of the artwork, the artist and possibly a link to an appropriate source on the internet”.
- submit the piece alongside the artwork – this may limit your options as not all publishers will want or be able to publish images to accompany your words – though there are exceptions such as Gnashing Teeth’s Hallowscream feature which, in 2022, required poetry embedded in an image. If you submit an image for publication, there may well be considerations around rights and permissions.
Who owns the image?
It should go without saying that we need to respect and acknowledge the originator of the picture prompt.
I’m not a copyright lawyer, and laws vary between countries, so I won’t advise any further. However, do check the rights and permissions attached to any image that you wish to submit (or print) alongside your words.
For reference, all the images I’ve included in this piece are my own photographs. I give you permission to play with them and, if you want to use them in your own publications, just acknowledge Alex Grehy.
What does the publisher expect?
If you are taking part in a picture prompt challenge set by a publisher, then do check what they’re looking for. Some will say “anything goes” but others will actively down-mark stories/poems that describe or use the image setting literally. However, for more classical ekphrastic challenges, a description of or commentary on the image is essential.
I hope you’ve enjoyed reading this quick guide to working with picture prompts. If your mind can conjure words from staring out of the window, or at the wall or a blank computer screen, then you can write to picture prompts. Why not start right now?
- What’s your first impression?
- How are you feeling?
- What’s happening here?
- What do you see?
- Do you want to know more about the image?
- Ladies of Horror Flash Project: https://spreadingthewritersword.com/
- Gnashing Teeth Hallowscream 2022 (Visual Poetry): https://gnashingteethpublishing.com/blog/category/hallowscream-2022/
- About the Author
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Alex Grehy (she/her) is a regular contributor to The Sirens Call and the Ladies of Horror Flash Project. Her dark fiction has been published in a number of anthologies and her essays on being a “Lady of Horror” have featured in the Horror Writers Association Newsletter and The Horror Tree blog. She is recognised for her original view of the world, expressed in vivid prose and thought-provoking poetry.