Novella-in-Flash Writing Prompt #7 – Picture Prompts: The Alchemy of Image and Word

We’re very grateful at novella-in-flash.com this month to welcome Ali McGrane, author of the remarkable novella The Listening Project, a story of family dynamics and an exploration of hearing loss and its recovery. Its beautifully crafted flash fiction chapters often verge on prose poetry.

Ali has designed this month’s blogpost as an essay exploring how to use visual writing prompts in a novella-in-flash. See the end of the post for Ali’s full bio. Now let’s hear from Ali…

Doorways into other worlds

I used to avoid using visual prompts. It felt like pinning my imagination down. But I soon discovered what a productive and inspiring tool it could be to override my internal censor, free up my creative brain, unearth half-hidden associations, and, best of all, surprise myself. A picture lets you travel in time and space, and see differently.

Bluer Than Blue, published by Fictive Dream, originated from an ekphrastic exercise using The Good Weather Umbrella by John Wilhelm. And I’m currently editing a flash based on a photo of three elderly women which led me to a story I would never have found otherwise. It’s clear that visual prompts can be fantastically creative springboards. I’m sure you know this already!

But how might you use picture prompts specifically for your novella-in-flash? Well, I think this longer form gives you extra opportunity to exploit their potential, particularly in terms of enhancing and enriching character development. Writing a NiF often involves gathering flashes without necessarily knowing in advance how the overall narrative will be structured, or indeed much of the detail. This uncertainty lends itself very well to the use of image prompts as a wonderfully creative strategy for imagining and exploring new territory.

Some key points to consider:

  • An image doesn’t exist in isolation. You’re viewing it through your own individual lens, teasing out unconscious and conscious memories, associations, and assumptions. You can go with those, or interrogate them – either might be fruitful! Don’t be limited by the picture, use it as a spark.
  • Time is frozen in an image. It lets you hover inside the frame – like staring at a magic eye picture when it comes into 3D focus and you can look around in all directions – tricking your brain – almost able to touch what’s there, or see what might be just out of shot.
  • An image might help kickstart or uncover something at any point in the narrative, and you might find it unlocks your story in unexpected ways. Maybe choose something you’d never normally be drawn to. If you’re hooked, follow that trail. If it excites you, it will likely excite your reader!
Photo by Darius Bashar on Unsplash

Writing Exercise #1: Find a photo to help create an authentic character.

This can be especially beneficial if you’re struggling to bring someone to life, or they’re a different age, gender, or background from you. For The Listening Project, I found an image to use as Edith, Imogen’s mother, and it was very much a two-way process – finding a photo that fitted what I had in mind, and spinning more of her story from that visual prompt.

Select a photo that seems right for your character, and mesh together the image with what you already know about them. Look at their expression. Listen for their voice. Jot down any thoughts as you imagine the story behind the picture. Write without stopping for five minutes. Let any associations flow, however random, unexpected, or apparently irrelevant.

Let new ideas about this character’s background, personality, or desires, help to shape their trajectory in the story, or inspire a new chapter.

Tip: Use images from particular eras to anchor and enrich your writing. For example, photos from the 1960s helped me see Imogen’s elderly parents as young parents themselves.


Writing Exercise #2: Use an image to take you directly into a setting.

A painting or photo is likely to include elements you’d never have thought up yourself. A brilliant catalyst to invigorate your writing. Placing your character in an unfamiliar or unusual location can provide extra insights into what makes them tick, and spark fresh discoveries across the whole novella. How do they react and why? Don’t forget you don’t have to always like what they do. Let them surprise you!

Tip: Choose an image to take your character into a liminal space where reality might be a little out of kilter, a little out of time. Deserted stairwells, late night bus shelters, abandoned buildings, empty beaches. Have them step into an Edward Hopper painting. Freewrite for five minutes.

Ask questions. What doesn’t quite add up? What jumps out? What lurks in the background? Who or what is missing? Look for connections, but also contradictions, conflict. It can be tricky to develop contradictions in a character without it feeling contrived, leaning into cliché or stereotype. Tapping into unconscious responses to an image can throw up more subtle elements.

The great thing about writing a novella-in-flash is that, although you gather far more material than you need, it’s not too painful to discard some, knowing everything you write helps build this vital hinterland, adding depth and richness to the final cut. Images are a valuable addition to your writerly toolbox, and when every picture paints a thousand words, what have you got to lose?!

Check out these resources:

Read The Ekphrastic Review  for inspiration. Take part in their regular workshops. Also see 7 Ways Visual Art Can Help You Write Better Flash Fiction by editor Lorette C. Luzajic (who would love to see more submissions from flash fiction writers).

Explore Google Arts and Culture, and sources like The UK Photo and Social History Archive, but beware of losing yourself down the rabbit hole!

Bio: Ali McGrane lives and writes between the sea and the moor in the south west UK. Her short fiction appears in anthologies and online, including Fictive Dream, Ellipsis Zine, Janus Literary, and Splonk. Her work has been longlisted for the Fish Flash Fiction Prize, shortlisted for the Bath Flash Fiction Award, and received nominations for Best Small Fictions, Best of the Net and Best Microfictions. She is a reader at Fractured Literary. Her Bath-shortlisted novella-in-flash, The Listening Project, published by Ad Hoc Fiction, received a special mention in the 2022 Saboteur Awards. Find her @Ali_McGrane_UK, and at her website: https://alimcgrane.com/

Ali McGrane

What can Novella-in-Flash writers learn from Something in the Potato Room (2009)?

Something in the Potato Room, by Heather Cousins (Tucson: Kore Press, 2009), pp.69

Subject Matter – A somewhat hypochondriac museum administrator, who is also a collector of Victorian cutlery and reader of rare books, moves house and discovers a mysterious hominid hiding in a small room under the stairs. “A chief of the Inner Station”, Cousins writes, parodying Heart of Darkness.

Structure/Style – The presentation of this book is unusual, with large margins, and paragraphs as thin columns running down the middle of the page. The language has the strangeness, intensity and compression of poetry – although it has a narrative impulse, it’s clearly calling attention to itself as out of the ordinary. The book was classified as poetry by the publisher, but there’s surely a kind of novella-in-flash here, in all its quirky glory, with a clearly defined central character moving and acting through time and place in a linked sequence of narrative fragments. Something in the Potato Room might be categorised as a ‘novella-in-prose-poems’ – and a magnificent one. The book’s central crisis taps into that universal, childlike fascination: the possibility of a creature lurking in the dark of the wardrobe.

What can novella-in-flash writers learn from this book?

(1) Prose Poetry: Something in the Potato Room is full of unusual prose, more akin to poetry. Cousins is a fan of the quirky, verbless sentence that teeters on the verge of logical sense: “Wasn’t I just ‘stuck in a rut’? A standard pattern? A Federalist? A Simple? A Plain?” (p.11). And again here, in a passage that is broken into lineated verse: “What has been placed / here // has been placed here // to DORMANT. / to STILL. / to STULLIFY.” (p.44) This style of writing makes sense in a more intuitive way. Meanings are forged through the interplay of unusual sentence structure and word choice. And even amidst the more routine syntax and vocabulary, the descriptions still make metaphorical leaps: “Dr. Paul stood behind my desk. Looming. A reconnaissance balloon. A zeppelin.” (p.29)

  • Invitation: How might the flash fictions in your novella adopt some of the rich language strategies frequently used in poems: metaphor or simile, musicality, strange sentence structures, surprising word choices?

(2) Illustrations – Something in the Potato Room is also made strange by being peppered with odd, Victorian-style illustrations: extravagant moths and butterflies, a woman downing her head in a bowl of water, a detailed display of teeth, rows of kitchen utensils. Each one is captioned in a way that associates the picture with the ongoing story, yet the images themselves feel only tangentially relevant. This adds to the eerie atmosphere – a feeling that something is out of sorts. The visual experience is further estranged by the prose poems being presented in very narrow columns, centred on the page, surrounded by an expanse of blankness.

  • Invitation: How might you express your visual imagination through your novella? Is there an opportunity to do something unusual with layout or spacing? Might photographs, illustrations or diagrams appear at any point? (This won’t be relevant to every novella, of course, but these questions might spark ideas for some writers…)

(3) Off-kilter/quirky style: The narrator’s voice is delightfully off-centre, expressing anxiety and a quirky perspective, and the story itself is wilfully unpredictable. An increasing pressure on her job at the museum alternates with scenes at home describing the encounter with the hominid. These domestic scenes are creepy and fantastical, revelling in macabre sensory detail. The narrator adopts a stance towards her house guest that is maternal, forensic, and apparently sexual, all at once. “I called and called. We had so many more things to discover. To unearth. I yearned to rub his mandible.” (p.63)

  • Invitation: Would it be interesting to shift your novella into unsettling genre territory – for example by introducing magical realist, horror, Gothic, or fantastical elements? In what other ways might your novella grapple with elements of strangeness?


Flexible Novella-in-Flash self-study course: https://novella-in-flash.com/4-module-short-course/

What Novella-in-Flash writers can learn from Sandra Cisneros’s The House on Mango Street

The House on Mango Street, by Sandra Cisneros (1984; London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2004; 110 pp.)

Subject matter – a short novella about a young Mexican American girl growing up in an impoverished district of Chicago and longing for a home of which to be proud. At once a coming-of-age story and a study of the fellow residents of her neighbourhood, it explores issues of poverty, sexual harassment, domestic violence and racism.

Structure/Style – many of the forty-four chapters are very short – the shortest being only about 70 words long – and approach prose poetry in their vivid lyricism, lightness of touch and absence of narrative arc. As a novella it would feel even shorter were it not for the large spacing between the top of each page, the title of each chapter, and the beginning of each story – these gaps have the dual effect of creating a meditative spaciousness and also encouraging the book to seem longer than it is, as a number of the tiny vignettes run to two pages when they would otherwise fit onto just half a page. Although the book is often described as a coming-of-age story, a significant proportion of the book is devoted to characters other than the narrator – Esperanza is writing the story of a whole neighbourhood through a kaleidoscope of varied scenes. The reading experience is like looking across a street at a large apartment block and peering in briefly through the windows. The novella has established itself as a classic of Chicano literature – Chicano/Chicana identity being seen as distinct from Mexican American identity partly through its resistance of pressures to assimilate into or be subsumed by white American society.

What can novella-in-flash writers learn from this book?

(1) Setting – The House on Mango Street is a great example of how to use setting as the springboard into narrative. The novella is bookended in its first and last chapters by Esperanza’s yearnings for a more affluent and permanent home to live in. Her desire to escape “the house I belong but do not belong to” (P.110) manifests as a conflicted relationship with her own family and community, and shapes the entire story. The book is a description of a street, which becomes a portrait of a community, which becomes an exploration of a racial identity, all of which is framed by that opening and closing expression of a desire for something other/something more. With a deft touch, Cisneros refers to this longing for home in occasional asides through the course of the book, perhaps most explicitly in the chapter ‘Elenita, Cards, Palm, Water’, in which Esperanza visits a fortune-teller and discusses ideas of “house” and “home” with her. All of this gives the book a through-line or thread, and the faint suggestion of a narrative arc, while it moves towards an ending that somehow balances the desire to escape with the desire to be rooted. 

(2) Ensemble Cast – In its balancing of inner and outer worlds, this novella juggles the portrayal of a broad ensemble cast while never losing sight of the central character. Esperanza acts as witness to over two dozen characters within this very short book, and many are given their own dedicated chapter(s). The depictions of Mango Street’s residents explore questions about the society Esperanza has been born into and the cultural traditions and customs that press down upon her. In particular, Esperanza watches female neighbours closely, evaluating their negative and positive qualities, and we notice a strong undercurrent of her searching hard for role models. She processes and solidifies her own social consciousness and sexual identity through everything she observes, even learning about her own yearnings through other people’s disappointments. Of a new neighbour who has left a cherished home behind, Esperanza says “Home. Home. Home is a house in a photograph, a pink house, pink as hollyhocks with lots of startled light. The man paints the walls of the apartment pink, but it’s not the same you know. She still sighs for her pink house, and then I think she cries. I would.” Ultimately, Cisneros is exploring the boundaries of story-telling as an act of empathy, as Esperanza indulges in projections about her neighbours’ inner lives, all the while confessing so much about her own desires.

(3) Voice – So much of the success of this book is down to language and especially voice – it is street smart yet youthful, disappointed yet idealistic, yearning to be established and accepted yet yearning to escape, the voice of a victim (of racial and class discrimination), yet a voice of passionate strength and freedom of thought. Although the book’s primary language is English, Esperanza occasionally uses Spanish words, such that the narrative voice itself can be seen as an expression of Esperanza’s duality – blended as it is between the English tongue and her Hispanic roots. The sensory detail is intensely vivid yet delivered with a graceful, light touch, often rising into an everyday lyricism – “That is how it goes and goes.” (P.28) “Until then I am a red balloon, a balloon tied to an anchor.” (P.9) “Sometimes I hear them laughing late, beer cans and cats and the trees talking to themselves: wait, wait, wait.” (P.73) “The taxi door opened like a waiter’s arm.” (P. 76)

(4) Minimal Plot – The House on Mango Street is an example of how to succeed with pacing a novella patiently and plotting it only lightly. It’s only really towards the mid-point – about half way to two thirds through – that work and a growing awareness of sexuality and death start to crowd the narrator’s worldview and give the story more forward movement, as we realise Esperanza is growing up. Until then we have been hooked by that opening yearning for “a home” and then carried along by the vivid multiplicity of the ensemble cast crowding the foreground and by the wonderful qualities of Esperanza’s voice. Even in the final third of the novella, plot is suggested only with the barest of touches. The primary engines of this story are character, voice and setting, not plot.

Flexible Novella-in-Flash self-study course – available for £42 – More information: https://novella-in-flash.com/4-module-short-course/