I wanted to show the theme "What happened??" here. I showed this to some non-photographers, they couldn't make out anything out of this.
What can I do here to improve the composition?
I probably fall into the ‘non-photographer’ category you’ve mentioned, as I primarily use photography to capture the moment (rather than create compositional art which is what you’re attempting). I have little to no art / compositional background so feel free to ignore / down vote if you disagree with what follows
My initial impression on seeing the image was that it looked quite sterile and composed. There’s nothing wrong with composed pictures but it didn’t suggest a story to me (and possibly because of my lack of art background I didn’t try to seek one out).
Why do I see a composition, rather than a story? There’s five elements to the picture (at least that I’ve noticed).
Unlike @mattdm, I didn’t read the title (whilst it may be easy to read on a larger version, on the version posted with the book upside down and partially obscured I saw no reason to struggle with the title). The book itself is open on a page, face down. There are no ruffled/bent pages under the book, it looks like it has been placed in its current position rather than fallen there.
From the angle, it’s unclear to me if they are broken or not (the left lens looks a little odd), but they’re left on the book. Their positioning obscures the title enough that I didn’t read it, but on top of the book seems like a reasonable place for somebody to have left their glasses.
It feels placed. If you were to stand the glass up in its natural fall line (just tilt it towards the book until it was standing), the base of the glass would be on the book. The glass could have rolled to its location; however it has a square base which would probably have hampered this. Perhaps it was knocked over and then the book placed nearby, but that seems odd, hence the feeling that it has been placed. The glass has no liquid in it (not even a drop left from previously having contents), and with nothing else in the picture suggesting liquid would be forthcoming it seems placed.
The positioning again looks placed. The top half of the pencil is at an angle to the bottom half, yet touching it. The broken end is pointing away from the other pencil. If it were a normal break, I’d expect the broken ends to be together, or for the ends not to be touching. The position just feels artificial. There’s nothing obvious to be written on, other than the book itself. Perhaps that’s the point.
It’s positioning feels artificial. There is some wax over by the pencil. The wax is quite round, suggesting it was formed as a result of drops, being created prior to the candle being positioned (not as a result of the candle falling down, which I would expect to create elongated splatters). There’s also no trail between the wax and the candle, giving it a slightly unnatural feel. The candle is broken, yet still alight, lying across the book, with the flame close enough to drip wax near the book but not close enough to get wax on / burn the book. It feels placed.
I don’t think there’s anything wrong with compositional art, it can be effective but trying to tell the theme ‘What happened??’ is not a small task. The least I would expect you to have to do is ask the people you are talking to what story / question / message the picture is trying to convey. If you get back a variety of answers (from somebody fell asleep, through to somebody has been abducted by aliens), then perhaps the message is there by they don’t know how to verbalise/generalise it.
For me, the dominant story in the scene was, you’ve placed some objects. The primary reason being that it didn’t feel like the objects fit together to tell a story in their current states / positions. I think part of the reason this composition is hard is because ‘What happened??’ is very abstract. I’d consider having a theory as to what you think happened. Playing the part of those involved in the scene to the point at which the scene is ready for the picture to be taken. Take a picture. Does that capture the scene you’ve just played out? Think about another possible way that the same endpoint could have been achieved. Does it work for multiple journeys? If not then maybe you need to start again and walk through the second scene... then repeat until you’re happy.
I believe this will lead to a scene that perhaps feels more natural to the outside observer. If it feels more natural, then I for one am more likely to look at what the picture may be trying to say/suggest rather than fixating on the artificiality.
I don’t think you’ve said, but how do/did you believe the photograph fit the theme?
This is where context comes in.
Titles or captions are a common approach. By attaching the simple words What Happened? to your image, you tell your viewers that this photograph is a riddle, and they will naturally start to look for clues to answer the question. Or, your title can be something else which hints at a story: The Night Bjarne Stroustrup Destroyed My House might prompt a viewer to wonder exactly what the photo depicts that relates to that title — i.e., "What happened?"
Without this, it's completely natural to think Still Life With Random Junk and move on. Instead, put it in context first. Attaching a title provides a hint, and human curiosity plus interesting elements in your photograph should do the rest.
Alternately, the photo itself can be put in a context which invites exploration. If you have a collection (or exhibition) of photographs where each image is a story or a riddle, individual titles aren't needed. Or if you are a well-known artist, or even a lesser-known artist working in the realm of art, where that is the expectation of your works, that's pretty much done for you.
In any case, though, I think the key to this particular idea is context.
That said, choosing a book with more spiritual — or sordid — title might also contribute. Here, the programming book tends to make me think that the collection is random.
I don't think there's any secret formula for these kind of shots. I would just play around with different types of lighting. I know that in cinematography strong top lighting gives a mysterious feeling. When I look at the picture that you have here, I think that the candlelight creates the feeling of a campfire or something to me. You might be able to create a more mysterious feeling if the candle was extinguished and maybe some more things were broken. In this picture, most of it seems 'in place'. You have a book, some reading glasses and some pencils. It is not immediately apparent that the candle is broken. The first thing that is seen is the book, then the reading glasses, then the cup and the pencil. Lastly, we see that the candle is broken. In order to create a mysterious feeling in this image, I would perhaps break the glasses, or crack the cup. I think in order to create a mysterious atmosphere, the first thing the viewer should see is something out of place. IE. A broken cup, a bullet in the book, broken glasses or whatever else you want to be the focus of the image.
No matter what you do you will never get the answer "what happened" (at least from non-artists) people just don't think like that when they title things.
Even if you do manage to create a picture that causes people to think "what just happened here?" when you ask them they will either tell you about the surprising detail (for example, from rfusca's image in the comments, the person is missing) or their answer to the "what happened" question (for example, an alien vaporized the person).