lessons from a distance

lessons from a distance

WYSIWYG (A Piece of Writing in Which What You See is What You Get): A Lesson With Kaj Tanaka

Prompt: Write a story built around a single image—something complicated you could hold in your field of vision all at once. It doesn’t have to be a story, actually. This prompt works equally well for Fiction, NF, and poetry.

We often think of imagery as an aid to storytelling–a single tool in the writer’s toolkit–but in the case of this prompt, the image IS the story. In a literal sense, what you see is what you get (WYSIWYG!)

It’s not very often that a fully formed piece of writing passes us by on the street, so to speak, but when it does AND when we learn to recognize it, it’s a thing of beauty. We are looking for things that carry a certain innate poetic quality already. Here are some examples of images in which simply a vivid description could, itself, unlock a story:

• A large family getting on a small elevator
• Looking at the crowd, the moment before you make a speech
• Workers felling a dead tree
• A precious object teetering on a shelf begins to fall
• The moment a cast comes off
• A neighbor struggling to maintain a shared privacy fence

These are just a few examples of brief slivers of time where the field of vision takes on narrative and poetic qualities—qualities, which could be elongated, expanded and enhanced by the writer’s craft.

Take for example Paul Beckman’s story “Mom’s Goodbye,” which we could describe with the prompt: “walking into dad’s hospital room.”


In this story, Beckman’s narrator simply stands and observes, withholding judgment or criticism. The narrator simply takes in the scene as it appears, with little commentary or editorializing. It helps that the scene is specific, bizarre and uncomfortable. This is a kind of story, where the image is so arresting that the usual concerns of the writer: plot, character, setting etc, take a back seat.

Another story that does the same thing, but in a stylistically different way, is Zach VandeZande’s “Making an Illegal U-Turn on 15th Near Union,” which we might describe with the prompt: “the moment you realize you are in the middle of a car accident.”


VandeZande’s story takes the time dilation experienced by a person in a car accident and expands the details into a single vivid image, which unfolds into something terrifying. The real strength of this piece is the slowness with which VandeZande reveals the full extent of the image. This is a good reminder that describing a complex scene takes a bit of space on the page—it’s much more time consuming to read than experience, presumably—therefore, the order in which the writer reveals individual details of an image takes on an almost plotlike quality. The details here almost feel like progressive events.

Both Beckman and VandeZande play with time. Each of these stories exists in a kind of eternal present with nods toward a past and a future, which the narrators cannot meaningfully access in the story.

Building a story around a single image is a good prompt for writers looking to distill a complex story or idea. It makes the invisible visible and pulls writers away from the world of abstract ideas into concrete action and detail. While it’s true this prompt represents a major limitation to a piece of writing, it can result in a condensed, rich and arresting piece of poetry or prose.

Good Luck!

Kaj Tanaka’s fiction has appeared in New South, The New Ohio Review, Hobart, Joyland and Tin House. Kaj teaches creative writing classes at the Harris County Jail in Houston, TX.