Writing Exercise: Describe a Picture by Khanh Ho

Creative Writing

Welcome to new guest columnist Khanh Ho, associate English professor. In this article, he offers a writing exercise to spark your creativity: describe a picture.

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In my time both as a student and professor of Creative Writing, I have found that exercises built around material objects never cease to astound, amaze and inspire.

There’s something about holding an object in your hand;  it focuses the mind; it steadies the voice.

This exercise I am about to share with you is a sure winner among young and old. It always gets the juices flowing. And it doesn’t have to remain simply an exercise—it can be easily incorporated into the body of a story—where it can take off.

Have you ever walked into a stranger’s home and looked at the many picture frames of every shape, size and make—silver and wood and steel? Each of those pictures tells a story about its owner—of triumphs and loss, joy and pain—that encapsulates their whole experience.

I used to sell candy for my elementary school (door-to-door) and nice, little old ladies would often invite me into their houses, filled with wondrous frames on old doilies. They would boil me tea and tell me about the many men and women who peopled their frames. When those women—now no doubt long gone—left the room, I would hold those frames in my little paws and look at those fine old men in double-breasted suits with their hands behind the backs of beautiful bobbed flappers. I loved the pictures that were black and white, almost as much as I loved those with scalloped edges. There was a world in those pictures.

Writing Exercise

So, your task is easy:  find a picture—the older the better—and attempt to narrate it.

couple in frame shared on flickr.com by jewel o' the desertGroup pictures work best here. But you don’t have to necessarily be in the picture. And indeed if you are a really good writer, you don’t even need to know any of the folks who appear like apparitions on the paper. Just try to describe the picture and you will learn a lot about detail, gesture, characterization, setting.

The Greeks have a fancy name for this exercise:  ekphrasis—representing a representation. A picture of a statue, for instance, is an example of ekphrasis.

As is a painting of a painting. Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn” is a wonderful example of ekphrasis: a description of a beautiful work of art, the story described by its black and white figures—all caught in a poem.

old photos shared on flickr.com Creative Commons by Yasuhiko ItoEkphrasis can be both an academic exercise and also a fully productive artistic enterprise.

But now that I have named this exercise, let’s dispense of the fancy-schmancy moniker and just call it this:  a description of a photograph.

There! Isn’t it less intimidating?

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I hope you enjoyed this writing exercise by Khanh Ho. Please comment below about your experience describing pictures to spark your creativity.

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Khahn Ho, AuthorABOUT THE AUTHOR: Khanh Ho spent many years living in a small town in rural Iowa, teaching Creative Writing at Grinnell College—a small liberal arts college, nestled in a windswept prairie whose distinguishing feature is the presence of a Super Walmart.  But then he had a light bulb epiphany:  he’ll never produce writing if he persists in teaching it. So, now he is happily pounding away at the keyboard, knocking out not only his first mystery novel but, also, the first mystery novel featuring the first Vietnamese American detective. Why? Because, yes, he’ll be the first; yes, it’ll be a power trip; and yes, because he can! Follow him on his great adventure at www.losangelesmystery.com.

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3 Responses

  1. I used to love doing this exercise in my creative writing classes! We have a lot of very old pictures in my family (my grandparents were born at the turn of the 20th century, so they captured a lot of great images from the Jazz Age).

    This exercise is actually what sparked my idea for writing a novel set during the 1904 World’s Fair.

    It is a sure-fire cure for writer’s block, too! Love this post and am going to share it everywhere. 🙂

  2. Great exercise. Will give it a go. Thanks, Wendy

  3. Khanh Ho says:

    Angie–I love the idea of a novel set in the World’s Fair. And this is a great exercises for going through those old pictures. My mom used to keep those pictures in old butter cookie twins. Gosh, I cannot eat butter cookies without thinking about black and white photographs of people who were once children in awkward formal poses in their very very Sunday Best.

    Wendy–You should definitely give it a try; it will get your juices pumping. Tell me if you get a story out of it!

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