Visual-Only Storytelling (a rant on writing)

Here I sit, flying off to a job interview, and watching one of those in-flight entertainment shows with sound turned off.

Now, that might be a strange way to watch anything on a TV, but it’s a great way to observe and analyze what you’re watching without getting sucked into the show itself.

With that disclaimer out of the way, why am I writing this? Because I watched the whole show – short as it was – and have no idea what it was about.

And here you might interject, “well, that’s because you didn’t have the sound on, dummy!” but before you do, let me get to my point… something I’ve heard through the years… a truly great piece can be watched with no sound, or no pictures, and you still understand what’s going on.

That’s quite a statement, after all we live in an audio-visual world, and people don’t generally turn off sound to watch their favorite TV show, not go to the movies with noise-canceling headphones on.

So, why that statement? Why would that even be important?

Well, let’s look at the opening example. This sitcom – I gathered it was a sitcom because of the way it was shot, and the attitude of the characters, and of course, the locations and pace – started off with two friends talking, maybe even making a bet because the main guy tries to give some money to the other guy. Other than that, though, I have no clue as to the beginning.

Then there’s a scene of some girls coming out of a mall drying their nails and a valet pulls up a Ferrari, but it’s not theirs – I can tell by the main girl’s reaction. Then, their car pulls up and the guy from the beginning comes up to talk to the girl along with someone I assume to be his lawyer, and they talk, but she ends up walking away.

Cut to an apartment scene with the three girls and a large pile of money on a coffee table, more chatter, followed by the final scene where the main girl, her attorney, the main guy and his attorney are all talking across a table.

OK, that’s the first time I understand that this is something about a divorce, especially when the man’s lawyer produces some shots of the girl piggy-back on some guy, and she responds negatively, looks like they’re framing her or something.

Now, perhaps a sitcom isn’t the best medium to illustrate my point, and the importance of being able to tell your story ONLY visually, but let’s analyze the difference between some of these scenes.

The last scene, we’ve all seen a thousand times – a couple getting a divorce – so I don’t need sound to get what’s happening. So, the writer took something most people are going to be familiar with, visually, and told his story better than, say, the beginning scene, when the two friends are talking.

We’ve all watched scenes where two friends are talking, but it’s too generic. In a sitcom, the viewer has probably been following the story along, so there are a number of things that don’t have to be said or shown, but in a film medium, you don’t have the luxury, unless you’re doing a sequel.

You have to tell as much as of your story as you can within the boundaries of 90 to 120 minutes (there are always exceptions, but most films fall within this range). What does that mean? That means, you have to cram as much visual information as you can, so you don’t have to tell it, and can just show it. Why? Because everything you can communicate visually and clearly, is something your characters don’t have to say – not to mention that, as a film is a visual medium, showing has a lot more impact.

In a film, you don’t have weeks or months to explore the interrelations of your characters, you have at most 30 odd minutes in a 2 hour film. By that time, you had better have introduced EVERYONE of any importance, because after that point it will be confusing. A movie is divided into 3 obvious stages or acts: beginning, middle and end – which translate to something like: Introduction, Execution and Conclusion.

In a film, you have to introduce the characters and get people to fall in love with them enough to want to watch the movie, while at the same time introducing the topic or story as well – as opposed to a sitcom, where people already know the characters and all you have to introduce, is that episode’s story. But the 3 acts apply, curiously enough to any cycle of activity. You set something up (who’s going to do what), then you get it done, and at the end you get your desired, or not, result.

So, back to the earlier statement, anything you can clearly communicate visually, you don’t have to tell. For example, at the beginning scene, if you show the main guy looking at a picture of himself with his wife, then in a huff put it down and take off his wedding ring – he doesn’t have to say a word, you already have a picture of it. In a few seconds you’ve told a story, but you’ve also made it somewhat mysterious – we don’t know why he’s upset with his wife. And that in itself hooks us into the story… we want to know what, and why!

It’s arguable that the more questions you put forth, the more intrigued the viewer will be, and if you keep ‘em coming fast enough, the viewer won’t have a chance to break his suspension of disbelief. Of course, you had better offer some answers along the way too, and depending on your genre this may not be applicable.

But can you see, now, how vital it is to tell things visually? Good. Time is certainly an important factor, but it’s not the only one.

By adding all these visual elements, you make your scenes richer, more viewable. It’s like those movies you keep watching and every time you do, there’s a new detail that pops out which you hadn’t noticed… those are movies you want to watch again, which, as a filmmaker, is priceless, because times over material equals certainty, which means the more people watch your film, the more they’ll get your message. Not to mention, that those are the movies people are most likely to buy for themselves and their friends, which although translates to more dollars, it also translates to more people viewing your message, and that is what art is all about… communication!

Ok, enough with the lecture… why visual-only, though?

Because if you can tell your story only visually, and only audibly, you have honed your film to it’s strongest form. You will have achieved it’s greatest impact. Even if people don’t understand the language, they’ll understand the visuals, and if they don’t understand the visuals, they can fall back on the dialog. Try it. Pick a film you’ve never seen and watch it with no sound – especially an old Hitchcock film – and see if you can grasp what’s happening. See how the story is told visually only, and how they achieved it – showing actions that tell the story. Using visual cues and clues, using inserts and cutaways, and above all, using body language. Obviously it’s going to take really good actors to pull it off, but that’s why your casting call is going to be so thorough (if you’re a writer/director like me, otherwise, let the director worry about it).

To wrap it up, I suggest you start with visual only, because that’s going to be the biggest challenge. We’re all used to telling a story in words – that’s what we do when we write – but I’m not discounting that here… you should definitely just listen to the dialog and sounds of your movie, and see if you can make heads or tails of it AND whether you’re engaged and compelled to continue watching/listening. When the answer is YES – then you’ve probably reached the peak. You can stop writing and go sell or produce your masterpiece. Good luck.