Rules of one art can often be applied to others. All it takes is looking at it from a new perspective. Photography, for instance, can teach writers how to operate effectively (and creatively) within the limits of their wordy medium. These 10 essential photography tips are taken from an excellent post on, and each one is a powerful lesson in any art for entertainment.

Click the pictures in this post to links to photography resources and sites.

1. Simplify the scene. When it comes to taking a shot with a camera, too many points of interest in a frame just makes for a muddy picture. The same thing can happen with a written story. Including too many characters, themes, or plot twists can ruin a good impression. Realizing the limits of a project, weigh which elements are essential, support your vision for the end product, and keep the story moving forward.

2. Fill the frame. It would be silly to take a wide-panel picture of a tiny bird… unless the other space in the picture worked to actively accent the subject matter. There are only so many words in a short story, so writers have to make them count. The same can be said for any length of work, so each element, scene, and chapter should be full of real or implied meaning in the main project. One rule of thumb: no sentence should only say one thing.

3. Aspect ratio. Photographers make a judicious choice about the measurements of their final piece. Writers do the same, often taking the draft and deciding what the final product will look like. It’s all about giving the story the best chance to shine. Sometimes, a short story has more to it and can be developed into a novel. Other times, a story can seem like a novel, but actually create more impact as a short story. After drafting and editing, perhaps that story needs to be a screenplay?

4. Avoid the middle. If there’s an appealing subject, it’s only natural to set it smack in the middle of the picture. And it’s only too common to want to place a story’s message right in front of the audience, as if to say, “Here! Here it is! Look at it! Love it!” Photographers, however, know there are better ways to draw attention to a subject’s beauty. Using natural aesthetics (like the rule of 3, foils, naturally appealing patterns), the audience can be enticed to take a closer look at the topic of interest in a way that makes them feel as though they’ve discovered it on their own.

5. Leading lines. It seems strange to say good photographs have a direction. They’re just a slice of a moment frozen in place. Because of the limits of a photograph, the action of the subject has to be implied. Consider this picture of a fast car. There’s no question what direction it’s going, or where (if time could be unstopped in the photo) it would end up. When writing a story, the direction of the plot can help suggest the direction the story will take, if it continued past “the end”. For some, the characters are set on a rosy path of happiness. Others, like Hills Like White Elephants (and other classic short fiction works) end by sending the characters on a path opposite the one suggested at the start.

6. Use diagonals. Diagonals in photography often suggest growth/reduction. Lines that widen, narrow, trend up, or trend down all evoke different associations within the viewer. Generally, diagonals suggest change, and this effect is created in writing using dynamic elements. Characters are dynamic elements, when they come to the end of the story having learned and grown. Settings, dialogue, even themes can be dynamic when they continually change to reveal new meaning and importance throughout the work.

7. Space to move. Look back at the fast car picture example. If this picture were cropped so the picture ended at the nose of the car, or just barely in front of it, how would that change the appeal? One way to apply this principle to writing is to refrain from tying up every single loose end. Some writers use this technique in anticipation of a sequel work. Others take a more bold approach by ending the action in a particular scene before you know what happened. Old Man and the Sea does this at the end, ending the narrative of the old man at sea abruptly so the impact of his empty-handed return to the port is felt more intensely.

8. Background. Forget that bland grey cloth hung up behind you for school picture day. Photographers all know that the background is a key tool. Remember #2. Every portion of the picture has to have a purpose. Within a story, the background of the work this isn’t just the setting of the story. The work will also be set against the context of audience experience. This is about the context of your work in current trends, concerns, and society. Picking meaningful themes, topics of interest, and marketing to the appropriate audience will set the story off like a masterwork displayed on black velvet.

9. Get creative with colors. Photography is purely visual, and yet so much more. A powerful photograph can evoke deep memories of smells, touches, tastes, and sounds, connecting to the power of imagination. Good description can do the same, even though the page only contains words. Writers can connect to the senses, and effective connection illuminates the work and sets off images in the mind like fireworks.

10. Break the rules. Every art claims to have rules, and then people are praised for breaking them. Pictures that break these rules often result in very specific effects. Discomfort on the part of the audience is one. Consider guidelines/rules to be a “how to create something people will generally like”. To catch attention and create some confusion, rules can be broken, bent, or simply ignored… but all for a purpose. This is perfectly true when writing too. Learn the trends, know their intended effects, and the reasons they work. Then decide on the purpose for the project, break the right rules, and craft a new effect.




10 Rules of Photo Composition and Why They Work

10 Top Photography Composition Rules



Commenting area

  1. A very well written piece on the art of writing. I love the comparison between writing as a medium and photography. If an artists paints a picture with a paintbrush, a writer paints a picture with words: the link between creating pictures with art and creating them with words is an analogy I have heard often; the link between capturing a picture with a camera and capturing it with words is a refreshing spin on it.

    I like how each point is made, expanded on and then linked in to the art of writing. Much like the suggestions “#2 Fill the Frame”, every point in this article has a purpose and is very succinctly explained with perfect clarity. Thank you for sharing.


  2. LOVE using the rules of one art form to transform another. This is brilliant! I’m using it. Thanks for the post!

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