Friday, July 1, 2011

Creating a Story from Pictures

This is a little exercise to jump-start your creative juices. When you need a fresh idea, try gathering a series of pictures. Look at real estate ads, websites, or movie scenes and choose a house. Or it could be a desert or a forest--anyplace that appeals to you.

Hollywood-creative commons and Charleston

Now choose a few compatible-seeming characters with similar dress and looks. I like the expressions on these faces. They make the ideas flow.

Shelley and Jack

Move the characters into the house.

Sit down at the dinner table with your residents. What do you see happening? Maybe simple bickering, but nothing too exciting.

So stir it up. Find a character who appears to be totally out of place with the first group, someone who'll jerk them out of complacency. (Just to avoid so many awkward pronouns, I’ll give the person an androgynous name: Terry.)

Image: photostock /
 Move Terry into the house and have Terry join the group at the table. What happens? Why is Terry there? What could bring such a person into this house?  What sort of conflict arises from Terry’s presence? You should have the beginning of a story.

I’ve used pictures that suit me, but you could adapt this exercise to any kind of story that appeals to you. It could be a battle zone with weary soldiers, and something completely out of place appears (depending on the type of story, there should be some logical explanation though) to totally change the direction of the story. The same kind of thing could apply to a story in progress that’s sagging—throw in something unexpected and see what happens. How do the characters react? How does it affect the storyline? There are so many possibilities, and for me, pictures help trigger my imagination.

How do you do it? Would this sort of exercise work for you?


Polly said...

Good idea, Ellis. I'm definitely in the need of pictures. My middle's sagging. Actually, the rest of the story isn't doing great either.

Warren Bull said...

This is a new idea to me. Thanks! I'll try it.

Barbara Monajem said...

I've heard that if you're stumped for something to happen next in a story, think of five possibilities, but don't use any of them... keep pushing for more ideas until you come up with something truly unexpected.

Ellis Vidler said...

Barbara, five possibilities would be tough. I've come up with three for my own sagging middle (my story middle, that is ;-) but so far nothing further seems reasonable.

Warren, I keep lots of pictures around when I write, either in my computer or on the wall beside my desk. For one thing, they help me keep my descriptions straight.

Polly, try it and see. I'm trying the same thing, but I don't want it to be too bizarre. I like Rick Helms's idea: "and then the bomb went off." But in my case, I think it will be another body washing up.

Sandy Cody said...

This is brilliant! I'm afraid I don't have any jumpstarters in my bag of tricks. If I'm stuck in the middle, I just ask myself that old question" What's the worst thing that could happen?

Earl Staggs said...

Great idea, Ellis. I'll have to try it. Places usually generate story ideas for me. I visited a tiny town in Texas whose local where legend claims Billy the Kid died there at the age of 90 in l950. That spurred a contemporary mystery story in which the legend played a big part.

Ellis Vidler said...

Sandy, that's always a good one, but sometimes I need more stimulation to even come up with the worst case.

Ellis Vidler said...

Earl, I like faces. I always wonder what caused the expression or demeanor when I see a strong emotion or get an impression of controlled anger. Clothes add to it and I find myself makng up stories.
The conflicting stories about Billy the Kid and how he died have always interested me. Isn't that the source of aces over eights being a "dead man's hand?" I'll have to look for your book and see what you found.

Earl Staggs said...

Dead Man's Hand is a different legend, Ellis. They say Wild Bill Hickok was holding aces and eights when he was shot and killed. My Billy the Kid story will be epubbed soon by Untreed Reads and is called "Where Billy Died." I'll
squeal lond and long when it comes out. The town of Hico, TX has convincing evidence he died there in 1950. I stood on the exact spot where they say he fell when his heart gave out. I love legends. Granbury, TX claims John Wilkes Booth lived there after he shot Lincoln. And Elvis was recently spotted at a Fort Worth Walmart.

Ellis Vidler said...

I didn't know about Hickock. Better check my history. I'll be listening for your squeal!

Star said...

That's a great idea. It's amazing how one person can alter the atmosphere of a group, isn't it.

Ellis Vidler said...

So many things can change the dynamics of a group, Star. Good thought. That's an exercise in itself.

Vicki Lane said...

A terrific idea. I love pics as writing prompts.

elysabeth said...

Ellis, this is a great idea - using pictures of settings and people's expressions to drop into your story or maybe not but to get the juices flowing.

Someone once mentioned veering from your story for a 10-minute break by opening a dictionary and randomly choosing five words and writing a paragraph or a page using all five random words - tying them somehow together on the page. This is what my first contest entry was like - 8 totally unrelated words, had to use at least 4 of them as clues in the mystery that was submitted (that was my first ever writing experience and earned me a shared second place spot in the contest). The words were "a headless Barbie, a tattoo, a wig, a page from the dictionary, the sound of a train whistle, footprints in the snow, the scent of Obsession, and a soiled ballet slipper." I used all but two in my story "Train of Clues" which turned out to be a children's mystery - a scavenger hunt basically - leading to a mystery destination (clues were two-fold - leading to the next item and a clue to the mystery destination).

There are lots of little tricks to boost your writing and this one is definitely a great idea - so thanks for sharing with us - E :)

Ma America, The Travelin' Maven (Elysabeth Eldering)
Author of the JGDS, 50-state, mystery, trivia series

Where will the adventure take you next?

(PS - glad you finally added the email subscriber as I've missed so many of your postings but am subscribed and will get them now)

Ellis Vidler said...

Oh, my, Elysabeth! I have an Oxford American Writer's Thesaurus beside my desk. It's new and I've hardly opened it, but this could be an interesting way to get into it. Good idea. Since it's a thesaurus, I felt justified in using a synonym. The first, let's see, is hurdle (synonym: hindrance, glitch). The second is shopper (trader). This could go on awhile, but it's kind of fun.