March 5th, 2012

Making Your Story Visual: The Third Responsibiity of a Good Storyteller

If a picture's worth a thousand words, how many words does it take to paint a picture? Well, if you've been following the crumbs in my blog, you'll know that I'm leading you to the third responsibility of a good storyteller. And this one may be the most important of all. It's making your story visual. So grab your marshmallows and put 'em on the fire. It's this fireside scene you'll need to test your story.

Why the fireside scene, you may ask? Imagine this scenario. You're sitting around a warm fire with friends and companions. You see stars begin to pop out against the darkening sky. Someone tells a story of an event that happened during the day. But you can't see the storyteller's gestures, or the look on his or her face. All you have is the storyteller's vocal timbre, rhythm and volume and the small selection of words chosen to paint the scene. So you listen carefully and let your imagination respond to the words you hear.

If this was a real-world assignment, I'd have you listen to the story, then ask: "Did the story grab you and hold your attention? Are you able to see the storyteller's experience in your mind's eye? Did you see what the storyteller meant for you to see? Were there enough descriptive words and phrases? Were there too many?" In this situation, using carefully selected words to paint a clear visual image is crucial to convey both character and setting. Compare these two sentences:

"She opened the door."

"She placed her shoulder against the heavy oak door and heaved with all her might."

Each sentence tells us what happened. But the second sentence goes further in detailing the door and the effort the woman put into opening it. The visual image is clearer and most likely closer to what the storyteller wanted you to see.

If you are using photography to capture a narrative, it might be the composition or perhaps the way you crop the image that helps point the viewers to what you want them to see. Like adding and editing detail in a sentence, you must do similar due diligence with your visual art as well.

The same is true for video editing where you might choose several B-roll shots or cutaways to lay over someone telling their story. These shots help to visualize what the person on camera is saying, or sometimes to add another layer of information that adds interest to the story. In my course, "Effective Storytelling with Final Cut Pro X," I talk about embellishing your story with B-roll material and finessing their use.

Like words, having a slew of images does not mean "the more the merrier." In fact, there's an old saying in film and video: "Less is more." Whether through images or words, try to help your audience see what you want them to see in the most efficient and effective way possible. This is no easy feat because it's always a balancing act. If you hit your viewers over the head with too much detail in your campfire story, they'll never get to sleep, or worse yet, fall asleep during the story. So make sure your decisions on what to include and what to leave out support the story you want to tell.


0 #2 August McLaughlin 2012-03-02 13:37
Terrific post, Diana. I take it to mean that we should not only choose our words wisely, but make each of them count. Words to write by! ;)
0 #1 Karen McFarland 2012-03-02 12:45
Hi Diana!

I just wanted to pop by and introduce myself to you. I learned of your blog through August McLaughlin as were both in the same class over the last couple of months. I like your analogy. Very helpful. Thank you! :)

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