‘Unsticking’ the Visual Imagination to Free Your Story
With a technique I call snapshotting, you can harness the power of visual brainstorming for stronger description, theme-specific symbols, and gripping scenes, while helping you get your story unstuck.
As writers, we begin in our imaginations. It is where we conceive story lines and characters. It is a place where we can “see” scenes and “hear” dialogue, like movies, impossibly perfect, being projected on the front wall of our craniums. Then we transform those movies into words.
Not as easy as it sounds, is it?
Words being the final product that we produce, there are points in the writing process when we focus on generating those words. We fret about counting those words and polishing them like gold coins in a miser’s grip. We analyze readability scores, we find-and-replace overused words, and we obsess about getting those little squiggly punctuative symbols right.
Those activities pull our attention away from the visual imagination, which can trigger stuckness in many writers. We’re asking our brains not only to make the movies, but to sell tickets, scoop popcorn, change the marquis sign, and clean the toilets.
Our brains may have a hard time making frequent shifts between the visual imagination and the verbal, word-generating tasks necessary to set words on the page.
Next time you feel stuck in writing, ask yourself: are you still seeing the movie in your head, or are you turning the crank on the word-making noggin and finding it jammed?
Snapshotting brings you back into the visual mindset.
With snapshotting, we generate images in a focused manner. We aren’t searching for the right words at this point: we’re jumpstarting the movie projector. Similar to brainstorming, snapshotting is a guided visualization of specific images around a scene, relationship, or theme.
Let’s imagine you are struggling to show versus tell about a love triangle. A beautiful baker is being pursued simultaneously by a mime and a park ranger, and the baker is reluctant to commit to either.
For snapshotting purposes, imagine she’s literally running away from the two suitors. Is our baking beauty running away from love because she doesn’t want to choose (or choose wrong)? Okay! How can you show us her problem with making choices? Maybe she can’t decide between butter cream or sour cream for a frosting recipe, and she uses both—or maybe neither! Maybe in her unwillingness to make a wrong choice, we now are looking a kitchen full of naked cupcakes. Those naked cupcakes are the visual symbol encapsulating her internal conflict.
Maybe the baker’s love-crazed suitors are pursuing her on foot. Imagine those two trying to trip each other up, hurling insults (well, silent insults for the mime), and trying to woo her on the run. It’s awkward and silly, but already we’re seeing it unfold. How do they move? Why does the park ranger have a limp? Is the limp from the time he rescued the baker from a mountain lion who’s crazy for angel food cake? The limp is a snapshot of the sacrifice he’s willing to make for love.
Why is the baker carrying a wedding cake? It sure is slowing her down, and she is trying not to drop it. That wedding cake represents her idealized view of relationships. It’s perfection. It’s what she’s holding out for, and it should not be sullied by common mimes and park rangers.
What if the three members of this love triangle were in different vehicles: what would those vehicles look like? The white baking van with the pink lettering being tailed by an olive-green Jeep and whatever mimes drive—maybe a black-and-white Prius (because it’s quiet and looks mimey).
What’s hanging from the rearview mirror of each vehicle? That crystal angel reminds the park ranger of when he first met and fell in love with the baker. Maybe the mime still displays the baker’s prom garter from high school after all these years. He can’t let go, and that garter is a snapshot symbol of his motivation to recapture his youth—the years before he found himself walking into the wind, trapped in a box, and pulling imaginary ropes (that’s all mime jargon).
Obviously, I just kind of winged it here, but this snapshotting exercise took me no more than ten minutes, and already I’m seeing the characters and action clearly—even though I have no intention of pursuing the baker-ranger-mime love triangle story. It’s all yours.
Snapshotting in 3 Steps
1. Pick one place in a story where you’re stuck.
2. Brainstorm images associated with the point where you’re stuck (character, theme, scene). Let related images flow.
3. Ask what-if questions but answer those questions in images.
Do you keep all the ideas you generate from snapshotting? No. Snapshotting is not about production or output. It’s about getting unstuck by re-engaging the visual imagination to free your writing once more. Yes, you may encounter an interesting twist, compelling action, or insights into relationships, so keep those for inclusion in your story if they advance your story/character/theme.
When you’re stuck, the most important thing to do is figure out why you’re stuck. If you’re stuck because you are experiencing “word overload” and production burnout, then try snapshotting your way back into the imagination.
Keep a box of tissues handy, because snapshotting is guaranteed to get your creative juices flowing.
And if you ever finish writing that beautiful baker love triangle book, I’d love to read it. Just give me credit for the naked cupcakes.
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