If you’re reading a narrative and suddenly feel like you’re standing in the middle of a freeze frame, you’ve just experienced a snapshot.
What is a snapshot in writing?
A snapshot is a brief, vivid description of a particular scene or moment. In a snapshot, an author temporarily zooms in on a person, place, or thing to describe it with rich sensory details. Snapshots help immerse the reader more deeply in an article, essay, or story.
In this article, you’ll learn everything you need to know about snapshots in writing.
What Is a Snapshot in Writing? (Full Explanation)
A snapshot is a momentary glimpse into a scene that is usually much larger.
In writing, snapshots are used to focus on specific details that help to create a more vivid picture for the reader. These details can be anything from the way the light hits a character’s face to the way someone’s hand feels when it’s wrapped around a cup of coffee.
Usually, snapshots rely heavily on sensory information:
By carefully selecting which details to include and which to leave out, authors can create snapshots that are both evocative and concise.
The concept of snapshots comes from author and educator, Barry Lane, who introduced snapshots in his book, After the End: Teaching and Learning Creative Revision.
In describing snapshots, he uses the analogy of a photographer zooming in on his or her subject.
And a snapshot is like a photographer zooming in on some small aspect of a larger scene. The photographer’s eye can zero in on a particular detail that catches his or her attention, and the camera can freeze that moment in time.
In the same way, a writer can take a single event or experience and provide a detailed account of it.
By focusing on a specific moment (and specific details within that moment) the writer can provide a more nuanced and intimate portrayal of what happened.
In doing so, the snapshot can give readers a more vivid sense of what it was like to be there.
Types of Snapshots in Writing
There are several different types of snapshots you can use in writing.
Most of the differences come down to the type of writing and how you apply the snapshot technique to your particular piece of content.
What Is a Snapshot in an Essay?
When you’re writing an essay, a snapshot is like taking a photo of a small, specific detail that captures the essence of your topic.
It’s usually a sensory-rich description of something.
A good snapshot adds flavor to an essay and can even be used to make a larger point about the topic.
For example, if you’re writing about the need to clean up the trash on the beach, you might describe in vivid detail the piles of rotting seaweed, plastic bottles, and used food wrappers that make it impossible to enjoy a day at the shore.
The stench of rotting seaweed. The crunch of used food wrappers underfoot.
The sad realization that your family vacation is ruined.
A well-chosen snapshot can offer a powerful glimpse into the world you’re writing about, so choose wisely.
What Is a Snapshot in a Story?
In many ways, a story is like a journey.
The plot is the road that takes the characters from point A to point B, and along the way, the readers are treated to glimpses of the scenery.
But occasionally, the author will take a detour, slowing down to describe a particular scene in detail.
This is what we call a snapshot.
It’s a small slice of life that helps to round out the characters and allows the readers to take a break from all the action.
For example, in J.D. Salinger’s, The Catcher in the Rye, there is a brief scene where Holden Caulfield watches his little sister Phoebe ride on a carousel.
In just a few short paragraphs, Salinger paints a vivid picture of the scene.
We get a sense of both Holden’s love for his sister and his anguish at his own lost innocence. Snapshots are valuable moments in a story, and they can often be some of the most memorable.
What Is a Snapshot in an Article?
You can also apply snapshots to blog posts and articles. Let’s pretend that I was writing an article about cats.
When writing about my acrobatic cats, I like to use snapshots to add levity and break up the text. For example, when describing how I taught my cats to high-five, I might write:
“I held up my hand, palm out, and waited for one of them to make contact. After a few false starts, Whiskers finally got the message and smacked his paw against mine. It was a triumphant moment.”
By providing such a specific and concrete description, I invite readers to share in the moment and see my cats in a new light.
Plus, it’s pretty dang cute.
10 Snapshot in Writing Examples
Here are 10 simple examples of snapshots in writing:
- The way the sun filtered through the trees, casting dappled shadows on the forest floor.
- The soft rustle of leaves as a light breeze swept through the trees.
- The way the light glittered off the surface of a pond.
- The sound of birdsong, clear and pure in the morning air.
- The feel of moss beneath your fingers, cool and damp.
- The musty smell of old books in a dusty library.
- The sharp tang of lemonade on a hot summer day.
- The sound of children laughing as they run through sprinklers.
- The feel of sand between your toes as you walk on the beach.
- The way snowflakes melt on your tongue.
You can, of course, elaborate on each sentence, expanding it into a paragraph or more.
Here is a longer, bonus example to make snapshots in writing clear:
The man approaches the cemetery gates with a heavy heart.
The leaves on the trees are just beginning to turn, and the air is chill and damp. He shivers as he walks through the gate, his footsteps echoing in the silence. He follows the path to his wife’s grave, his eyes lingering on the headstone.
The stone is cold and hard beneath his fingers, and he can feel the sharp edges of the letters cutting into his skin.
He traces her name with his fingertip, lingering in the curve of the final letters. The man sinks to his knees, burying his face in his hands. The sobs come unbidden, shaking his body with their force.
He stays there for a long time, until the sun has sunk below the horizon and the stars are shining in the sky.
Then, with one last look at his wife’s grave, he picks himself up and starts back down the path.
Why Do Authors Use Snapshots?
When done well, snapshots can give readers a deep sense of the characters and world that they are reading about.
Here are some of the main reasons authors use snapshots:
- They break up the plot
- They add significance
- They magnify emotion
- They show the author’s skill
- They make the reader feel something
When done poorly, they can feel like an author is simply showing off their powers of observation.
As with all things in writing, it’s important to use snapshots sparingly and only when they genuinely add to the story being told.
How Do You Write a Snapshot?
To write a successful snapshot, follow these tips:
- Choose a scene to describe
- Select 1-3 sensory details
- Use figurative language
First, choose a scene to describe. It could be something as mundane as doing the dishes or as momentous as witnessing a natural disaster. Whatever you choose, make sure it is interesting and evocative.
Next, select 1-3 sensory details to include in your description.
What do you see? What do you smell? What do you hear? What do you taste? The more specific you can be, the better.
Finally, use figurative techniques to bring your snapshot to life.
Compare the scene or subject to something else. Use metaphors and similes to describe it in more detail.
By following these tips, you can create a snapshot that will leave your readers with a clear mental image of the scene you are trying to describe.
Here is a good video about using snapshots in writing:
How Do You Write a Snapshot in a Story?
To write a snapshot, you need to choose three sensory details in each sense to describe the setting or experience.
For example, if you’re describing a creepy playground, you might use the following details:
- The sight of the rusted swings creaking in the wind.
- The sound of the chains clanking against the metal poles.
- The smell of mold and mildew in the air.
- The feel of the splinters in the wood as you touch it.
- The taste of blood in your mouth after you fall down.
You can also use snapshots to describe characters, emotions, or objects.
For example, you might use the following details to describe a character:
- The sight of her cold, hard eyes.
- The sound of his voice as he grunts in pain.
- The smell of her perfume as she walks by.
- The feel of his warm hand on your cheek.
Snapshot Writing Tool
I use several free and paid snapshot writing tools for all of my writing.
Here are my favorite tools:
- Canva to give me a physical image for writing inspiration
- Jasper Art to come up with new images to perfectly describe my subject
- Jasper AI to easily and quickly generate sensory rich details
- Asking questions to help me explore my subject
You can also use this simple snapshot writing tool I made for you:
Snapshot Writing Exercise
Here is a snapshot writing exercise I call, Snapshots in Writing: Slowing Down to Describe Something in Sensory Detail.
Writing is often about capturing a moment in time, whether it’s a memory from our childhood or a scene from a work of fiction. But in order to truly bring a reader into that moment, it’s important to slow down and include as much sensory detail as possible.
This lesson plan will help your students practice this skill by writing their own snapshots.
- Introduction. To begin, explain to your students that they are going to be writing their own snapshots, or brief descriptions of a particular scene or moment. Tell them that the key to writing a successful snapshot is to slow down and include as many sensory details as possible. Explain that they should try to use all five senses – sight, sound, smell, touch, and taste – in their descriptions.
- Brainstorm. Next, give your students an opportunity to brainstorm ideas for their own snapshots. You could provide prompts (e.g., describe your favorite place, describe a time when you were very scared, etc.), or let them choose their own topics. Once they have an idea, have them write down as many sensory details as they can think of. Encourage them to be creative and specific.
- Practice. Once they have brainstormed ideas and listed out details, it’s time for your students to start writing their snapshots. Remind them to take their time and include as many details as possible. Encourage them to use descriptive language and active verbs to really bring their scenes to life.
- Group Sharing. When they are finished writing, ask volunteers to share their snapshots with the class. As each student reads their piece, pay attention to the level of detail included and offer feedback accordingly. If a student has omitted important details, point it out and encourage them to add more next time they write a snapshot. On the other hand, if a student has gone overboard with too many details, help them edit their piece so that it is more concise.
By following these steps, your students will be well on their way to writing vivid and engaging snapshots.
Snapshot vs Thoughtshot in Writing
Snapshots are different than thoughtshots in writing.
Let’s continue the photography example to help explain the difference between the two writing techniques.
A snapshot is like a photograph of something or someone else. It captures the subject in all its detail, providing the reader with a clear and concise image.
In contrast, a thoughtshot is more like a self-portrait.
It focuses on the author’s thoughts and feelings, providing insight into their personal opinion on the subject.
Both snapshots and thoughtshots are valuable tools in writing, but it’s important to know the difference between them.
Final Thoughts: What Is a Snapshot in Writing?
Snapshots are a great literary technique but difficult to master.
Don’t get discouraged if your first few attempts at snapshots sound less than literary. It takes time to develop the skill of masterfully describing something in detail.
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