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On Visual Storytelling: How to Write a Visual Scene

With all these posts lately on writing rules, I’m becoming quite the party pooper, aren’t I? That’s no fun.

My goal isn’t to limit you as a writer, though — it’s to help you grow as a storyteller. Yesterday’s discussion of late attribution and flickering perspective was meant to help you spot the really cool things you’re trying to do…and do them right.


As I said, I’ve had lots of readers tell me my novels evoked powerful visual scenes for them, and I cherish those comments. For that matter, I write that way. I’ve been trying to capture the movies in my head since I was twelve.

The point isn’t to avoid that sort of storytelling, but to pursue it with the tools of a writer. Don’t try to use smash cuts and cross fades to achieve your purposes because…well, you can’t. It’s not an option on a printed page. Focus instead on narrative hooks and cliffhanger scene breaks.

It’s about more than just specific techniques, though. It’s about honing your overall approach. As I said yesterday, humans are very visual creatures, and flimmakers get to appeal directly to that aspect of their audience.

We’re also creative creatures, imbued with a powerful sense of imagination — readers even more than most. Maybe the cinematographer gets to show a scene in perfect detail, but as a writer you get to go one step further. You get to guide your readers as they imagine the scene.


It’s probably a little more work, but it’s more personal, too. When you lead readersĀ  into your world and get them lost in your story, you create a direct and meaningful connection with those readers.

Getting to imagine new worlds is one of the biggest benefits of stories, and most directors hoard the experience to themselves, presenting their own imagination to a passive audience. As a writer, your job is to share it with as many people as possible.

We do that with description, and the question of how much description is one that needs its own blog post (and, ultimately, will always vary from writer to writer, and reader to reader). The right amount of description, though, goes right back to last week’s stern edict: give your readers enough information to do what they need to do.

For me, that means limiting character and place descriptions so my readers can fill in the fine details with sights and sounds familiar to them. It also means getting all the props in place before they’re needed, though.

And, above all, it means consistency. If Claire has blue eyes in the first act, she’d better have blue eyes all the way through. In fact, even though I work hard to limit how much physical description I put in the story, I work just as hard to figure out all of the stuff I’m not saying. I want to know every aspect of my characters before I write them so they can move and act as real people, even if some of the superficial elements differ from one reader’s imagination to the next.


The same goes for “blocking,” the positioning and motion of characters within your scenes. That’s the kind of thing that clutters up the orderly discourse of a script or screenplay, as “ANTONY EXITS LEFT” or “JENNY CROSSES DOWNSTAGE and looks MOROSE. OFF-STAGE, some DISHES RATTLE.”

We don’t have to get into that level of detail in our stories, but the more you think it through, the more visual your story will be. It’s easy to sit down and write a scene of dialogue knowing that it needs to contain a certain exchange of information, and never really think through what the characters are doing during the exchange.

Visual storytelling is often as simple as thinking through precisely these scenes and figuring out where everyone is, where they’re looking, and what they’re doing between the lines. As I said, you don’t have to write it all, but if you know the conversation is being carried on across the distance of living room — the husband seated on the couch, his attention mostly on the TV, and the wife in the kitchen washing dishes while she talks — that information colors the way you present the scene.

It changes what the characters say, and what they do. A point of conflict is a lot more likely to lead to a shattered dish than a fiery slap across the face, for instance, and as soon as it does — as soon as your consistent blocking of a scene impacts the storytelling — that story will become clearly visible to your reader’s inner eye.

Once again, it’s a matter of providing your readers with just enough touchpoints that they can fill in the rest of image in their heads. If you don’t cue them in that the conversation is taking place in two different rooms — if they’ve chosen to imagine this as a face-to-face confrontation — that shattering dish is going to be just as distracting as the effects I warned about yesterday.

Set Design (CW Exercise)

The lovely Kelley, writing at a coffee shopThe trick, then, is to strike a perfect balance. Finding that balance requires a deep and pervasive awareness.

Pay attention to your blocking. Pay attention to your descriptions. Pay attention to the visual cues you provide in your stories, and think about how well they’ll work for your readers.

Pay attention to the things you watch and read, too. Look for visual storytelling in print, and figure out who does it well, and how. The more time you spend thinking about this stuff, the better job you’ll do creating the effects you want (and, in all likelihood, your stories will start improving long before you start giving yourself credit for it).

In the end, though, nothing beats practice. So give it a try. Practice writing a short scene, just to see where you are now. Make it 300 words or so, two characters, one conversation, one point of conflict, and do everything you can to make the scene come alive.

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