lessons from a distance

lessons from a distance

What Stays on the Page: Using Photos as Inspiration: A Lesson With Madeline Anthes

Flash fiction is often compared to a snapshot. If a novel was a photo album (let’s say an album titled “photos from 1987-1991”), then a short story would be a sequence of photos in the album (a trip to the lake, 1988), and a flash piece would be one single photo (holding fireflies in a jar at the lake, July 3, 1988). This is an imperfect analogy, of course, but photos represent one specific moment that was worth remembering. Even if it’s a photo of something mundane and seemingly insignificant, the fact that someone saved the photo makes it significant in some way. What made this photo worth saving?

I often use photos as a way to start writing. A photo gives you some information and leaves out the rest, and your job as a writer is to interpret what to include, what to leave out, and what it all means. It sounds easy, but it’s a difficult job. This lesson is good practice for deciding what stays on the page (and how to use concrete details to show what’s on the page) and what stays off.


Start by choosing a photo. You can choose one of your own photos, but it’s often hard to disconnect and see the photo objectively. If you already know the story that the photo tells, it can be difficult to detach yourself and create a new one. But since there are no hard and fast rules, you can choose whatever photo you want! Some places I look for photos:

Instagram – I have a few art and photography accounts that I follow

Literary journals – Barren Magazine and SmokeLong Quarterly often use photographs that I find inspiring. Midwestern Gothic used to do photo-inspired contests and you can still access the photos; you can also access their photo archive here.

Do a photo swap with a friend – send each other an old photograph that you can both use as inspiration (if you do this, you can create an interesting mosaic – see step 6)


Write down what you see in the photo. Look at the photo and focus on the details. Here are some questions to answer and things to look for as you dissect the photo:

Who or what is in the center of the photo?
What is their expression? What are they trying to portray?

What’s in the background?
What’s out of focus and what is in focus?

What are they wearing?
What does their clothing say about their character?

What’s the setting?
What season is it?
How does the setting affect the photo?

What colors stand out in the photo?

What is unusual or interesting in the photo? What catches your eye?


Now, write down what you don’t see in the photo. What’s missing? This is where you can start injecting some of your own creativity and make some assumptions.

Who do you think is taking the photo?

What else is in the room or who else is present?

Why was this photo taken?

What is the person in the photo thinking, or what is the person taking the photo thinking?


It’s likely that your list of what’s in the photo has a lot of concrete details, and your list of what’s not in the photo is more abstract. That’s fine!

Go to your list of what’s in the photo and circle 3-4 specific things that you want to include in your story. Maybe it’s the way the light creates a halo around the child in the photo, or maybe it’s the stark brown color of the frog as it sits on a rock. Circle the details that feel the most real and tangible to you; circle what speaks to you.

Do the same with what’s not in the photo. Circle the most interesting or critical items that are not included. Circle what you think is most compelling, or what you’re drawn to.


Build out! Connect those details together and build a story around it. If you need to go back to your detail list and pull something else out, that’s fine.

Think about what the conflict of the story could be – is there a detail that doesn’t seem to fit in the photo that you could center the conflict around?

Remember that the story isn’t about a literal photo (though, I suppose it could be), but rather the items and people inside the photo. Look for moments of tension, of mismatched details, of something ugly or beautiful or unnatural, and try to put that into words.  Your readers won’t have the photo you used as a reference, so you’re painting an image of the conflict for them.


You can end there and you’d have yourself a nice little flash piece. Good job! But, you can also go one step further and create a mosaic.

Choose a brand new photo and do it all over again. Write down what’s in the photo and what’s not in the photo and build out a new story from those details.

Now, look at both of your stories and find places where there are natural breaks. Look for natural transitions, places you shift to a new detail, places you focus on a different image. Split each story into 2-4 segments (so you have 4-8 segments total). Now, weave the stories together using a segment from one story followed by a segment from the other, back and forth until you’ve created a new piece.

It may not make sense at first and you might need to tinker a bit (you might need to change pronouns or tenses, for instance), but look for ways that your two stories can be bridged together. Sometimes two stories that look nothing alike can create a really interesting and compelling mosaic.


If you swapped photos with a friend, you can co-write a mosaic as well. You can both write about the same photo and weave the stories together, co-writing a piece of flash based on one image. OR you can both write stories based on each other’s photos and weave them together, co-writing a story based on the other person’s photo.

Madeline Anthes is the Assistant Editor of Lost Balloon. Her first chapbook of flash fiction, NOW WE HAUNT THIS HOME TOGETHER, came out this year with Bone & Ink Press. You can find her on Twitter at @maddieanthes, and find more of her work at madelineanthes.com.

Artwork by: David Dibert