They say a picture paints a thousand words. Ideally, as fiction writers we don’t literally want to be using a thousand words to set a backdrop in our narrative. However, a well-realised setting can go a long way to firing the reader’s imagination. I have referred to this idea before in a previous post, Landscapes of the Mind, but I wanted to expand on the point by explaining how useful I have found it to be to supplement your imaginary backdrop with pictures.
Chances are, especially if you’re writing fantasy or science fiction, your settings will be entirely fictional. So there is no way you have actually been there except in your mind. But they need to have a tang of realism to them. Even if it is the depths of a nebular or the crest of a mountain, places not many of your readers will have probably been to either, the setting still needs to feel realistic.
So I have found that, where possible, visiting places that may be similar to your settings can be very beneficial. And if this isn’t possible, or even when it is, refer to pictures.
I am very lucky to herald from a very pretty county in England called Shropshire. I’m even luckier in that when I visited last weekend the weather was fine. Not something to be sniffed at in Shropshire or, indeed, England.
I went for a walk and I took some pictures. In The Road Elsewhere, Rowan, the narrator, spends a great deal of time roaming around the countryside. For the sake of realism, I have decided that his home kingdom, Anelon, is not all the dissimilar in climate and landscape to England. I hope this wasn’t a lazy decision, but more born from my commitment to realism. I can make Anelon feel real simply by going for a walk and drinking in what’s around me.
I took pictures to take away with me some of the feelings and settings that Rowan might conceivably travel through during the course of his journey. We are lucky in this technological age that most phones now have pretty decent cameras. If I come across somewhere that stirs something in me, I photograph it. It’s not always even a setting, but sometimes a plant or a tumble of some old masonry. Anything that I can imagine occurring in my world, I like to have pictures of to refer to, even if I never end up using them.
One day I plan to draw/paint out some of my characters too. Whereas I have argued before that a character’s physical apprentice, unless there is something extreme about it, doesn’t impact massively on the decisions they make or the motivations that drive them and therefore isn’t worth devoting a great deal of time to in the narrative, it none the less helps me see my characters and what they might do and how their actions play out.
So I think I might have a stab at producing pictures of them at some point. I will draw Rowan from The Road Elsewhere and possibly his mentor too, Maveer. And from Zero I plan to sketch out my two protagonists, Hugo and Webb, just for my own enjoyment and as my own creative exercise.
But there is yet another way to use pictures to help your narrative. This is more of a metaphorical use of the idea of picture, but none the less a great way to move your narrative along. It was a great piece of advice a creative writing tutor at university once gave me and it is ideal in particular if you have ground to a halt with a narrative.
He told me to have a picture in my head of the very end of the book. Not the
events at the ending, not the overall final and somewhat daunting concept of tying up the plot, but just a picture, a mental image, of the very last moment in your narrative. If it were a movie, it would be the shot before the screen goes blank and the credits roll.
Don’t fret over whether it’s the ending you want or not and chances are as the narrative moves along it will change, so don’t worry that you may be setting youself in stone. The picture doesn’t even have to have any great significance or even make any sense. Just picture your protagonist and where they are, who they are with and what they are doing. Maybe their facial expression. Just produce a screenshot in your mind. They may be stood on a beach, gazing out to sea. They may be driving off down a freeway into the sunset. They may be closing a round, yellow door of a hobbit hole (although probably best not that last one, to be honest. Could be sticky with copyright issues, but you get the idea).
Either way, whatever it is you picture them doing, or wherever it is you picture them to be, something, or several somethings, will have had to happen to get them to that point. They have to have reached the beach, the car, the hobbit hole. They have to have talked to the other characters in the scene, if any, to get them to be with them there at that point.
From wherever you are stuck in your narrative, you know they have, somehow, got to reach that point. And when this idea is formed, I find, the ideas just begin to flow.
The ending shot may change a thousand times before you even reach it, and don’t panic if it does, but having that hypothetical image in your head works wonders for stoking the imagination and getting the narrative ball rolling again. You may even be surprised at how committed you become to making it happen exactly as you pictured it first off.
So let the world you’re making, your head and your writing be full of pictures, great and small, final or fluid. Paint existence in and around your characters, behind them and in front of them and see how they reach out and touch it and how they decide to move on through to the next frame.
And always have your phone charged up if you go on a walk through the countryside.