What is Visual Storytelling?
Visual storytelling is the art of conveying stories through action instead of words.
Using it can help you engage your audience and communicate your message in more memorable and emotionally compelling ways. We often sum up visual storytelling with the oft-quoted phrase:
SHOW, DON’T TELL.
Why is Visual Storytelling Important?
In this article, I’ll cover three reasons you should improve your visual game.
It Communicates Emotion Without Dialogue
With writing, you can take all the words and paragraphs you need to explain what a character thinks and why. Orson Scott Card’s work is a prime example of this, which is why it took so long for Ender’s Game to develop into a remotely enjoyable film script.
As it’s written, Ender’s Game is unadaptable. The book takes place entirely inside Ender’s head. If you don’t know what Ender is thinking, he’s just an incredibly violent little kid and not terribly interesting. You have to find ways to externalize what he’s thinking. But he can’t be the kind of person who explains himself to other people. That would weaken him.
~ Orson Scott Card, author of Ender’s Game
Film, animation, and art are visual mediums first, though. You have to find a way to communicate emotions without explaining the character’s train of thought.
It Reveals Character in a Natural Way
Nobody goes around explaining themselves and their actions all the time. And if they do, it’s obnoxious.
Instead, we behave as we do because of hundreds of thousands of experiences that have shaped our lives. We can’t take the time to explain every aspect of our reactions to people and situations. And the very existence of psychologists and therapists shows that most of us couldn’t articulate our reasonings if we wanted to.
Actions speak louder than words. Especially subconscious actions.
The Audience Bridges the Gap
If you spell everything out, you risk talking down to people. Take a lesson from comedy on this. If you have to explain the joke, it isn’t funny. They have to bridge the gap on their own to find the humor.
Outside of humor, the same principle applies. Provide clues within your image to hint at what your characters feel or discuss. Once your audience makes the connection, they will experience that sudden rush of knowing and understanding. That provides far more satisfaction than having a character spell everything out through dialogue.
Good Examples of Visually Showing
To demonstrate my point, I’m going to cover three different examples. Spoiler alert now if you haven’t seen any of these.
Inspired by horrifying real-life events, this movie tells the story of a woman whose 9-year-old son, Walter, was abducted in 1928. After several months, the police reunite her with a boy who isn’t actually her missing son. When she complains and objects, the investigating Detective Ybarra and his police department vilify her as delusional and have her confined to a psychiatric ward.
The story takes a twist when, during an unrelated deportation case, another kid (15-year-old Sanford Clark) emotionally breaks down to Detective Ybarra and makes a shocking confession. Watch the clip here if you haven’t seen it:
The incredulous Ybarra doesn’t believe the kid. This is a deportation case, not a child abduction case, and certainly not a child murder case.
But as Sanford continues to speak, Detective Ybarra’s response changes. He (and the audience) grows more and more convinced the kid isn’t lying. Which makes the truth horrifying. The actor and director embody this disbelief in one well-done shot:
As cigarettes burn, the ashy tip gets fragile. That’s why smokers use ashtrays to keep them from causing messes everywhere. But here, Ybarra hasn’t done anything with his cigarette. He hasn’t moved. In one fleeting pan of the camera, we see his stunned emotional response without him uttering a single word.
And all done with a visual.
Fullmetal Alchemist (2003)
Fullmetal Alchemist, a Japanese manga and anime series, follows the adventures of the two adolescent Elric brothers who, as young children, nearly lose their own lives while attempting to use the forbidden alchemy of human transmutation, a technique that comes at a terrible cost to the alchemist and never produces the desired results, to bring their deceased mother back from the dead.
In the years following their tragic attempt and recovery, they become state alchemists under the charge of Colonel Roy Mustang. This plunges them down a path into political intrigue, war, and the darker secrets of alchemy.
At the beginning of one of the series’ most iconic and gut-wrenching episodes, Words of Farewell, an advocate and friend to the Elric brothers, the affable Lieutenant Colonel Maes Hughes, dreams back to his younger years in the aftermath of their brutal war.
What Drives Roy Mustang?
As Hughes remembers visiting a disheveled Mustang, he discovers with horror that Mustang has done extensive research and prepared to use human transmutation to resurrect the people he killed and absolve himself of his shame.
We see Mustang’s haggard appearance. Clearly suffering from PTSD, we see the extreme lengths he has gone to with his research and education. We see now what his trauma has done to fundamentally alter his character and make him the way that he is.
Hughes exclaims, “Is performing the forbidden so straightforward that you can just cram for it to be able to pull it off!?”
As the shot changes, he asks, “Or did you just want to die? If that’s the case, there are easier ways to go about it.”
Did you notice what the director did here?
By offsetting the shot with Hughes in the bottom left, it draws our eye to the balance created in the top right. The bright color used on the desk highlights the gun resting upon it.
Hughes never mentions the gun. He never even looks at it in this shot. But he alludes to it. He took in everything when he entered that room.
And you made the connection, didn’t you?
And it punched hard, didn’t it?
Two Emotions, One Shot
Throughout the series, we see the brooding and irritable Roy Mustang express impatience and annoyance towards his friend Hughes. As this episode progresses, we see him yell at Hughes and slam the phone down in anger that Hughes has withheld information from him.
Shortly thereafter, one of the series’ antagonists catches the audience off guard when he murders Maes Hughes.
After the funeral, Mustang ruefully tells his assistant, “If the Elric brothers were mixed up in this, why didn’t he report it to me? He didn’t have to go charging into this alone.”
As he travels on the train, we see all over Roy Mustang’s face that he is still as angry and irritable as ever.
But observe his reflection in the window.
A clever trick of the composition shows us that he wears his anger on the outside. His reflection in the window shows how he feels inside. Sad, regretful, inadequate.
The scene lasts seconds and doesn’t feature a single word.
Encanto is an animated movie about an ordinary daughter’s struggle to find her place within a family where everyone else has the blessing of magical gifts. Early in the movie, Mirabel shows nothing but smiles as she extolls her amazing family, how much she loves them, and how she’s happy even without a gift.
On the day her younger cousin, Antonio, will get his own door and special gift, no one can find him but Mirabel, who comforts him under the bed and tries to ease his nervousness.
As she cheers him, we first glimpse Mirabel’s inner thoughts on the matter.
You can see the reaction in her eyes when he says “I wish you could have a door.” Despite everything she has said and indicated to the contrary before this moment, we now glimpse her real thoughts.
She is happy for her family. But under the surface, she has some deep hurt from not getting a gift.
The example shows us that even within dialogue you can still communicate more than you have your characters speak aloud.
Tips to Use Visual Storytelling to Tell Better Stories
To recap, here are four tips you can use to improve your stories using visuals instead of words.
- Use facial expressions, especially if they contrast with the dialogue
- Limit your dialogue to realistic and natural language
- Show who your characters are through small and subtle actions
- Let the audience bridge the gap
If you have more examples of good visual storytelling, please share them in the comments!
Now go create some adventures.