Is a picture really worth a thousand words?

A picture, we are often told, is worth a thousand words. And sometimes, granted, that is so. I would much rather see a photograph of a house I might consider buying than read the real-estate agent’s description. But that is not necessarily true of fiction.

Let me illustrate (pardon the pun). This is Saturn. It’s a very powerful picture. It has a ‘wow’ factor.

And this is a quote from Jack McDevitt’s space thriller ‘Slow Lightning’. He describes a ringed planet orbiting Alnitak, one of the stars of Orion’s belt.

The rings dominated the sky, a vast, shining arch beneath which the copper-gold clouds rolled on forever. Lightning bolts cruised through the depths and occasionally they saw the fiery streak of a meteor.’

For me, this description adds layers and layers to a mere image. I see magnitude, beauty, vastness. And I also see the face of the eternal, if you will. This is a place that gives not one jot for the fleeting moments of man’s existence.

How has McDevitt invoked those feelings in me, the reader? It’s the selection of words and the slow rhythm of the sentences. Words like forever, vast, lightning bolts cruising. A leisurely pace for things we know are not leisurely; not on our world, anyway. So we are in the head of the observer, who is on the brink of the infinite.

I like to take photos. Since I’ve been writing, photography has become more than just a way of making something pretty (or interesting) to look at. I’ve become a voyeur. I look at details; consider how to describe things, note how light plays on the object of my interest, perhaps what it sounds like. I try to find the words that go with the image. How would I express myself if I was describing this scene in a book?

My historical novel, Die a Dry Death, is about a shipwreck and it is, of necessity, full of seascapes. If I want to write about these things, I must know what they look like. So when I was working on the bit about an open boat battling the waves, I took photos of waves, like this one and noted the wind-blown foam, the transparency, the awesome power.

And then I wrote this.

The sea was so much more dangerous, malevolent at this level. A wave rose ahead, pale green and glassy, the bow lifted, and he stared into the sullen sky; then the crest passed beneath and he braced himself as the boat raced down the slope, deep into a trough until the next wave smashed against the bow. His stomach lurched and the nausea rose.

But my words are more than just a picture of a boat in a storm. They tell you what a passenger in that boat feels like. And there lies my argument; description in writing can, and should be, so much more than a pale representation of a picture.

What do you think?


About Greta van der Rol

I'm an author of fast-paced, action-adventure novels, mainly space opera - although I've been known to write in other genres. I live not far from the coast in Queensland, Australia and enjoy photography and cooking when I'm not bent over the computer. I have a degree in history and a background in building information systems, both of which go a long way toward helping me in my writing endeavours.

Posted on 31 May 2011, in On writing. Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. I find myself looking at scenes and trying to put them into words as well. I love the “lightning cruised the sky” description. This tells me I need to do yet more line editing before I submit if I want my name said in the same sentence as yours and McDevitt.

    Sheila aka Raven Raye

  2. I am also a writer/photographer and it sometimes it helps our creativity when we blend the creative arts…Great writing should paint a picture. A great photo should tell a story.

    Thanks for the post!

  3. Lovely post, Greta! You describe brilliantly. I am going to use your technique. I love taking pictures, but never made the leap to using them to help my descriptions. Thank you!

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