Have you ever found yourself facing a blank page with no idea of what to write? Don’t. Before you fill up the page with words, try putting a picture in place, a picture that inspires that story you are looking to write. Not sure how to use a picture to write a story. These four simple steps will get you from once upon a time to happily ever after.
Start with a picture you find interesting.
I like to keep a collection of pictures that inspire me to write. Some are creepy, like the one of an abandoned amusement park, grasses and vines growing over rollercoaster tracks with missing sections. I certainly wouldn’t want to ride on that piece of history, but the idea of setting a story there intrigues me.
Other pictures are beautiful settings – beaches and woods. I wish I could take a vacation to some of these places. Instead I sit in front of my computer and dream of being there.
Other inspirations are portraits, photos of people. A shot of an elderly man sitting on a park bench makes me wonder what has he experienced in his life, and why is this the place he chooses to be now?
Any picture can inspire you to write. Do a google search on a topic you find interesting, like abandoned places, and look at the images that come up. Take a look at Pinterest. Once you find a picture you like and find inspiring, click on it and scroll down to see more like it. You can even grab a magazine, peek in a picture book, or go to a museum and look at the paintings to get inspiration.
There is no wrong picture to use as inspiration for writing.
Look at the characters who are present
Since we’re writing a story from our picture, we have to think about the elements of a good story: character, setting, and conflict.
I have my setting in the above picture, so it’s time to ask myself about the people who are in the picture. Why are they there? Who are they? What are they doing? What do they want? If you don’t have anyone in your picture, that’s okay. Ask yourself who would be there or could be there. Use your imagination. They might fit the setting, or they may seem out of place. Either can make a great starting point for the main character in your piece.
We need a problem to make our story interesting. No one wants to read about a person having the perfect day. While we might like to live that way, we don’t want to read about it. So we have to give our character or characters a problem to face in our story.
What does your character want? You may have already answered this in the last step, but if you haven’t that’s okay. Just answer it now. What would they give anything to have, accomplish, see…? That’s their desire.
Now ask yourself what is keeping them from it. Because if they get exactly what they want right from the start, our story will top out at about five sentences. We want to make sure something is really standing in their way. Is there someone trying to stop them? It is physically impossible for them to accomplish their dream? Is there something else that keeps them from getting what they want to get? This sets up our conflict.
The Plot Thickens
Now you have your setting, your character, and your conflict. What happens next? What would you do if you were that character? What would you try in an attempt to get what you want? And then what would happen?
Make a list of what will happen in your story starting with the first thing your character attempts to get to his goal. Then put something in his way. What will he do next? And so on and so on. A short list for a short story, a longer list for a longer story, but try to have at least three attempts to reach the goal before the main character succeeds in accomplishing his goal.
I’ll walk you through the process with the picture above so you can see just how to make the process work.
- I have my picture of an abandoned airplane. It almost looks like it’s landed at the beach or maybe the desert. Wherever it is, there is nothing else in sight. I’ll call it a beach on a peninsula where only the lighthouse keeper and his family live.
- I do have a person in this photo, so I’ll use him as my main character. Let’s say he’s the son of the lighthouse keeper. His father is grounded, keeping people safe and staying as steady as his light in a storm. But his son, let’s call him Jacob, Jacob doesn’t want to keep his feet on the ground. He wants to fly. He wants to keep the ground far below as he soars toward the heavens. He feels that is the only way he will ever experience freedom.
- I’ve already come up with Jacob’s desire, and I’ve even started explaining what’s stopping him: his father. The two disagree, and Jacob feels trapped by his father’s values and where they live. This plane crashed long before Jacob was born, but for his whole life it’s been a temptation, a reminder of what he cannot have. And Dad, well Dad’s perfectly happy to leave it there to remind Jacob and anyone else the dangers of leaving the safety of home.
- So what is Jacob going to do about it? He could rebuild the plane, but I’m not sure he has the skills to do that. He could run away. He’ll never get off the ground where there’s no room for a runway. So I think I’ll go with that. Jacob runs away, but what happens? He ends up as witness to a terrible accident, and the police take him in for questioning. (Failure #1). While talking to the police, they learn he is a runaway, so they hold him and contact his parents. While he’s waiting for them to come and get him, he meets an older woman who is also being questioned. He decides to sneak away with her to her mansion. Rich people have planes, right? Not always, Jacob. So even though he was able to get away from the peninsula, he is still nowhere near taking flight. He helps around the house and runs errands for the woman, including helping with the horses she stables. He learns about the animals from a retired jockey turned stable manager. Jacob learns to ride and discovers that, even though he’s not in the sky, the rush and speed from riding a horse gives him the feeling of freedom he has always wanted.
So there is it, the plot of my story based on the picture of the abandoned plane. All I have to do now is write it.
It’s that simple. That exercise took me about ten minutes. But now I’m ready to write the whole story. And if you do this exercise and end up with a story plan that isn’t all you thought it would be, grab another picture and start over. Do it until you come up with a story you are excited to write. You’ll never have to look at an empty page again, even if it doesn’t have any words.