‘A picture’s worth a thousand words’ according to the famous saying, but it rather the begs the question why authors spend so much time and effort on description.
Getting interested in photography has had a huge impact on my approach to description and setting. It’s also taught me that sometimes a hundred words can say more than a picture. It just depends on the words, the picture, and the subject in question.
In one of my favourite passages in The Bone Dragon, Evie wanders through the fens on the night of a hoar frost.
For several years, I’ve tried to capture on camera what I saw in my mind when I wrote this, but it’s never quite worked out. The pictures below are pretty enough, but the words cut to the heart of what I want people to imagine.
Since doing more photography, I’ve learnt that if I can represent a thing or place better with a picture than with words, there’s little point in describing it in a book – unless that thing or place is both important to the plot and unfamiliar to most readers.
For instance, I’m working on a historical novel that’s partly set on the Isle of Man. I describe several aspects of the setting that could be conveyed just as well, if not better, with a picture. But I’ve kept these passages because the Isle of Man is a real place, the look of which is vital to the story, so I need to be sure that readers can form a picture of it in their minds. Similarly, I describe the Dragon of The Bone Dragon in detail because I can’t expect the reader to know what my version of a dragon looks like, whereas I say almost nothing about Evie’s appearance because it’s not significant to the plot and readers can easily ‘fill in the gaps’ to their own satisfaction, without losing anything of the plot.
Sometimes I feel a description offers something different but equally interesting to a picture, in which case I try to tease out what the image means to me visually versus verbally. In that case, the important thing for me is focusing on how words versus a picture allow me to represent different aspects of the thing in question.
The other key way I use photography is on fieldtrips. I almost never take notes. I find that photos are a much better aide memoire, even for things like smells and tastes and sensations. I try to include photos that capture the complete sensory experience of the relevant place or thing – or at least ones that will jog my memory and take me back there to re-experience it. For instance, this shot of Southend Pier captures exactly what I planned to write about how bitter and wet and endless it is.
I’ve also learned that fieldtrip photos don’t always need to be pretty: sometimes they’re just image-notes that capture factual information efficiently. For instance, the over-exposed shot on the left was intended purely as a reminder of the types of plants that grow on the shore in Ramsey on the Isle of Man, while the lovely picture of parked vehicles on the right shows me roughly how wide the road and promenade are and that there’s greenery directly below the beach-wall.
The key is to take different types of photos: multi-sensory photos, photos to jog your memory, information photos, pretty photos, and photos that capture the thing or place as a whole.
I often find myself zooming in to take pretty shots of things that interest me, but those are usually not the best pictures to write from. Zooming in is effectively a way of editing the information in the picture: when taking fieldtrip photos, it’s often important to include the ‘messy edges’ so that I can edit the picture for what I want to say in the book, which may be quite different from what I’d say in a picture taken for its own sake. For instance, the first picture below tells me a lot about the geography of this particular street in Douglas on the Isle of Man. The next picture is purely intended to be pretty and to inspire me to write about the beauty of the place.
However, the type of fieldtrip picture I love most is all about beauty: it’s about finding particular things that inspire me to want to write about that place or thing. Often I don’t end up writing about what’s in these pictures per se, but rather the sense of the place that the pictures conjure for me. For instance, sometimes I have a very strong sense of the ‘colour scheme’ of a book and capturing this across a series of photos is vital for helping me bring the setting to life. For instance, The Bone Dragon is blue and silver: the colours of the night. My new book (‘MoB’) is red and yellow.
Ultimately, the most important thing that photography has taught me about writing is a better understanding of my own aesthetic. What do I find beautiful? What do I want to communicate to people about the place or thing I’m describing? If you keep coming back to those questions, you’ll soon find that your descriptive voice becomes much clearer and more compelling.