I met Jen just about a year ago on a weekend adventure of creative people. She is a collector of stories and she has the ability to weave them together in such amazing ways. I love how she reminds us to really connect our senses to our words with strong descriptions – it makes our writing so much richer. I thought a lot about that as I went about my day yesterday. I want to write stories in a way that the reader can really get to the heart of what our lives are all about.
I know that, according to the old saying, a picture is worth a thousand words. While I think that images are very powerful, alone they are not always sufficient to capture all that we want to remember. With a few simple lines, a collection of photos become a story, and what we hold in our hands on the other side has a new weight to it—a sense of completion.
Often the journaling or storytelling is the part we do last or put off for later. It's easy to get a design done and not know what to say. But what if you did this part first? What if you took a scrap of paper, jotted down a couple lines, and then let the story inform the design? The design and the photos would become illustrations. The design, photos, and words all would all have greater impact and power by working together.
You don't have to consider yourself a poet, or even good with words to put some together in a way that adds a nice finishing touch or surprises you by becoming the meat of the meal. Today I'm sharing some of my favorite tips for using words to tell the whole story. We'll begin with creating sensory descriptions, then we'll learn how to create suspense through linear action, and we'll finish with highlighting props to fill out the story.
Create descriptions that involve all the senses.
My strongest memories are sensory. My mother swears to this day that we were only given the orange drink, Tang, once in our childhood, but I can still remember how it tasted. Sweet, but with a sour twist and a smoothness that housed neither pulp nor any other natural fiber. When we stirred it in the glass, the spoon was shiny and orange, like a mirror to joy. It collided with the glass at each turn of the wrist and marked time like a clock pendulum, counting our anticipations as they grew.
Tastes, smells, touches and sounds are all sensory experiences we can capture from the moment and recreate for the reader with our words. Instead of the lovely photo of baby lips hanging out alone, jot down how they feel against your cheek. Light? Wet? How does that baby breath sound in your ear—does it smell new? Sweet?
Use linear action to turn a moment into a full story.
A story is quite simple to tell—it has a beginning, a middle and an end. Creating each piece can build suspense and interest in the reader. Ira Glass, the host of popular radio show This American Life, has said, “Whenever there's a sequence of events—this happened then that happened then this happened—we inevitably want to find out what happened next.” You can fill in the sequence of events with words if you have a single image. But if you have more than one image, instead of just showing the final moment or the best shot, consider including the whole sequence with a line or more to explain. Either way, you'll transform an interesting moment into a captivating story.
Even though spring has arrived, Lucy can't leave the house without her favorite blue hat. No longer for warmth, she shows me it's her best way to play peek-a-boo on the go.
Highlight important props in your images with your words.
Props are an important part of the story—just visit any museum to be reminded of how much of our story lives in our furniture and our pots and pans. With a short phrase or a few sentences, you can underline the props in your images to tell the reader the whole story.
A few words, wisely used, can turn your memorable moments into rich stories that will entertain and inform generations. Pull out some paper now—before you begin your design—and let the story be the foundation, setting the theme and tone, for the rest of your work. Remember all five senses, create a beginning, middle and end, and don't let your audience miss the important objects that hold entire tales in themselves. You'll be satisfied to have told the whole story, and it will be one they'll have a hard time forgetting.
*Ira Glass quoted from Radio: An Illustrated Guide.
Jen Lee is a Brooklyn-based writer and a collector of stories, many of which unfold in her vibrant neighborhood or in the lives of her closest friends. A performer in NYC's storytelling scene, Jen is also the author of Solstice: Stories of Light in the Dark (click the link to listen to the audio) and Fortunes. You can follow Jen on Twitter (jenleedotnet) and read more of her work at jenlee.net.