Monday, September 27, 2010

Vistual Storytelling, Part 1

We've been talking about rewriting, and really I should have stopped to cover this aspect of writing quite a while ago, but no matter where you are in your writing process, it's never too late to be building and deepening your visual image systems.

So let's take some time to talk about Visual Storytelling.

As part of my enforced break after finishing the latest draft of my current novel (the darkest YA in the history of the genre, I'm afraid...) I have been doing some promiscuous reading.

I've been picking up about ten books a day. I can do that because when I’m reading for pleasure, or to 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's been pretty much the process over the last week.

There have been a few books recently that have grabbed my attention enough that I finished them, and they all have something significant in common. They are visual extravaganzas. Not only are the locations startling, spectacular and intricately detailed, but the imagery is thematic, poetic, and sometimes downright bizarre.

Over my years of reading and writing, I've realized 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 simplistic and 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 - and/or the crucial obligatory story elements like the Inciting Incident or Crossing the Threshold scenes. 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. Folding up Paris, and the zero-gravity hallway scene in INCEPTION (just to name two). 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.

Okay, we'll go on to Visual and Thematic Image systems in another post, because I really want you all to get this concept of setpieces, and start thinking about how you can improve on your own.

- So what are some of your favorite setpieces or symbolic images, literary or filmic, recent or classic? Maybe it's time to make another of those Top Ten Lists.

- And how are you doing with this setpiece concept in your own writing? Are your act and sequence climaxes visually arresting and thematic? Have you considered how you can use the locations and visual images to expand the meaning and impact of your key scenes (Inciting Incident, Into The Special World, the "All Is Lost" moment, the Final Battle)?

This is a great rewrite pass to do, don't you think?

Oh, and the visually dazzling books I picked up - and finished - during my reading binge? Justin Cronin's THE PASSAGE, Suzanne Collins' THE HUNGER GAMES, Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl's BEAUTIFUL CREATURES, and Melissa Marr's RADIANT SHADOWS.

- Alex


How To Write A Novel From Start To Finish: previous posts

How to write a novel from start to finish (part one)

What is genre?

What's your premise?

The Price
(more on premise)

What is High Concept?

The Dream Journal

Three-Act Structure Review and Assignments

The Three-Act, Eight-Sequence Structure

The Index Card Method and Story Structure Grid

Elements of Act One

Story Elements Checklist for brainstorming Index Cards

What KIND Of Story Is It?

Elements of Act Two, Part 1

Plants and Payoffs

Plan, Central Question, Central Action (part 1)

What's the PLAN?

Plan, Central Question, Central Action (Part 3)

Elements of Act II, Part 2

The Lover Makes A Stand (romantic comedy structure

Elements of Act Three (part 1)

What Makes A Great Climax? (Elements of Act III, part 2)

Elements of Act III, part 2: Elevate Your Ending

What KIND of story is it? (and other notes about Inception)


More Rewriting: The Subplot Pass

Rewriting: Pay Attention To Sequences!

Rewriting: Stuck? Make a List

The Offer S/he Can't Refuse

Top Ten List - Favorite Mentors


Screenwriting Tricks For Authors
now available on Kindle and for PC and Mac.


Mark Entner said...

Another great post! Your blog has been very helpful as I've started writing my first novel.

I can definitely identify with your point that beginning writers have issues with the visual part of storytelling. I know that is one of the many things that I'll need to address in one of my rewrite passes.

Thanks for all the time you put into writing your blog. It has really helped to clarify many things for me.

Scriptquack said...

It's hard to find a balance in screenplays between useful visual description and so much exposition that the characters barely get a chance to talk. But, visuals are certainly helpful.

I was recently reading a version of 'When Harry Met Sally' that someone had typed out by hand - and the scene introductions were incredibly brief. Every scene started with a parenthetical remark like (Sally and Marie standing in a bookstore). There was very little action at all, but it was nonetheless incredibly visual and clear.

I certainly can't pull off one line narrative description, but I think it's a beautiful illustration of how 'visual' shouldn't translate to 'overdone.' The best visuals are the ones that hit you right away...the ones that you're not even aware you're 'reading' because POP there's an image.

Great post! Definitely plan to continue reading.

Anonymous said...

A young woman, biting her lip nervously, awkwardly navigating a subway station's crowded stairwell; the sense of confusion, unclear direction. On the platform, a train running behind the station (one clear direction) and busses in front (choices). A subway musician playing, lyrics that foreshadow and the protag? Walking into her long shadow cast in front of her, symbolic of unintentionally walking into her past and navigating it unaware. But really, would anyone keep reading? Would theyy wonder, does the author have a point or pick up on any of the symbolism?

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Thanks, Mark, good to have you here - and good for you for committing to the novel!

Visual image systems definitely develop over time - unfortunately a lot of writers think they're done when they finish the first draft and never dig any deeper than that.

Just keeping in mind that you want to expand on your visuals will open doors to imagery, I find.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Scriptquack, it's good to keep in mind that the scripts you can find on line are rarely the selling scripts - the original script that got everyone excited to begin with - they're usually the production scripts, which strip out all of that description, because by the time you hit production the director and all the different designers KNOW what everything looks like already.

But you're right that economy of description is essential for screenwriters.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Well, Anonymous, it depends on how well that kind of description is written, of course!

And the point of symbolism is that it works subconsciously - a reader - or viewer - isn't supposed to stop to analyze what it means - the visuals should be eliciting an >emotional< response (not analytical or intellectual) that sucks the reader/viewer into the story and compels them to follow.

But my feeling is that being on the nose about imagery isn't a bad thing in a first or second draft - it's better to put things in and then tone them down or take them out later than it is to play it safe and never risk more depth.

Icy Sedgwick said...

Really useful post! I've been writing since I was small and I've got two degrees in film studies, and I never once thought to apply all that I learned to my writing. I've always enjoyed describing a scene to give my readers a 'painting' to enjoy but I never used enough symbolism. Now I shall!

Stephen D. Rogers said...

Hey Alex,

Okay. Since the Act III climax is already backdropped by the protag setting fire to something of great value, the Act II climax will be backdropped against the protag setting fire to something of some value, and the Act I climax will be backdropped against the protag setting fire to something of no value.

I wish Act I could be dawn, Act II could be noon, and Act III could be evening, but Act I needs to end later than that and Act III needs to end sooner.


RhondaL said...

When I first started submitting work for critiques, a common early remark was that readers had trouble figuring out where we were. I like the idea of the establishing shot if for no other reason than TV and movies have trained people to expect that shift from a wide POV to a narrow one, just so readers can have that reminder that we're "on the speeding train" or "back at the ranch."

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Icy Sedgwick is about the best name on the planet.

Definitely, use that film training. But Icy - and Anonymous - please don't think I'm saying you HAVE to use symbolism. The key here is to look at how YOUR favorite authors use visual storytelling - look at what works for YOU - and see what those authors are doing to achieve that effect, so you can do that in your own work.

There are no rules - it's just what you can learn from your favorites to enhance the experience you're trying to create for your readers or audience.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Stephen, I have to say I love repetitive images like that, especially when there's a progression. And to do that at the plot points is very powerful.

It seems on the nose, but readers are so caught up in the story that they rarely register a progression like that consciously. It's an amazing thing...

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Rhonda, you're right, well-put - film and TV have trained modern readers to expect certain conventions. Why not use that to your advantage?

laughingwolf said...

of all the mentors out there, you're the only one i know who so smoothly and seamlessly melds script and novel writing... a superb juggling act! thank you

c.g. jung explores use of symbols exceptionally well...

ssas said...

FYI, this post gave me quite the lightbulb moment. I've been quite married to my opening, despite it being a tad slow (it's only a page and a half) but I realized all the visual cues and symbolism properly set up the story. So thanks. :)

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Well, thanks, LW. I love being able to talk about what I love in both forms, so I'm always glad to hear I'm making sense.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Go with your gut, SAS! Sounds like an opening I'd love. I think Tana French and Mo Hayder are spectacular at symbolic and emotionally riveting openings - two of my favorites for symbolism.