Sometimes the ideas dry up. Trump’s Wall blocks out creativity and all you can do is lament and make another coffee, hoping the caffeine will spark something. What if it doesn’t come?
A terrific solution to these droughts, I’ve found, is art. By that, I mean paintings, photographs, sculptures, designs … anything you’d class as classic or modern art.
I’ve recently received the joint-task of promoting and engaging with the hundreds of pieces of artwork on display across Liverpool and surrounding areas as part of the Independents Biennial. During the festival, I’ll be running a series of workshops looking at how pieces featured in the festival can inspire creativity in three core areas of writing: character, plot, and theme.
I hope to make them available to you in some form or another. Audiobooks maybe. For today’s purposes, though, let’s look at how art can inspire ideas in these three crucial areas.
Capturing the essence of a character is a difficult skill. The little details make all the difference. Sometimes we need to see a face to inspire us: a slight scar on the upper lip, pockmarks, deep wrinkles, dimples, the magical little variations in people’s eyes.
Take a look at these pictures here. What can you ascertain about the people from their features and expressions? Do any details inspire ideas for your own writing? Hairstyles, eye colour and shape, smiles, wrinkles … anything.
Pieces don’t have to just feature people, though. Take a look at this picture by Liverpool artist Tony Mallon, featuring a dining room. What kind of people could you imagine eating and gathering here? Consider too the prospect of the antithesis of your imagined person being in there. What conflicts does that throw up?
For a long time, I struggled with theme. I never quite understood it, and instead of changing that, I pretended it didn’t exist. Hoped the theme was there of its own accord. Curiously, it often is, tucked away amongst your story, but I’ve come to learn it requires a bit of refining to reveal it and in the process, tie the threads of your story into one brilliant bow.
Theme can be revealed in details. For instance, if you’re exploring the idea of nakedness, you could have walls of flaking paint, or you can use the appearance of characters, such as one who wears little clothing or to contrast, another who always wears a jumper, even in warm weather.
I find these little details marvellous. They always bring a smile of satisfaction to my face. A bit of genius from the writer. I’ve not found it easy when it comes to adding them into my own stories. In art, I’ve found a potential solution.
The job of the artist is to say a lot with just one snapshot. I think it’s best to use an example. Here’s a picture used by artist Tony Mallon in his series on the Salvation Army, featured in the Biennial. If you’re unfamiliar with the Salvation Army, it’s a Christian-based charity here in the UK which helps people in need, running food banks and homeless shelters, amongst many other services.
At first glance, it’s a pretty plain photo. Look deeper. What do the few details of the room tell us about the place? About the types of people who would have sat in that room? About the kinds of lives, they would have lived?
Ask questions. What significance does the bare wall have? Why is it so bare? Had there been a picture there once, but it was smashed? How did that stain get onto the electric radiator?
Answering these questions gives you a wealth of material to work with. The wall: the blank slate they forever promise to give themselves, but traumas in their life, addictions perhaps, keep them from committing. The radiator: not a fireplace, just an electric device that generates a fleeting heat, not dissimilar to lives spent living on the street, searching for a bit of warmth. The arm of the chair: a hint at comfort, something enjoyed only in small doses. Their lives will never be truly comfortable.
From just a single picture we get this. These details can help you reveal themes running throughout a story: loss, addiction, choices. You may have even gotten something different.
Sometimes just a single scene can unravel the plot of a story or novel. One powerful image can encapsulate a scene, something that tells us what’s gone before and what may come next.
This image of the Empress of Canada gave me the idea for a flash fiction story, Death of the Empress, published a few months ago by Alien Pub Magazine. Take a look at this picture by Tony Mallon, below, again as part of his piece on the Salvation Army. It was taken, I believe, in the 1950s, and again the purpose of the Salvation Army then was the same as it is now: to help those in need.
The reasons people found themselves in these places in the 50s would have been much different compared to now. Drugs would have been much less common, for instance.
Looking at this picture, what can you imagine it being like when full, sitting around the fire? The chatter of voices. Would there be joking or laughter? Or a sombre silence?
Answering questions like these can provoke ideas for plots. What if three destitute men who met in the hostel hatched a plan to rob a bank to change their fortune? How could their problems affect them or prevent the success of the plan?
Asking the simple question: what if? is a great way to go on a journey of plotting discovery.
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