Visual storytelling translates into emotion, tension, and character in a powerful way. In this post, we show you 10 powerful visual storytelling techniques that you can use when writing your next short story or novel.
Each is supported by examples that will help you understand the technique. It will inspire you to build radiant images, unforgettable characters, and breath-taking tension.
See, Feel, Write
One could theorise that readers ‘see’ stories first – striking, moving pictures in the imagination that come alive in in the mind’s eye.
Or we could argue that we live in a world where people relate more to visual stimuli. Do readers expect the same visual experience when they pick up a novel or short story?
We could possibly debate the question, but the truth is that images bring stories and characters to life. I would go so far as to say that all stories are primarily visual. In fact, writers have used figurative language for centuries.
The story world that you have created becomes realistic and believable to the reader. Similes, metaphors, and other imagery can make the story less complex and more fascinating.
Let us look at 10 techniques.
10 Powerful Visual Storytelling Techniques for Writers
1 | Think Like A Screenwriter
Pick up just about any novel from today’s bestseller charts and you’ll find that most writers seem to be using their novels as calling cards for Hollywood, or prose auditions for a new Netflix series.
In fact, some novels even bring in scriptwriting techniques. In JP Delaney’s psychological thriller Believe Me (2018), the author sporadically uses a script format to show how the protagonist, an unbalanced actress, sees the scene from detached viewpoint:
INT.DELTON HOTEL BAR, W. 44 TH ST. NEW YORK – NIGHT
Already I’m getting to my feet, pulling my bag onto my shoulder. Defusing the drama.
Sorry – I hadn’t realised. I’ll find somewhere else.
Of course, this kind of device works only if it suits the character and the story. Otherwise, it really is just a gimmick.
2 | See Like A Poet
For this technique, we turn to the poet for inspiration. Let us look at the imagery in Ezra Pound’s short poem, ‘In A Station of the Metro’ (1913):
The apparition of these faces in the crowd:
Petals on a wet, black bough.
We can almost see the pale, indistinct faces (‘apparition’) of the passengers in the busy Paris underground train station. The image of a ‘bough’ as a long branch creates in our imagination the line of the platform or the interior of the train in our imagination.
We also see this sense of poetic imagery in Alice Hoffman’s novel, Here On Earth (1997): The sky is already purple; the first few stars have appeared, suddenly, as if someone had thrown a handful of silver across the edge of the world.
We pick up the sense of movement in the words ‘suddenly’ and ‘thrown’ and we see the colour contrast of the silver stars in the purple twilight. Don’t you love the way ‘across the edge’ creates a visual tilting or slanting sensation to the paragraph?
From the two short examples, we can see how writing can be richer and more visceral when we play up the visual elements. Readers are given both a mental and an emotional picture of the scene.
3 | Paint With Words
When you see a beautiful painting, something that is so vivid and evocative, your instinct may be to touch it to know if it’s real. Well, it’s the same with good writing – your readers shouldn’t believe that it isn’t real.
As storytellers, we are painting stories with words. We want readers to see a story and we want them to feel a story and the two are powerfully interconnected.
We do this through giving the reader visual cues, yes, but also in the way we structure our sentences and themes to create the desired effect.
Let us look at some examples.
- His insistent warm fingers delved beneath slippery cool silk.
- The roar of jet engines broke the silence.
- Fizzy cola burned her throat with sweetness; it made her eyes water.
- The room smelled of dead roses and fresh potpourri polish.
- Her running shoes smacked rhythmically against the pavement, arms efficient pistons at her side, while beads of sweat broke from her wet face and flew back into the chill air.
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4 | Create A Cinematic Tone
Cinematic writing is close-knit and connected writing. In short, it is writing that isn’t simply visually interesting, but that replicates the experience of watching a movie.
The imagery carefully combines many elements and techniques to create a singular and unified experience for the reader.
Cinematographers understand the importance of lighting in a production. The way you light a film creates a certain tone. If we can understand the way light and shadows works in composing a story, we can use this in our writing to great effect.
Here are extracts from a short story, ‘41’, I wrote in 2014: White light in clear lines cut the hard wood floor under his broad, naked feet.
And later: The smeared bright colours of the day mocked him after the erotic darkness of the club.
Once I’d created the contrast between light and dark, I went a step further and played out this tonal composition in the character’s state of mind: Sometimes he thought someone was following him. Other times the world around him seemed to retreat and he was left in isolated silence, in an abandoned city and on desolate beaches ringed by bright, blue seas.
5 | Cluster Images Together
As we’ve seen, visual metaphors and similes can build images that the reader can relate to.
A multiplicity of images, image clusters or word chains, are groupings that speak to each other or create a clever juxtaposition. Used together, the central images will elicit a certain emotion or mood in certain scenes or an entire short story or novel. More importantly, the images will keep themes and characters linked throughout the story.
The repetition of the same or similar images in a scene or story will trigger the same sensation in the reader and help you, as a writer, to emphasise certain themes.
The images could include animals or birds (for example, use dogs to show loyalty or companionship), symbols (the loss of a wedding ring), art (a rare painting), or even other images themselves (old photographs, home movies, etc.).
6 | Visualise A Unique Point Of View
As a writer, you could limit your character’s point of view to create a visual ‘edge’.
For example, imagine you are writing a scene where a teenager is recovering from a hangover on a sofa while his father lectures him on the dangers of alcohol.
He is too tired to move much, so from his limited point of view he can only see things at eye-level. His father’s belly pressing against his polo shirt, the hairs on his father’s knuckles, the Spaniel curled up at his bare feet.
Perhaps, when his head is very sore, he places a washcloth over his eyes, and he can only hear what his father is saying from the cool darkness.
Similarly, you can use this visual technique to highlight sound in a story. Imagine a scene where a young woman is enduring the endless gossip of group of older women in the stifling summer room of a grand home.
Slowly, she becomes aware of a bee trapped in the curtains, beating against the window. The soft drone of the bee becomes a focal and auditory point for this character as the chatter of the women fades into the background.
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7 |Deliver Tension Visually
As writers, we can also use visual storytelling to bring a key scene to life and to release a build-up of tension.
In the novel ‘The Face of Trespass’ (1974), suspense author Ruth Rendell manages this superbly: He began to walk towards her. Before he was halfway down the path, before he could fetch a word from his dry throat, the thicket of bracken split open. It burst with a crack like tearing sacking and the big golden dog leapt upon him, the violence of her embrace softened by the wet warmth of her tongue and the rapture in her kind eyes.
The appearance of the dog is a pivotal and powerful moment in the book and sets about a major reversal for the main character.
When we look at the scene, it is focused on movement. The focus is dramatic: it has sound, colour, tension, and a strong sense of emotion.
We see this sense of violent movement in the first line of Jack of Spades (2015), a short novel by Joyce Carol Oates: Out of the air, the axe.
When we read this line, we almost want to physically duck out of the way of the weapon. The line seems to come out of nowhere! With just six words, the author leaves us tense and fearful. She has created this feeling through visceral, visual storytelling.
And later, she adds in detail about the brutal attack: A fleeting glimpse of the assailant’s stubby fingers and dead-white ropey-muscled arms inside the flimsy sleeves of nightwear.
We can note, from the visual details she provides, the swiftness of the scene (‘fleeting glimpse’) and the cadaverous power of the assailant (‘dead-white ropey-muscled arms’).
8 | Follow The Main Character’s Eye
When we are deeply attached to a singular character, we tend to extract more from visual techniques.
If we go inside the character and see other characters from his eyes, our stories become stronger and more reliable. In essence, we filter the story through the lens of the primary character’s experiences and emotions.
Here is an extract from Forbidden Colours (1951) by Yukio Mishima.
The young man turned once again and glanced at the old man. Perhaps it was the effect of the summer sun shining across his eyelashes, but his eyes were quite dark.
Shunsuké wondered why the youth, who had shone so resplendently earlier in his nakedness, had lost his air of happiness, if nothing more. The youth took another path. It was going to be difficult to keep up with him.
The viewpoint character here is an old writer, almost at the end of his life. We sense his obsession with youth and beauty through the way he looks at the handsome young man who has stolen the writer’s young mistress.
Note, too, how the ‘letterbox’ focus draws our attention to the young man’s eyes.
9 | Bring Setting To Life In Pictures
Setting is integral to good storytelling. It creates atmosphere and paints a picture of the landscape in which the characters found themselves.
Let us look at a scene from the novel, Life Sentences (2005) by Alice Blanchard.
He dropped her off at a small, ugly motel in the middle of West Los Angeles. A low-grade fear was making her ill. The sky was deep cobalt, and the closer you looked, the more stars you could see.
She paid the driver, who tipped his hat and sped off. Then she dragged her luggage across the asphalt toward the manager’s office. The middle-aged manager had a face like a tight ball. His mouth was slightly open, and he stared at the colour TV on his desk. A ball game was playing.
‘Daisy Hubbard,’ she said. ‘I made a reservation.’
The scene not only shows us the shabbiness of the motel, but it mirrors the emotional exhaustion of the character.
Except for a glimpse of the stars, the descriptions are bland, urban and one-dimensional. Throughout the descriptions, we sense that Daisy is not excited to be here.
Top Tip: Buy the Visual Storytelling Workbook
10| Frame A Scene Like A Camera
A movie camera follows its subjects as a silent, technical observer and, as such, creates a detached point of view. The camera is merely a tool to be manipulated. It can stay in the background, or it can track in for a close-up and, sometimes, even for an extreme close-up – but it doesn’t provide judgement.
In his book, Characters & Viewpoint (1988), Orson Scott Card says cinematic narration is cool and distant in that it ‘gives no attitude, except as it is revealed by facial expressions, gestures, pauses, words.’
I used this technique in an experimental short story I wrote, ‘The Fischers’ (2020):
The chair reclines, a white replica Le Corbusier. A long body follows the curve of the chair: toffee-coloured corduroy trousers, black roll-neck sweater. Dr. Dominic Fischer lies back and touches the edges of the black VR goggles that cover his eyes. He waves his arm as if he is holding an invisible conductor’s baton. The symphony plays through the headset. He moves his head like a blind man. The light comes in between the bristles of his beard, the grey stands out like tiny iron filings.
I wanted to capture the emotional isolation of a family in lockdown, the ‘detached’ camera point of view helped me achieve this effect.
The Last Word
I trust these 10 powerful visual storytelling techniques help you write your next short story or novel.
Top Tip: Buy our Visual Storytelling Workbook
If you enjoyed this post, read:
- Novels & Screenplays: What’s The Difference?
- 4 Things To Do Before You Write A Single Word Of Your Screenplay
- 5 Powerful Examples of Disguise As A Device In Fiction
- 5 Screenwriting Techniques To Write A Better Novel
- 5 Ways To Write A Modern Romance With A Classic Twist
- 8 Tips For New Romance Writers
- 5 Ways To Find & Fix The Plot Holes In Your Novel
- Why Credible Characters Are Essential For A Convincing Screenplay
- The 4 Best Places To Put Plot Twists In Your Screenplay
- 5 Lies New Screenwriters Tell Themselves
Top Tip: If you want to learn how to write a screenplay, sign up for our online course: The Script