How to Use Visuals as a Creative Writing Prompt

16, Jan 2013 by Kathy Steffen">Kathy Steffen in Brainstorming,Featured,Writing Craft     , ,   9 Comment

PrismColorEyeWebVisuals have always inspired me and cause ideas to flow. I always think of it as cross-referencing my senses. If I need to describe a church, I see it vaguely in my mind, but as I google images (or research at the library and lately, search pinterest) a reality begins to build and details emerge. I don’t always find the perfect image, but pieces form from what I see and then become richer and more real with what my imagination adds. After all, writing (and art!) come from the writer’s experience and his or her specific way of interpreting the world.

When I visited the Historic Society of Jerome and went through their archives, I found the photo of a child-miner, around 5 years old, dressed like an adult (his oversized coat came to his ankles) and he was smoking a pipe. His expression and eyes dared me to say anything about him. And boy, did I! In that moment, an important character in Jasper Mountain (Mouse, a deaf 6 year old miner) sprang into existence. Just this morning I was writing a scene for my latest project that happens in a barn. I searched for a few images, and wow, did that scene spring to life. Not just in the details, but my imagination built a real place in my head (I know, oxymoron) that I was able to experience and write with some true depth and subtext. All from a few photos.

Using visuals can also spark ideas not directly related to specifics of what you are writing or seeing, but of that elusive third thing that you may sense is missing, but aren’t sure what it is or how to find it. Use visuals to get your imagination working and let what you find be a jump-off point to add depth, texture, and even new out-of-YOUR-box ideas for your writing. Add aspects to your writing and story that you don’t yet know exists. Connect your inner world to inspirations from the outer world and see what brilliant “third thing” surfaces for you!

Image Search

Jump on google and type criteria into the search box (lets say “rural church” for an example) and then click on images (found in the bar under search box) and watch what comes up! White picture-perfect churches with steeples, abandoned churches, small one-room churches. Add another word (like, rural Pentecostal church) and there are snake-handlers, people being baptized in rivers, huge architectural wonder churches, little shack churches. Add “interior” to the above string and see, people writhing on the floor in holy ecstasy, huge expansive spaces of worship, a claustrophobic interior of a church with no windows.

Photos from Magazines

Anytime I find a photo in a magazine inspiring or intriguing, I clip it out and save it in a file. It doesn’t take up much room (paper is so thin!) but when I need a jump-start, I grab my file. Writing a scene and pulling out a photo from Runner’s World start my creative juices flowing. Is the running real of figurative? What is the character running from or to in this scene? In the story? Why? Or should they be running (because of something they don’t know)? What is it? What are the consequences of staying? What are the consequences of running?

A clipping from an issue of Country Gardens brings up questions. Is this a real place in my character’s life, or an oasis in her mind? Whether interior or exterior, what does she do here? Why does she go here? What is she escaping? What does she need to contemplate? Is this a wish? A dream? Or does she hate this place? Did something bad happen here? Does she feel trapped here? Does she want to leave but can’t? Or did she chose to be here and why? Did she make this place (again, real or in her mind)?

Collage What You Find

I’ve gone from thinking it was silly to a firm belief that building a collage for a book as I write is an integral part of my creative process. I don’t set out to make a piece of art, but as I work, I get inspired by the visual and reminded of being in certain scenes, or in certain character’s heads, in places in my story world. Before I know it, I have something to look at that takes me in to my book world and inspires me at a glance! Start a collage, and see how you are suddenly eager to come up with new ideas for your book and corresponding piece of visual inspiration.

Enjoy the Process

And one other aspect of using visuals to inspire you—it’s fun! Don’t spend hours (yep, there is a danger of procrastination—do what I do and set a timer if needed) but do spend some time on this exercise and you will connect back to why writing is such fun. In case you need some more visual-based prompts, see Jump Start Your Imagination with What You See to get some ideas for building specific details for your characters and work in progress.

[author] [author_image timthumb=’on’][/author_image] [author_info]Kathy Steffen is an award-winning novelist and author of the “Spirit of the River Series:” “First, There is a River,” “Jasper Mountain,” and “Theater of Illusion,” available online and in bookstores everywhere. Additionally, Kathy is also published in short fiction and pens a monthly writing column, “Between the Lines.” She writes from a log home in the woods of southwestern Wisconsin that she shares with her husband and three cats. Find out more at”[/author_info] [/author]

9 thoughts on “How to Use Visuals as a Creative Writing Prompt”

  1. Chris says:

    Good ideas, Kathy. I’m thinking I need to get more concrete visuals into my writing process. I feel if I can see a picture of a hero, heroine, bad guy, supporting character, I can write them more fully, visualize their facial expressions and body movements better, etc.

    I also should get concrete pictures of place and setting in my writing space so I can visualize rooms in a house (for example) the city streets, what the woods down the road look like, etc.

    I read alot about writers who have collages or corkboards full of pictures they refer to in writing, and think I should work toward that sort of solution. My mind can’t keep all those places and characters straight some days. 🙂

  2. Thanks Chris! I started doing this with my new project, and it’s helped so much. I never thought I “needed” it, but I have to say, the more visual help my imagination gets, the stronger it gets and the more I’m able to truly create. It’s like it frees the creative part, because my mind isn’t focused on (like you said) trying to keep stuff straight. I am now a true believer in the visual! 🙂

  3. Jamie Kersten says:

    Great tips, Kathy. I’ve used images before, but your post has given me some additional ways to search for and use those images. I’m a very visual person, those images really help me quite a bit with my writing. Thanks again for some wonderful advice!

  4. Leslyn Amthor Spinelli says:

    Great idea!!

  5. Thanks Jamie! I’m very visual too, but forget that sometimes. It’s amazing how much visuals help me 🙂

  6. Kenzie says:

    Thanks for the ideas, Ms. Kathy!

  7. You are so welcome, Kenzie!

  8. Hank Kellner says:

    Please visit my blog at
    Are you interested in writing/exchanging a guest blog?
    Hank Kellner

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