Thursday, February 18, 2010

Captions--An Opportunity for Storytelling

When nonfiction writers get to the caption-writing portion of the text, we are usually in the thick of the production process—final selection of images, moving things around, paying the closest attention to any conceptual issues that might have snuck past our eyes so we can fix them before it’s too late—there’s a lot to stay on top of. And then, right at that moment when most things are being finalized, it is time to draft the captions. If approached with renewed energy, instead of a task to check off at a time when things are hectic, caption writing is an extra opportunity to look at your story with a whole new set of fresh eyes.

One thing I like to do when looking through galley pass pages, is try to see the book from a totally visual perspective—not my innate strength. Since it is a conscious effort for me, not so much a natural one, I have taught myself to really SEE the pages. What story am I telling to the reader who is only first flipping through the book and not yet reading the text? Am I pulling them in? Are the images conveying the feeling I want? Is each spread balanced in its visual storytelling? Are my main points and tone coming across for each chapter—and are the chapters flowing together as a satisfying whole?

It’s in the caption writing that I often realize that an image might be necessary, unnecessary, or misplaced. And it’s in the caption writing that I transition from having a general sense that I want a particular image in my book to knowing more concretely and specifically what I want to say about the image and how it relates to the text.

I just completed this stage with The Good, the Bad, and the Barbie. It is an extremely gratifying process because, like a painter, what you are really doing is adding an additional layer of texture. It was fun to make new choices, discuss with my editor what we might want to reshoot in a few instances, and start to add those finishing touches to the project. And what you say about the images you choose can really give your readers those “A-Ha!” moments. You know what points excite you about your topic—they are the ones you describe to someone who asks you about what you’re writing, those nuggets that capture the essence of the whole book. And captions provide a captivating (sorry, couldn’t resist) opportunity to make sure those points are encapsulated (whoops, there I go again) and easy to find at first glance.


Gretchen Woelfle said...

Captions also provide an opportunity for slightly tangential observations. In the captions of portraits in my biography JEANNETTE RANKIN:POLITICAL PIONEER, I created a continuing narrative about how women's hat styles changed over the decades. Not profound, but fun.

Loreen Leedy said...

Interesting post, great title for your new project. Captions are often a way into a book, where readers are skipping around deciding whether to read it or not. There are plenty of books that only have been read via captions, I would guess!

Librarian Cheryl said...

Our first graders do research projects, and most of the books on their chosen topics are way above their reading level. Captions are critical for these beginning readers, since they may be the only part of the text that they are reading, explaining the pictures that they are drawn to.