Writing in response to visual art is one of the most powerful creative and literary tools you can have in your arsenal. It’s called ekphrastic writing, and an ekphrastic practice is a very effective teacher.
Ekphrastic writing has two important benefits simultaneously.
1) It’s the best way to learn more about art and art history, and
Here are some of the ways an ekphrastic writing practice can help you write better flash fiction.
1. Art history is an endless supply of stories
Imagine a resource that could feed you countless stories of love, loss, triumph, failure, quest and conquest, family drama, war and famine, pestilence and disease, spiritual crisis, migration, birth and death, mythology and fable, and more, along with a cast of fascinating characters from all over the world.
You would never have writer’s block again, and never run out of stories to tell.
It sounds like magic, and yet, it exists.
2. Art can help you show, not tell
One of the world’s most famous short story writers, Anton Chekhov said famously, “Don't tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”
Flash fiction is very short, so a writer doesn’t have the luxury of a lot of backstory, and important aspects of fiction like character development, conflict, and setting are often implied.
Good stories also need strong sensory details: sight, smell, taste, touch and sound. “Show, don’t tell,” is one thing. “Hear, don’t tell;” “Touch, don’t tell:” “Taste don’t tell,” and “Smell, don’t tell” are four more musts.
Unfortunately, cramming sensory details into a story is too often done with a bludgeon instead of that beautiful, elusive sensuality we want instead.
“The dumpster dogs barked, and they felt greasy, and everything smelled and tasted like garbage,” is usually what we resort to, but it’s boring, forced, and heavy-handed.
Writing about art opens our sensuality and sensory imagination. Studying a painting means we are able to picture a setting so clearly that we can make space for our other senses to come alive, too.
A terrific warm up exercise is to first jot down fifty words for every artwork we study, aiming for ten words from each sense.
Soon, this becomes second nature and our minds flow with these details.
4. Art can show you a new point of view or a different perspective
Using visual art as a fuel for writing transports you immediately and viscerally into another person’s shoes. You are literally seeing the world in the way the artist did.
This gives you an amazing opportunity to experience life from other eras, other cultures, or simply from the other side of the story.
5. A painting can make your writing more precise
The old saying goes, “A picture is worth a thousand words.” This is an arbitrary tally in my mind—some pictures are worth 30 thousand words, and some aren’t worth any.
But, for flash fiction purposes, it’s a perfect fit: many editors define flash fiction stories as fiction of 1000 words or less.
Ekphrastic writing is a great way to practice telling a complete story with an economy of words.
It will give you valuable experience in choosing an angle, fleshing out context, setting, background, and sensory details, resolving a conflict, and wrapping it up, all the while reducing your word count.
You will naturally grow as a writer using stronger images and finding a few vivid, perfect words instead of digressing or going off on tangents.
Ekphrastic writing helps you learn precision. And in flash fiction, less is more.
6. Art can teach writers how to be private investigators
Most writers remember being drawn to Nancy Drew books or TV detective series from early days. We are curious about human behaviour and the world around us.
This instinct isn’t specific to crimes: it’s about digging up stories and putting puzzles together, about being drawn to discover more about people and life.
Writers who love art find out quickly that every painting is a doorway to an adventure. The lives of the artists and their subjects are rich with intrigue, doom, hope, mishap, and folly.
An ekphrastic writing practice helps you dig deeper and ask questions, the same questions you’ll use on your own characters and settings to get fiction that goes beyond skin deep.
7. Art taps into mystery, and it can help bring a deeper appreciation of the ineffable to your writing
Contemplation of art, and writing in response to art, can bring you deeper into mystery. This is a vital element in great literature and in an audience’s emotional response to stories.
We talked above about becoming a private investigator, or sleuthing under the surface to find clues, patterns, secrets, and dirt.
There’s another kind of mystery, too—not the kind that can be solved, but the Great Mystery, if you will. This mystery is intense, epic, and beyond our understanding.
It gives us meaning and enchantment and suggests something greater than our mundane quotidian conflicts. This is an open-ended kind of mystery and humans respond to it powerfully. It gives us awe and lends gravitas to living. It holds the meaning of life somehow.
We don’t know how to explain this mystery. It is as natural as the immense skies or the dazzling ocean, but it is supernatural, too. We use rich religious and cultural traditions, mythological fables, and personal spirituality to try to explain it.
Human emotions and connections are key, but it goes way beyond that. Beauty and synchronicity are elements of it, but so are grief and illness.
A story without mystery may as well as be a newspaper report or a morning crossword puzzle.
Art helps open us to mystery. It helps us see it in hidden places.
When a painting compels you to return again and again, when it looks like a dusty old tree but millions of people make pilgrimages to see it, there it is, whatever it is.
The more you experience it, the more it will start to show up in your flash fiction stories.
Lorette C. Luzajic is the founder and editor of The Ekphrastic Review, a journal devoted entirely to literature inspired by visual art. Her prose poetry and small fictions have been published widely in hundreds of journals and anthologies and nominated for several Best of Net and Pushcart prizes. Her most recent book, Pretty Time Machine, is a collection of ekphrases, and she is working to complete another this year. Her flash story recently won first place in a contest at Macqueen’s Quinterly. Lorette is also an award-winning visual artist with collectors in over 25 countries.