Visual Images and the Writing of Narrative

Visual images can often suggest narratives. Such is the case with the one that opens this post, a photograph of a pair of hot pink stilettos lying the tall grass. How did they get there? Who was wearing them, or were they wearing them? Where were they going? What happened when they got there? Did something surprising emerge in them because of the pressures of the plot? How can the story work with the visual image while also giving us something we wouldn’t expect? These are some of the questions that come to me while I think of a possible narrative inspired by the visual. What questions come to you? What stories do these shoes suggest?

I once wrote a story titled “Drunk Girl in Stilettos.” It was one of the few times I had the title before I wrote the story. The title was a gift from my wife, Cathy. She doesn’t mind me telling you that we were in Nacogdoches, Texas, at the time. We’d been listening to jazz on the patio of the Fredonia Hotel while enjoying some B & B (brandy and Benedictine). She happened to be wearing high heels that night. When we got up from our table, her heel caught in a crack, and she wobbled. “I guess I’m just a drunk girl in stilettos,” she said. We looked at each other. “Sounds like a story title,” I said. “All right then,” she said. “You write it.” So, I did. I put two men in a Mustang GT coming up the blacktop from the country, headed toward the small town of Sumner, Illinois. I invented a young girl wearing stilettos as she walked along the blacktop. The story that followed was nothing like the one the title would suggest. In fact, when Stephen Corey published that story in The Georgia Review, he said the thing that drew him to it was how the story gave him something he didn’t expect, given the title and the initial setup. Sometimes we have to write against expectations. Sometimes we have to see the opposite of what most people would notice on first glance.

I’ve long used an exercise that asks people to recall pairs of shoes they wore when they were young and then to let one of those pairs take them to a memory of an event that still haunts them. I ask them to do a freewrite that begins with the words, “I was wearing them the day. . . .” The objective is to let the shoes carry them to a moment in which they felt contradictory emotions. The joyful moment is sometimes tinted with grief and vice versa. The evil person is capable of goodness, and, again, vice versa. Opposites co-exist.

So, here’s a variation of the visual image exercise for fiction writers that I suggested in the opening. This one is for those of us who write memoir. Look at an old family photograph—a candid shot rather than a portrait—and notice the objects in the background. Maybe you’ll see a crescent wrench lying on a window sill, or a water dipper hanging from a nail, or a pair of penny loafers tossed into a corner. The idea is to take stock of an object that’s been removed from its owner so you can see it the way a stranger might. Think about what that object would say about you and/or your family. Maybe it even tells you something you’ve never considered about someone in your family or about a certain time period or situation. Maybe it tells you something you’ve never known about yourself. Find the object in the background and use it to show you more layers of the truth than you’ve previously considered.

The poet, Paul Valéry, said, “Seeing is forgetting the name of the thing one sees.” Exactly. Visual images, for both the fiction and the nonfiction writer, can be instructive, but only if we first forget what we’re expected to see.


  1. Deb on January 30, 2023 at 5:15 pm

    I’m in the midst of writing my memoir and this writing exercise resonates with me. It brought to mind the suede saddle shoes, brand new, I was carrying home from school one day on top of my books. I’d changed into tennis shoes earlier because I didn’t want to get them dirty. I cut through a woods on may way home, and an older boy I didn’t know followed and grabbed my shoes, throwing them into a mud puddle.

    Thanks, I might be able to do something with that retrieved memory!

    • Lee Martin on January 31, 2023 at 1:15 pm

      Geez, boys! Who can explain why they do what they do? Maybe because he “like-liked” you and didn’t know how to say as much. I’m glad the exercise brought you to this memory. Keep doing the good work!

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