Using Photographs as Writing Prompts

Kate Miller-Wilson

How to Use Photographs as Writing Prompts

The old adage says that a photo is worth a thousand words, and using photographs as writing prompts is a great way to prove it. Nothing sparks the imagination quite like a great picture; it can call up emotions, senses, characters, and even whole storylines. Whether you're working on a journal or essay or trying to break through the writer's block to start your novel, learn how to use photos to help you be more creative.

Look for Images With Ambiguity

Some pictures are open to interpretation, such as this image of a person with her head in the clouds. This type of ambiguity lends itself to brainstorming. See if you can think of six different explanations for the photo, logical or otherwise. Then choose one and start writing.

Go for the Complex Sensations

Sure, some photos have a story that nearly jumps off the screen or page. But others, like this image of a child riding in the car, are a bit more complex. You're left wondering what the child is feeling or remembering your own long car drives as a kid. Maybe you can almost feel the cold window and that itchy sense of boredom. Look for photos that are complicated and visceral.

Don't Shy Away From Loss and Change

When you start a piece of writing, whether it's a memoir, journal entry, short story, or even a poem, there needs to be tension to engage your reader. One way to do that is through impending loss or change. Use images that portray this moment, such as this photo of a child hugging an ailing grandparent or great grandparent.

Inspire Your First Line

The first line is crucial, whether you're writing a novel, story, essay, or anything else. Sometimes, a great first line is all you need to get you started, and the right photo prompt can inspire that line. For instance, the first line for this image could be, "The arrow pointed left."

Embrace Contrasts in Photo Prompts

When everything goes together in a photograph, it can be calming and pretty. However, it doesn't necessarily inspire you to pick up your pen. The opposite is true when there's contrast in a photo. Your mind starts to look for explanations, and that's where the writing starts. Why are these horses walking through this abandoned building? The moment you start wondering, the creative wheels are turning.

Take a Break From Reality

Reality is all around you, and while it can sometimes be inspiring, it's nice to take a break sometimes. Choose a dreamy, surreal photograph as a writing prompt, and let you mind wander. How does it make you feel? Can you think of the reasons behind it? Is there a time in your life it calls to mind? What type of character might be a part of this scene?

Change the Perspective

Whether you have already crafted part of a novel or simply want to change things up with your personal essays, you can do that by altering the perspective. Some photos really inspire this, such as aerial shots or low-angle images. If you're writing creative non-fiction, you can use this to broaden or tighten the scope or add details. If you're working on fiction, you can write from a different point of view. Either way, how do things look different from this perspective?

Choose a Photo That's "in Medias Res"

Some of the best stories and essays begin in medias res, or "in the middle of things." Nothing engages a reader quite like a story that is already going full-tilt. Choose a photo that shows this phenomenon. Pick an image where something is on the precipice or about to happen. Then start in the middle and fill in the details as you go.

Let the Setting Inspire You

Setting plays an essential role in any piece of writing, from articles to novels. Select a photo writing prompt that makes the setting part of the story. What would happen if you or your character were plunked down in this spot?

Find a Photo With Natural Conflict

You may remember studying the different types of conflict that can drive a story, especially person vs. nature. If you want to choose a photograph to prompt your writing, you can't go wrong with one that shows this conflict between nature and people. You can take the image literally and write a story about the situation pictured, or you can use it as a symbol for a mood or moment that can help you put some words on the page.

Use a Photo With a Story in It

Storytelling is an important element in photography, and some pictures already have the start of a story in them. This kind of photo is a great way to get starting using photographs as writing prompts, especially if you are writing fiction. Choose an image with something going on, such as this photo of an abandoned plane in Iceland.

Capture the Common Human Experience

Writing is about connecting with your audience, and the common human experience is a great way to make that connection. Use a photo that captures that common experience to begin just about any piece of writing. For instance, this image of a woman in a cubicle can resonate with anyone who has worked an office job at some point. Starting from that place of shared experience, you can create anything from a funny short story set in an office to an inspiring essay about doing what you love.

Select Photos That Are Anonymous

When you choose photos with people for use as writing prompts, it's helpful if the people are anonymous. These could be shots from behind, photos where the face is hidden, or images where the features are blurred or cropped out. This lets the writer substitute anyone for the people in the photos. These flirting students could be characters in a story or a moment from someone's real life. It's open to interpretation.

Pick a Photo for the Mood

Sometimes the mood of a photo is the subject of the image, and this can make it a great writing prompt. In this photo of a dark forest, the trees and fog are secondary to the overall feeling of foreboding and isolation. Choose a picture on mood alone to offer a general writing prompt for poetry, essays, fiction, or anything else.

Start With a Photo of Absence

Just like mood can be the subject of a photo, absence can also be the central focus of an image. A photograph of something empty that is usually crowded or an blank space that is usually filled by something can prompt a story or an essay. This is great for science fiction or horror, but it can work for any genre. Why is this stretch of road empty? What does that emptiness signify?

Find a Photo With Symbols

There are some commonly recognized symbols that make great writing prompts. For instance, this photo of an hourglass represents the passage of time. That could lend itself to a memoir or personal essay, to a story about time travel, or to a historical fiction novel. It's up to the writer who finds it inspiring.

Use Funny Photos to Start Your Story

A chuckle can be as inspiring as anything else. Look for funny stock photos that will make you smile. Then use that response as your prompt. When was the last time you thought something was funny? What would your character find amusing?

Evoke the Senses With a Photo

Sensory imagery is powerful, whether it's a photograph or a piece of writing. A photo that evokes the senses can inspire writing rich in sensory imagery. You can write about a character having that sensory experience or create a poem or essay about your own memories surrounding that sense.

Let Your Mind Wander as You Look at Photos

The key to using photos as writing prompts is allowing your mind to freely wander. Look at the photo, close your eyes for a moment, and allow yourself to imagine all the places you can go from that image. Then open your eyes and start writing. You may find a photo can help you dream up a whole book.

Kate Miller-Wilson
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Using Photographs as Writing Prompts