Long before I picked up a pen, I told stories with light. With a Pentax K1000 and a few rolls of film, I was off to capture woods, fields and fencerows, and sandy creeks that connected it all.
As a writer, I still use a camera to tell stories. Photos can bring texture, depth and direction to your scenes. Remember this: environmental, portrait, detail. The right combination of these shots can sharpen the focus of your fiction. Here’s a closer look at each.
The Big Picture
In photography, the big picture is an establishing or environmental shot. It grounds us in time and place. In broad strokes, it sets mood or suggests tone.
In writing, you can use the same shot to set a stage. In this photo, you see a bridge. We have superstructure, piers, water and woods. There’s a sense of isolation here. No people. Just river and rust.
To me, it implies ruin, a fall from grace, a hard future and a harder past. The scene it suggests might write something like this:
Been fifteen years since he’d crossed the bridge. Half a lifetime. He dreamed of it still: metallic thunder rolling hollow overhead, wind keening through girders, the bite of sand, the taste of river musk, the bonnet torn from his sister’s head.
He’d expected to find the river creature here, waiting.
It wasn’t, of course. Just a lone gull drawing circles in the sky.
We tighten our focus for portraits. They provide dramatic or interesting shots of your subject. Again, you can use this same approach in fiction. A portrait needn’t be of a person. In this case, we’ve a car on the bridge.
How does it factor into the plot? Maybe it’s a totem of sorts. Maybe car and character share a common history – or a common future.
Let’s use the photo to write a portrait:
Artificial intelligence and a high velocity engine fused into an early 20th Century Ford chassis. Their granddad had always been building things like that. But the car – the car had been exceptional. Martin rested his hand on hood, softly said, “Wotcher, Stockwell,” and waited.
No warmth. No light. No tingle to the touch. A shell, Martin thought. Like me.
In photography, a detail shot illustrates a key aspect of your subject or story. In fiction, we call it a telling detail – a part that defines the whole. It acts as an x-ray, hinting at things hidden beneath. The telling detail spotlights a trait or element key to plot, character or conflict.
When I was shooting the bridge, a service hatch caught my eye. As a story element, it could reveal something about civilization or our character. It could also be a focal point for our plot.
Afternoon light slanted under the carriage, falling on a pattern in the deck. Not a design, Martin thought. A hatch. With interlocking hexagons carved into its face. Tunnel folk? What business would Tunnel folk have on a high bridge? Martin braced himself against the car, put the heel of his boot to the hatch, and kicked. Kicked again. The hatch saucered up and fell ajar. He gripped the edge and lifted, careful, for reasons he didn’t fully understand, not to damage the dead automobile.
The cover slid away and clanged against the deck.
Light shafted into the pit. Amongst the filth and dust and bones of small animals lay a bit of tattered cloth, and the ribs of woman’s purse.
A reversal of fortune? Or the beginning of the end?
Hard to say. But I do know just as I’ll lead Martin deeper into the story using environmental, portrait and detail photos as my guide, you can use your camera to bring focus to your fiction, shot by shot, scene by scene, one frame at a time.
Have you ever used photography to help your writing? Please share your thoughts and comments below!
Images courtesy of the author.