Gleaning Motivations from a Photograph

To a writer, a picture can be worth far more than a thousand words. A picture can be worth far more than a thousand words. It can be worth two or ten even a hundred thousand words if it sparks the idea for a story. The trick is in getting from the image to the spark and from there to the fully developed story.

Inspiration helps, but it's not always reliable. And when it fails, it's nice to have a backup methodology. That's where the concepts presented in Discovering the Soul of Your Story come into play, because youWhen inspiration fails, it's nice to have a backup methodology. can use them to tease out story elements from various sources, including pictures, and generate new stories from those elements.

Here, we'll apply them to a photograph from the outskirts of a political conflict.

Arrested Anti-government Activist on Motorcycle

From NBC News "Week in Pictures": March 13–20, 2014


Photo by Leo Ramirez / AFP - Getty Images
Click the image to visit its source

Photo description excerpted from the NBC News website: "An anti-government activist is arrested by national police during a protest against Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro in Caracas on March 13."

In this photograph, a distraught young woman who appears to have been roughed up in a mild skirmish straddles a motorcycle, sandwiched between two police officers in riot gear—one in front (a male) who is steering the motorcycle and the other behind (a female) is restraining the young woman with one arm and holding what appears to be a riot shield in the other.

The photo draws a stark contrast between the attire of the woman and that of the police officers.

The photo draws a stark contrast between the attire of the woman, who is dressed in fashionable street clothes (including large hoop earrings) and whose arms are exposed, and the police officers, who are decked out in black armor, helmets, and face shields. And by doing so, it punctuates the difference in vulnerability and power between two sides of the protest.

The principles of Discovering the Soul of Your Story emphasize the importance of intent.

The principles outlined in Discovering the Soul of Your Story emphasize the importance of intent as the foundation of any story. In particular, the intent of the main character can be said to fall into one of three categories—to gain, regain, or keep. In this picture, young woman’s facial expression projects trepidation and uncertainty but does not by itself identify an immediate intent. The officer who sits behind her on the motorcycle, however, does exhibit an intent in the moment—that of restraining the young woman to keep her on the bike.

The larger story may involve personalities from both sides of the struggle.

The larger story here may involve personalities from both sides of the political struggle that serves as the focus of the anti-government protest. Anyone who is actively involved from the protestor side will likely be expressing a gain intent, attempting to win freedom or justice that he/she perceives does not currently exist. (If the freedom or justice did exist at one time and was lost or taken away, then the intent of the protestor would be regain it, not gain it.) On the other hand, any significant character on the government side is likely to manifest a regain intent (to restore civil order by putting down the protest in a brutal manner that prevents it from rising again) or a keep intent (to take steps necessary to remain in political power).

The moment captured in the photograph may serve as an effective inciting incident.

The personal story spawned from this photo, however, might involve the young woman's attempt to keep her dignity and sanity under the duress imposed by her impending incarceration or her attempt to regain her freedom from that system. Or it might involve a family member or boyfriend and his attempt to regain her freedom or, barring that, to join the protestors and help bring down the system that imprisoned her in the first place—which expresses a regain intent wherein the condition of value is a society free of the oppressive regime.

Efficiency in storytelling requires that you keep yourself from wandering into dead ends.

In either case, the moment captured in the photo may serve as an effective inciting incident for a very large and meaningful story. The trick is in knowing how to identify and nurture the story, which in terms outlined in Part Three of the book can be summed up as: identifying the main character and condition of value, examining the core ensemble of characters who are either directly or indirectly involved in the inciting incident, finding the issue that lies at the core of that incident, and building the story from there.

And yes, the process takes time and thoughtful consideration, as it always does. Efficiency in creating a story does not mean cutting corners, just keeping yourself from wandering into dead ends.


For More Information

For details regarding these concepts and terms, see the Discovering the Soul of Your Story—Overview video and the glossary. For more articles like this, visit the Field Notes category.

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