Monday, November 10, 2008

Visual Storytelling - Part 1

I realize that I am driving some of you crazy by not just GETTING to more Elements of Act 2 and onward, but there are two more posts I feel are essential to cover right up front when we’re dealing with structure, so you can be thinking about them all along.

Plus, this is in my opinion the best part of writing.

So – Visual Storytelling.

When I was in that bliss period between handing in a new book and getting editorial notes (now sadly just a memory) I was able to read, and was picking up about ten books a day. I can do that because when I’m reading for pleasure, or clear the palate for my next book, I discard most books within ten pages, if that. Sometimes I give it 50 pages. Sometimes I make it halfway through and lose all interest. So that was pretty much the process over that blissful two weeks. (I only made it through about five whole books, most of them Mo Hayder, who is rearranging all the molecules in my body with her brilliant, horrific, tragic thrillers.)

But when a book really does me, I will read it over and over again. And recently I picked up a book that had me riveted from the very beginning – and it made me realize something actually pretty obvious about myself.

I am a visual whore.

Yes, and proud of it. Oh, sure, I could pretend to be all highbrow and quote Aristotle on “Spectacle” in The Poetics, but really, why sugarcoat it? Give me eye candy. Dazzle me with images. But make them mean something. Your story better give me your themes visually or you risk losing me, and fast. I want symbols, symbols, damn it!

And no, I haven’t segued into talking about movies, now. I’m talking about books.

I have to say, one thing all that screenwriting has been really good for is helping me develop a strong visual writing style. I love it when readers tell me – “I can see every scene you write.” But actually, visual storytelling is a lot more than just putting a movie into your readers’ heads as they’re reading your book. Visual storytelling actually presents themes that elevate a story and make it resonate in a reader’s consciousness – and subconscious - long after they close the book.

My obsession with visual storytelling started way before I started writing scripts. Production design is a crucial element of theater, too, and we had a brilliant head of design in the theater department at Berkeley, so I got spoiled early on with mindbending, thematic sets that gave a whole other dimensionality to the plays I saw in my formative years. A good production designer will make every single thing you look at on stage – color scheme, props, sets, costuming, shapes, textures – contribute to your deeper understanding of the play’s story, characters and themes.

That was a lesson that served me well when I started screenwriting. And then working as a screenwriter opened up whole new worlds of visual storytelling.

So what can we as authors learn from screenwriting about writing visually?

A lot.

Let’s start with establishing shots and master shots, setpiece scenes, and visual image systems.


One thing I’ve noticed about beginning writers’ writing is that they almost always fail to set up a chapter visually. Actually a lot of published authors have this problem, too. I find this extremely annoying and frustrating. After all, human beings process the world visually before any other sense, so why wouldn’t we as authors want to instantly establish where we are and what we’re looking at and how that makes us feel right up front, in every chapter? If you don’t, your reader is going to be uncomfortable and disoriented until you finally give her some idea of where she is.

That’s why it’s useful to think in terms of establishing shots and master shots.

An establishing shot, in film – you guessed it - establishes the location. A shot of the Eiffel Tower lets us know we’re in Paris, a shot of the Sphinx tells us we’re in Egypt. An exterior shot of an office tower followed by people working inside an office lets us know we’re inside that building.

A master shot is an angle on a scene that shows all of the players of the scene in the specific location – like looking at a stage and seeing the entire set and all the actors on it. You get all the information about the scene in one shot.

But an establishing shot is more than just information about WHERE the action takes place. It can, and should, convey emotion, suspense, theme – any number of things about the action about to transpire or the character walking into the scene.

Every time I start a chapter or a scene, I think first about the establishing shot and the master shot. I look at the upcoming action from a long enough angle to see everything there is to see about the scene. Where am I and what am I looking at? I might not describe it outright for a paragraph or two but if I don’t, there’s a damn good reason that I didn’t start with it, and I don’t keep the reader waiting long to give them the visual. And when I do give the visual, I think about what it says thematically and emotionally about the scene. Is it a confined space because my heroine feels trapped? Then I make sure to convey that claustrophobic sense. Are the colors of everything muted and leached because of my hero’s depression? Is every tree on the street bursting with bloom and fragrance because my lovers have finally reunited? (Yeah, I’m being on the nose, but my feeling is – be over the top at first to make sure the emotion is there… you can always tone it down later.)


This is a fabulous lesson to take from filmmaking.

There are multiple definitions of a setpiece – it can be a huge action scene like – well, anything in THE DARK KNIGHT - that takes weeks to shoot and costs millions, requiring multiple sets, special effects and car crashes… or a meticulously planned suspense scene with multiple cuts that takes place all in a – well, a shower, for instance, in PSYCHO.

If you start watching movies specifically to pick out the setpiece scenes, you’ll notice an interesting thing. They’re almost always used as act or sequence climaxes. They are tentpoles holding the structure of the movie up… or jewels in the necklace of the plotline. The scenes featured in the trailers to entice people to see the movie. The scenes everyone talks about after the credits roll.

That elaborate, booby-trapped cave in the first scene of RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK. The helicopter chasing Cary Grant through the cornfield in NORTH BY NORTHWEST. The goofy galactic bar in STAR WARS. Munchkinland, the Scarecrow’s cornfield, the dark forest, the poppy field, the Emerald City, the witch’s castle in THE WIZARD OF OZ. The dungeon – I mean prison – in SILENCE OF THE LAMBS. In fact you can look at RAIDERS and SILENCE and see that every single sequence contains a wonderful setpiece (The Nepalese bar, the suspension bridge, the temple in RAIDERS…)

Those are actually two great movies to use to compare setpieces because one is so big and action-oriented (RAIDERS) and one is so small, confined and psychological (SILENCE), yet both are stunning examples of visual storytelling.

A really great setpiece scene is a lot more than just dazzling. It’s thematic, too, such as the prison (dungeon for the criminally insane) in SILENCE OF THE LAMBS. That is much more than your garden variety prison. It’s a labyrinth of twisty staircases and creepy corridors. And it’s hell – Clarice goes through – count ‘em – seven gates, down, down, down under the ground to get to Lecter. Because after all, she’s going to be dealing with the devil, isn’t she? And the labyrinth is a classic symbol of an inner psychological journey – just exactly what Clarice is about to go through. And Lecter is a monster, like the Minotaur, so putting him smack in the center of a labyrinth makes us unconsciously equate him with a mythical beast, something both more and less than human. The visuals of that setpiece express all of those themes perfectly (and others, too) so the scene is working on all kinds of visceral, emotional, subconscious levels.

Now, yes, that’s brilliant filmmaking by director Jonathan Demme, and screenwriter Ted Talley and production designer Kristi Zea and DP Tak Fujimoto… but it was all there on Harris’s page, first, all that and more – the filmmakers had the good sense to translate it to the screen. In fact, both SILENCE OF THE LAMBS and RED DRAGON are so crammed full of thematic visual imagery you can catch something new every time you reread those books.

But this post is already long, so I think I’ll save my discussion on visual image systems for another even longer post, so we can focus on setpieces today.

What are some of your favorite setpieces or symbolic images, literary or filmic, recent or classic?

Oh, and the book I picked up during my reading binge that inspired this post?

Barbara Vine’s THE MINOTAUR… wonderfully creepy and psychologically perverse – you have a schizophrenic (maybe) brother, four strange sisters, an even stranger mother, and a young au pair on an isolated English estate – and in the middle of this house is a mysterious library built as a labyrinth.

You better believe I’m hooked.


All the information on this blog and more, including full story structure breakdowns of various movies, is available in my Screenwriting Tricks for Authors workbooks.  Any format, just $3.99 and $2.99.

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If you're a romance writer, or have a strong love plot or subplot in your novel or script, then Writing Love: Screenwriting Tricks II is an expanded version of the first workbook with a special emphasis on love stories.

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Jake Nantz said...

I've always liked the door in Stevenson's THE STRANGE CASE OF DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE, or the pool of firesnakes and the sunken door in Gardner's GRENDEL. Both separate the monster(s) from the "real" world. The visual symbolism there is great.

But then again, I love the sparse stage and anti-visual of Absurdist Theater pieces like WAITING FOR GODOT or ROSENCRANTZ AND GUILDENSTERN ARE DEAD.

Oh, and thanks for telling me about Saturday. I really enjoyed Ms. Kriss's open and frank nature. I will look into your suggestions about RWA and HCRW. I feel like it would be very beneficial. Thank you.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Doors and portals are always the best! Those are two great examples.

I was watching PAN'S LABYRINTH last night - talk about a visual feast! But I loved the doors in that - through the tree trunk at first, but especially the doors that she draws with chalk.

I've seen some pretty spectacular sparse sets for R % G and Godot, too.

Yes, Miriam pulls no punches! I'm glad you made it.

Anonymous said...

Okay, at this point, I'm just thinking you should get it over with and write a book including this material. This morning, thanks to your posts on Act II, I worked through my outline and reinvigorated it. This is by way of saying you've got some time before I need to see what you have to say about Act III. You've also prompted me to buy that large bulletin board to accommodate forty plus notecards...

And in a nod to today's post: how about that moment in Polar Express (which I was forced to watch this morning in the doctor's office) when the train is skidding across the field of ice toward the mountains rearing up before them as the ice cracks beneath them? When at last they sail through the narrow opening safely onto the tracks and into the calm night toward the North Pole...ahh.

BT said...

I've just spent the entire morning reading the whole series of posts from How Do I Get A Literary Agent through to here.

Haven't got a lot of work done in my real job, but if you won't tell the boss - I wont.

Excellent series of posts. I think I'll have to create a link salad dedicated to you and this advice over at musings.

I was wondering if you'd do a list of books, and give reasons as to why you suggest they be on an authors shelf. Obviously SILENCE, RAIDERS, THE MINOTAUR, etc for some of the reasons you've outlined so far - characters, midpoints, setpieces, suspense, plot sections, scene climaxes, etc, but I'm guessing there are a few more.

And when you do transform all this into an ebook or into print form, I'll buy it, even though I'll have read each word already.

What's more, I really look forward to seeing how you put all this advice into practice in your own books.

Speak soon


Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Carla, thank you! I'm doing index cards today, too. So much more fun than sitting at the computer! And the cats love it because they can help.

That scene from POLAR EXPRESS sounds awesome. Does this mean I have to go to the doctor and watch it, too?

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Brenton, you are so sweet. I love link salads dedicated to me! ;)

No, not a word to the boss.

That is a truly excellent request: a list of books to illustrate some of these things. I'll have to start compiling it.

But this is why I really stress, and I should continue to stress, the importance of creating your OWN master list in your own genre, in that story notebook I talked about.

Anyone who hasn't done this yet should do it RIGHT NOW: make a list of ten books and movies in the genre that you're writing in: books and films that you love, that you think are structured similarly to the story that you're telling, or even that are not in your genre but are your favorite books and movies of all time.

Because what works structurally for ME is not necessarily going to do it for YOU.

For me, I am constantly looking at SILENCE OF THE LAMBS (book and movie), A WRINKLE IN TIME (book), THE WIZARD OF OZ (film), anything by Ira Levin, especially ROSEMARY'S BABY (book and film), THE EXORCIST (book and film), JAWS (film, but I need to go back and compare the book), PET SEMATERY (book, obviously) THE SHINING (book and film), IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE - that's off the top of my head, just to illustrate the point I'm about to make -

All of those examples are what I would call perfectly structured stories But that list is not necessarily going to be much help for someone who's writing, you know, romantic comedy. (Although the rom coms of George Cukor, Preston Sturges, and Jane Austen, and Shakespeare are some of my favorite stories on the planet.

You need to create YOUR list, and break those stories down to see why those stories have such an impact on you - because that's the kind of impact that you want to have on your readers. My list isn't going to do that for you. Our tastes and writing and themes and turnons are too different - even if they're very similar.

I will take your question to heart, though, and start using more examples of each thing I'm talking about. I'll go back at some point and revise these posts with more content, too.

Maybe I'll do a post just on this in the next week or two, too, because it really deserves more attention than just a comment.

In the meantime, I need EVERYONE'S examples so we can have a more eclectic and genre-inclusive discussion and so I can learn something, too.

Bobby Mangahas said...

I guess I would be a visual pimp then. I love to write description that gives a vivid picture of things, but sometimes I tend to ramble and I guess that's not good either.

Structure wise (Partial list)

DEATHTRAP (Play and movie)
MISERY (more book than movie)
MYSTIC RIVER (Book and Movie)
STAR WARS (Original Trilogy Only)
SECRET WINDOW (There was a great opening sequence in the film that really set the tone)

As usual Alex, useful info. I feel like I'm getting a whole semester's worth of writing classes (without the outrages tuition fees)

Anonymous said...

Wonderful post. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

Fabulous post again. I feel I should be paying you for this information. I've taken online courses on writing that aren't nearly as good as what you are giving us here.

But I will be buying your new book as soon as it comes out (and telling everyone I know to do the same), as well as THE HARROWING. I'm excited to read them both, and it's the least I can do for your generosity.

I have to say that MYSTIC RIVER is my favorite example of a thematic, visual book. The movie was great, too. I need to read the book again so I can pay closer attention.

As for movies, M. Night Shyamalan uses thematic elements and setpieces extremely well, in my opinion, especially in SIGNS.

Anonymous said...

Oh, and..

Because of you, I have a huge bulletin board with a ton of Post-Its next to my writing desk where I am putting your notes into practice. Everyone who comes into the room asks me about it. It's quite the conversation piece. LOL!

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

RJ, great list! But where's WATER FOR ELEPHANTS? It may not fit the genre you're clearly working with, but that book is too much of a touchstone for you to leave it off the list. There is something about that book that you need to be analyzing for your own work.

It's the oddball titles in your lists that really color your unique writing style.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Thanks, Ace and Kristine.

MYSTIC RIVER has beautiful image systems. It very much works with fairy tale structure - thanks for the example, people, because I can use it in an upcoming post.

And Kristine, buying my books is much better than paying me for this! Thanks for understanding that.

Yeah, the story board is a great conversation starter. And it makes people think we're really doing something in there when we lock ourselves in the office for days at a time. ;)

Mystery Man said...

Honey, we must be soul mates.

I'm the visual gigolo.



Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Ooh, I draw out the Mystery Man! Must be doing something right! ;)

That is a stunningly great series, thanks a lot - now I'll never get any writing done today.