I was at a writing workshop in Bloomington, Indiana many years ago when the teacher of one class spread a bunch of pictures on the table and invited us to come up and grab one. We took them back to our seats and wrote what we saw in them.
That was one of the most useful exercises I ever learned. What I saw in the picture was not the story the artist intended for me to see, but, by studying it, I saw more than just a nice composition and pretty colors; by looking, I saw details and drew inferences from them.
This is what the members of The Green River Writers (out of Louisville, Kentucky) have come to call “breaking open the moment.” Sometimes, in an early draft of a story, you’ll write something like Pauline walked into the bedroom she’d shared with Arlen for 53 years. Tears pricked her eyes. And that’s what you intend, and the emotion is there, and you showed her having a reaction; you didn’t say, She felt sad. But it still feels thin.
You need to break open the moment. Detail. Not just detail, but detail that allows the reader to draw inferences. Does the bedroom feel warmer than the rest of the house, or chillier? Is there a difference between her side of the bed and his? Is there no indication that it was ever used by one or the other because one’s personality dominated the other? Does she perceive the details she sees with appealing metaphors or appalling ones? Does the pattern of the quilt bring a garden to her mind, or a cage?
You can do this exercise — noting details and drawing inferences — with pictures from art books, postcards you buy at museums, even greeting cards with paintings or photographs on the front. You can also use those pictures as a story prompter.
Here’s one for you: it’s a pre-Raphaelite painting by Charles Allston Collins, called Convent Thoughts, which is a pretty evocative title in itself.