Can you tell a story with a single image?

A boy sits alone in the ruins of his home, his parents buried dead underneath after a German bombing. London, 1945. Toni Frissell

If you write about those burnt socks lying crumpled in the road, you have touched the imagination, and the imagination has pricked the heart.

RICHARD PRICE said it.

I’ll never forget it.

If you are a writer, you should cut his words out and hang them on the wall.

They are all you’ll ever have to know about the craft of telling stories.

He said: “You don’t write about the horrors of war. No. You write about a kid’s burnt socks lying in the road.”

It’s the greatest writing lesson I’ve ever had.

If you write, “War is horrible,” that’s a sermon.

Quickly said.

Quickly forgotten.

If, however, you write about those burnt socks lying crumpled in the road, you have touched the imagination, and the imagination has pricked the heart.

You try to forget it.

You try to move on.

You can’t.

The image remains.

And the questions flood your mind.

Who was the kid?

How old was he?

Was he in the battle?

Was he frightened?

Was he trying to escape?

Did he live?

What were his final thoughts?

Who was left to mourn him when he’s gone?

He’s not yet a statistic.

He’s only a pair of burnt socks.

He awoke that morning to the sound of gunfire

Maybe it was distant.

Maybe it was already coming up the road.

Maybe he could smell the smoke.

Maybe he could hear the cries of the dying.

What were his orders.

Was he told to dig in?

Or retreat?

Was he with a company of soldiers?

Or was he alone?

Men were battling for a patch of ground.

They would fight to hold it.

They would die upon it.

The land they held their foxholes would hold their graves.

He had a mother.

She was praying for him.

He had a girl friend.

She was waiting for him.

What would they ever know what happened to him?

At the moment, he had no name.

No face.

No fear.

No emotion.

He has simply a pair of burnt socks.

One image.

And it told the whole story.

Please click HERE to purchase your copy of Secrets of the Dead, set during the early days of World War II.

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  • The trick with the small perfect image is to ALSO not stop the story to present it. It has to fit in where some mundane description of a common item would go instead, in the first draft of a careful writer, or the published draft of a writer who wants to get those books out there to sell, and doesn’t want to spend the time polishing.

    But that’s no fun!

  • Scott Bury

    This is a fun writing challenge. The goal is to create the back-story of the socks or the boy, and realize it through all the senses. Thanks for this!

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