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Arncliffe Public School: 3. The Story Detective – Finding Stories in Pictures

Sunday, August 15, 2010 , Posted by Sandy Fussell at 10:53 PM

It’s fun to find stories in pictures. It’s all about being a story detective and looking for clues. A few months ago I was writer-in-residence at Wollongong Art Gallery as part of their Just Imagine Exhibition where primary and high school students participate in activities and a competition all about writing stories based on artwork. Now the NSW Department of Education is holding WriteOn, a competition where students from Years 1-6 write a story based on a photo. You can read all about WriteOn here.

So how do you find clues in a picture? It’s all about asking questions - and this blog post will be full of question marks!!! The big top secret tip is to think of the less obvious answer. The one that doesn’t jump out first. The one everyone else won’t think of. You don’t have to write about what you see in the picture, you can also write about what the picture suggests.

Here are some questions to ask. How does the picture make you feel? Ask yourself who, what, where, when and why. But the most powerful question of all is, what if?

Have a really close look at the picture. Is there something unusual about it? It might be the colour, or perspective. It might be an object in the picture. Or a person. Unusual features suggest story ideas.

You need to decide who the narrator is. Are you telling the story? Try putting yourself in the picture. Your own memories and experiences can help you find a story. Perhaps the narrator is someone you can see in the picture or someone looking at the scene the picture contains? Or maybe the narrator is not a person at all. Animals and even inanimate objects can tell a story.

Look at the story elements the picture suggests – are there clues about the setting, the character, dialogue, action or plot. When looking at the setting, where the story is taking place, don’t forget to use all five senses – touch, taste, see, hear and smell. Dialogue will give the picture a voice, by letting it talk.

What is happening in the picture? Now look outside the picture. What happened before? What is going to happen next? The answers to these questions will suggest a plot, storyline or action.

One of my favourites is a technique I call “putting your other glasses on”. By this I mean take another look at the picture in a different way. If you think it looks happy, try and imagine a way it could be sad. If you think it looks like a horror scene, turn it into a romance.

Still stuck? A good way to jump start your story is to make lists. Write down ten words the picture suggests. Write down five sounds in the picture – onomatopoeias, dialogue, noises. Write down five things about each character. Write a list of who, what, where, when and why.

Here is one of the pictures from the Just Imagine Exhibition. It is called Very, Very Important.

I decided that I would write my short story as a conversation between two pairs of shoes and that I would make it funny. While the very, very important meeting was going on the shoes were discussing who looked the best and who had mud showing, who had to carry the smelliest feet around and who got trod on.

Here’s another picture from the Just Imagine Exhibition. What story does it suggest to you?

Now that you are a fully fledged story detective (*smile*), you might like to try writing a story based on the photo in the WriteOn competition.

Currently have 27 comments:

  1. Anonymous says:

    Sandy Fussel:

    I like finding pictures in stories too!!!
    One of my favourite illustrated books is they "King Of the Woods"
    It's a very interesting book, and the picture are done very nicely.
    They paint with watercolours. I can paint with watercolours, but it goes really horrible.
    So they must be really talented.

    Thanks Joanna

  1. JOANNA, I don't know that story and when I tried to Google it I couldn't find it. Who wrote it? I love the sound of the watercolours. I am having a picture book published in 2012 (it takes a long time to get the pictures done) and am very interested to see what its pictures will be like. I don't know who the illustrator is yet. Watercolours would be excellent!

  1. Anonymous says:

    Hi Sandy-
    I love drawing and art at school. I particularly like stories which don't have any pictures but have such great description that the magical picture is created in my head. Do you feel the same thing when reading a novel without pictures?


  1. CLAIRE, I have a sort of similar response. I am not a very visual person and I don't see pictures in my head. To me words make sounds - a bit like music - and it's almost as if I hear the pictures. If I try to concentrate hard I get a feel for the picture but not a clear photo type image.

    I'd love to see some of your drawings. If you get the chance to scan one, you can email it to me.

  1. Anonymous says:

    Dear Sandy,
    My favourite literature technique is an Onomatopoeia! To me the description of sounds really makes a difference and I always include one in my stories!

    I would love to send a picture I have drawn! Is your email address somewhere on this sit? I will have a look.


  1. Hi CLAIRE,

    You can find my contact details (and a very awful pic of me *grin*) here

  1. Anonymous says:

    Thanks so much Sandy I will contact you soon!

  1. Anonymous says:

    Hi Sandy,
    5/6M have had a go at writing their own story based on the picture on your blog. They focused on the picture of the people at the beach. I hope you enjoy their responses.

  1. Anonymous says:

    The Beach

    On a sunny day having fun looking at the seawater I spotted a big fin and told the lifeguard.
    He said it was a shark then he shouted “shark” and everybody swam as fast as they could out of the water and then the police shut down the beach and killed the shark.

    BY Hussein Elnajjar

  1. Anonymous says:

    The Beach
    One day kids were screaming wildly when they scored a goal on the beach. At 3.00 there was a free bbq and the kids got hot chips drinks sandwiches and burgers. The kid with blue eyes put his hand on the bbq and then he screamed he cried he went to the
    water he put his hand in it and it felt better. Then ambulance officer said every body get in the your cars there is a tidal wave coming in three minutes so every body got in the cars and left.
    By Ali Ibrahim

  1. Anonymous says:

    The Beach
    One sunny morning my family and I went to the beach and we had a bbq. When my family was cooking my sister and I went down to the blue wavy sea and we saw happy people playing in the water. When my sister was cold she got out of the water and sat on the hot sunny , yellow , rough sand and saw the people splashing.

    When the kids were playing in the water and splashing a huge wave came and attacked them. So then the life guard said run for your life and then all the people ran and started screaming.

    When the people were running to the car my family and I were running too. When they got to the car and packed everything away. Finally my family and I went home and they had a cup of tea and then they went to sleep.

    Mariam Cheikh Ali

  1. Anonymous says:

    Four weeks ago I saw my best friend Tim so I asked him to go to the beach. So we went to Bondi Beach. When we went swimming we saw a great big white shark. But it was gliding towards Tim. But Tim was tyred and stoped and then the shark took a chunk out of his leg he was in pain but the lifeguards’ got Tim and called the ambulance Tim’s mum drove down and talked to my mum Tim’s mum got angry at her so my mum gave Tim a gift. One day later Tim went into surgery and got a bionic leg. When we went to school every one came running and we told them what happened so Tim and I were the most popular kids in the school.


  1. Anonymous says:

    The Big Day at the Beach
    It was a hot summer day at the beginning of the year. It was really quiet, the wind was blowing every thing but we didn’t care. It had just rained last night before, so the refection of the rainbow was reflecting on the hot, shiny sand so there were a lot of different colours on the sand.

    Our teacher was also our life guide all the children had black short hair because the school didn’t permit long hair. Some had blue, brown and green eyes but only one had black eyes. Our teacher decided to play some games so we all had a race over to the rocks. It was pretty far away. We then lined up in one straight line and the teacher said. “On Your Marks Get Set! GO!!!!” and then everyone rushed to the over to the rocks. But as soon as everyone got there was a shark alarm so everyone quickly climbed up the rocks but there was still a little girl swimming over to the rocks. We all started screaming luckily she made it in time.

    By Tamara

  1. Anonymous says:

    Finding Stories in Pictures

    On a sunny Sunday my family and I travelled by car to a sandy beach. When we arrived at the beach my brother and I dashed down the sandy lagoons and dunked ourselves in the water.

    Our parents were preparing lunch but before lunch something dangerous had just happened. The lifeguard yelled, “sharks”

    Our parents came and told us to get out of the water and collect our belongings and get in the car

    We hopped in the car and headed home. Then we had our dinner and went to bed

    By Abbas

  1. Anonymous says:

    Last day of summer

    One hot sunny day my friend and I were playing at the beach. As we were making sandcastles we looked up and the sky was thick and dark. My friend and I felt sad because it was the last day of summer and it was storming. We quickly packed our shovels and spades and ran home. When we got home we had a shower and watched TV.

    By: Mohammed

  1. Anonymous says:

    Johnny The Evil Man

    Lots of blue water was splashing around .Lots of young men & women were playing in the wavy sea. They were playing a wonderful game of volleyball when a huge wave came and swept everyone out into the sea except one evil man. Johnny the man who set a machine in the water to make a big wave. He was prepared and sat up on high land.

    By: Hassan

  1. Anonymous says:

    The Excursion
    It was a quiet, hot morning I was ready for my excursion to the beach. My teacher was an old lifeguard there. When we got to the yellow, sandy beach we all had a nice swim.

    Suddenly we had to leave then we found out we were missing one student. It was Tom so the teacher ran down the rocky cliff and jumped in the blue, salty water to save Tom. Luckily he was not injured he just could not breathe properly so we called the ambulance. He was fine and we all had another swim again and then we travelled home to tell our mothers. This excursion did not go the way we expected it.

    By Diana

  1. Hi SARAH,

    I was very excited to discover all 5/6M's wonderful stories. It was like storytime Christmas!

    It was interesting to see how different each person's view of the picture was and I particularly loved how the 'happy' scene had been expanded to add foreboding, fear and terror. It was a very dangerous beach 5/6M style! The beach in the picture is located ten minutes away from me and next time I go there I am definitely going to be thinking 'shark!'

    I made some comments on each individual story that I hope will be useful feedback for the authors.

  1. Hi HUSSEIN,

    Your story was only short but it was very action packed. I like that. I also liked how it had a very clear and well resolved ending - we knew exactly what happened to all the people and the shark.

    I bet you could even add some more action sentences. Maybe tell me what the people were saying.

  1. Hi ALI,

    I liked the way you built up the action and your use of tension. First I thought the problem was the burned hand and then I soon learned it was even worse - a tidal wave!

    I would love to hear a bit more about both the boy and the tidal. Lots of good story threads there!

  1. Hi MARIAM,

    What marvellous use of adjectives! I thought it was wonderful when you described the 'blue wavy sea' and the 'hot sunny , yellow , rough sand'. I could easily imagine the scene.

    You might like to try using dialogue to add even more action. For example where you said:'So then the life guard said run for your life', you could instead say 'Run for your life,' the life guard bellowed.

  1. Hi OWEN,

    Great action! I was getting a bit worried for Tim until I read on and discovered he got a bionic leg. Phew!

    I think it would be good to add some dialogue so we can hear Tim and you talking to each other. I am really interested to know more details about this story.

  1. Hi TAMARA,

    You have a wonderful detailed imagination and your description of the setting in the first paragraph was excellent - the heat, the wind, the rain, the colours. I also liked how you described the children.

    The little girl who was left behind was a clever twist to your story. I would suggest adding few more sentences about that so we don't find out she is left behind and all OK in the same sentence. Let the reader worry a little bit and think she might not be OK. That will add tension.

  1. Hi ABBAS,

    Excellent strong action verbs in the second sentence - 'dashed' and 'dunked'. I also liked the alliteration of 'sunny Sunday'. Very good choice of words.

    I would love to hear a bit more about the boys reaction when they heard there was a shark. How did they feel? Were they frightened? Did they know what a shark looked like?


    I thought your story was beautiful. I particularly liked how the weather reflected how you and your friend were feeling. It was sunny and you were both happy. It was overcast and stormy - and you were both sad. What a clever way to tie mood and setting together.

    I think it would be very exciting to hear more about the kids running home through the storm. What were they saying to each other as they hurried on? Did they get soaked?

  1. Hi HASSAN,

    Johnny the Evil Man has a real fantasy and fable feel. There is even a message at the end where the evil man who was prepared survived.

    I liked the technology/fantasy element where the man had made a machine to create the wave. This was a very unique story idea and unlike any of the others. In fact, I would have liked to hear more about this machine. Was it magic? Or was it a piece of super high tech equipment?

  1. Hi DIANA,

    What an excellent last line! I also liked your used of paired adjectives to describe the setting - 'quiet, hot morning', 'yellow, sandy beach' 'blue, salty water'.

    You might like to add some dialogue to increase the tension when Tom goes missing and is later found. Perhaps the children call his name or someone yells 'There he is.'