So the night’s dark and stormy—but don’t keep your readers in the dark! Telling a visual story can bring your story to life for them in beautiful imaginacolor—the only way to see a story. So grab some popcorn, and let’s fade to black on this.
Wait… Before we get started, please note that I’m not talking about making graphic novels or writing movie scripts. We can learn from those, but I’m really talking about writing novels and stories. I’m not talking about adding pictures to your stories. I’m talking about writing visually.
I’m also not talking about the color of your heroine’s hair or the style of her blouse. Nor am I talking about what your spaceship looks like or what equipment it has on it. Nor am I thinking about the epic backstory how the heroine found and escaped with the ship and made it livable—all of which is really interesting and probably should be in your story. When I think about visual storytelling, I am not thinking about setting or characterization or any of that stuff.
To me, visual storytelling first means action. And reaction. Ideas have consequences, and those consequences usually end up creating havoc outside of conversations a lot. Wars have been fought over a conversation that went bad somewhere back in history. Don’t make your characters just say and do stuff. Make that stuff matter. Create a chain reaction where someone says something, and another person reacts, which causes the first person to react, and a third person to react, which feeds back into the first two…. You get the picture. Frolvis accidentally insults Maude’s science fair project. Maude slaps him, accidentally breaking his glasses. Bree, secretly in love with Frolvis, tells Maude what she really thinks about the science project. Maude, ashamed and embarrassed, leaves the room to cry—while blind Frolvis accidentally knocks her experiment over, causing it to overheat and meld with other nearby projects, eventually turning Bree’s atomic clock into a ticking H-bomb. Action, reaction, rereaction, rerereaction…..
Next, visual storytelling means reality. Sure, you don’t have to go so far as Tolkien, working out all the phases of the moon over the course of your epic. But your story should have an internal consistency. Laws of physics should work unless you establish early on that they don’t—and what that looks like. You should avoid too many abnormal elements, or make sure that you introduce them in a realistic way. Maybe you have an eclectic variety of characters in your story that no way should ever go together. Build their connections over the course of your story, but do so believably. Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs (not the sequel!) does a great job at creating a believable setting with believable characters and slowly step by step amping the craziness until the viewers experience a very unreal setting with characters acting bizarrely. But within their little world they are creating, their story is believable—even real.
Finally, visual storytelling means making the moral or theme visual. Show don’t tell. Well, you should probably have a character talk about it at some point. Star Wars would not be Star Wars without Obi Wan Kenobi saying, “Use the force, Luke.” But the filmmakers built the force up visually over the course of the film. In the gorgeous indie film Bella, the filmmakers build a visual vocabulary around the value of life, and in the background of the last shot, you see something beautiful which drives home the theme. Don’t just say brain surgery on rabbits is bad and make the mad scientist menacing—show that he has a wrong view of the world with his ideas and actions. Contrast him with good scientists with good ideas and good actions. Craft the ending of your story to powerfully show how the bad ideas bring destruction, but the good ideas lead to peace and bunnification. Color your story with meaningful actions that build and drive home your theme.
When you tell your story with action and believability, making even the subtlest elements of your story play out visually, you will have gone a long way toward making your readers live inside your world. So do it! Write with action! Make your world internally consistent! Give the intangibles a platform of their own! Write visually! I can wait to see your stories.
When not attempting to pen this year’s most diverting, educative, and downright violent Vaguely Circular article, Matthew Sample II resides at home with his sister’s cat, writing a graphic novel script and eating homemade brownies. He’s thrilled that a movie he worked on named Ace Wonder is out and you can read more about that on his blog. You can find character studies and sketches for this article in his Sketch Club where he weekly posts comics, sketches, and paintings. When his graphic novel begins its web comic phase, the Sketch Club members will be the first to know.