What Visual Storytelling Looks Like in a ScreenplayMastering the art of painting with words.
“How many ideas do you have in your script that could be expressed in a single visual, instead of pages of talk?”
Imagine for a moment that you’re lying on your couch, surfing channels on TV. You’ve been hitting the “next” button for a while, somewhat mindlessly.
Suddenly, something onscreen makes you pause.
In the seconds that follow, your finger still hovering over the button that could catapult you to a new channel, you wait to see what will happen next. You hope that it will make you want to see more, so that you’ll put down the remote, get comfortable, and surrender to the story onscreen.
Screenwriters are constantly striving to create “that moment” – the one that captures an audience, infiltrating their hearts and minds. There are many ways to do this, but visual storytelling is one of the most effective and unique.
In fact, the ability to tell a story visually is one of the hallmarks of film as a medium. Novels use the written word; theatre relies on dialogue to communicate with everyone, including those far from the stage where the action happens; but film can show us anything, from any perspective, with the right choice of images and sounds.
Of course, the irony is that visual storytelling begins with words on the page. It’s the screenwriter’s responsibility to use language that will translate successfully to the screen. This requires an understanding of visual writing.
What Is Visual Writing?
You might think of visual writing in a screenplay as the parts of your script that aren’t dialogue – in other words, visual descriptions. This includes:
- Character appearance: What does your character look like? Are they clean-cut? Sloppy? Bright-eyed? Tired? What are they wearing? A UPS uniform? A wedding dress? A sweater and slacks? The visual details you choose will tell us about your character as a person and what they’re experiencing in the moment.
- Character action: What is your character doing? How do they act and react? Someone just said “I love you” to your character – did they look down and start to cry, jump for joy, run away? Their physical responses can communicate what they’re feeling – don’t ignore them.
- Location appearance: What does the space in which your scene takes place look and feel like? Share details that are unique to that space. Don’t tell me a kitchen has a stove and refrigerator (most do!) – instead, tell me what makes that kitchen different from another kitchen. Is it small and cramped? Vast and sterile? Warm and cozy? Be specific.
- Scene action: What’s happening in the scene? Did a train just whiz by? Did a horse gallop past a window? What’s happening around your characters?
Simply put, any description you include that is intended to paint a picture in the mind of the viewer is considered visual writing.
Let’s examine how to do it successfully. We have a lot of ground to cover, so to help you keep track, we’ve synthesized our teaching into five main points!
I. Observe the World Around You
To begin, let me take you to another time and place. Are you ready?
You’re in a cafe. You’re sitting alone at a table, drinking a cup of coffee and reading the newspaper. At the table beside you, a thirty-something woman in a business suit types feverishly at her computer. You notice the woman’s heightened energy, but you focus on your newspaper, the clack-clack-clacking of her keyboard becoming a sort of white noise that washes over you.
Suddenly, a cell phone rings, breaking your trance. You look up to see the woman staring at her phone. She gasps and puts the phone down, but it keeps ringing. She looks around the cafe, as if someone or something in the air might tell her what to do. Then she winces and, with eyes closed, picks up the phone.
She listens. Her eyes open. She shakes her head emphatically as if to say, “No no NO!” and massages her temples and puts her hand to her forehead.
“I’m doing my best, sir,” she says, somewhat desperately.
The woman listens again. Her eyes find her computer screen, and her jaw drops. “No,” she says. “You said I had until this afternoon. If you go in now, you won’t have anything to present. You have to give me more time or we’ll lose the client!”
She listens again. You can almost hear her pulse rising from where you’re sitting. “But I’m already 8,000 words in! You can’t! Just give me twenty minutes!”
She listens one last time, and then – poof. It’s almost as if her energy flatlines. She puts her phone down. Gulps. Closes her computer. Then, looking totally dejected, she stands up and leaves the coffee shop.
Through a window, you watch her as she waves her arms in anger, unable to contain herself. After letting out her frustration, the woman runs, and fast. Soon she’s out of sight.
Hm. What was going on there? We can’t quite know for sure – but let’s talk about what we do know. We know that you noticed this woman before she started talking. She was typing frantically. We know that her phone broke your focus, and once she picked it up, you couldn’t take your eyes off of the woman.
Of course, the woman says a few things that clue us into what’s going on: “I’m doing my best – you have to give me more time – we’ll lose the client – just give me twenty minutes.” But it’s what we observe that tells us so much more.
When the phone rings, the woman looks pained. She doesn’t want to pick it up, but she does anyway. Right then, we sit up in our seats a little straighter, intrigued. Why is she so hesitant to take the call? She shakes her head – a silent “no!” – then rubs her temples and rests her head in her hands, signs of stress and frustration. Already, before the woman even speaks, we know that things aren’t going as she’d hoped.
The woman’s dialogue fills in some of the details, suggesting that her superior will pitch a client without her presentation, which the woman believes will lead to disaster. Notice that the woman did not say something unnaturally expository like, “So I guess you’ve made the decision I implored you not to, and you’re going in without my presentation.” Instead, we read between the lines, and her behavior corroborates our interpretation. She leaves the cafe, blows off some steam, and starts running. But to where? To the meeting to thwart her superior who may be making a terrible decision? We’re not sure, but we’re definitely curious!
This sort of thing actually happens to us all the time in real life. We’re constantly observing the people around us, wondering who they are, what they’re doing, and what they’re struggling with, collecting clues from what they do and say. Sometimes we make up stories about them in our minds, and most of the time we aren’t even aware that we’re doing it!
This same impulse drives us when we get sucked into a film. We want to know more about what the characters are up to, so we observe and listen to them, attempting to piece together their stories. You might think of a film as an invitation to hunt for meaning in every frame, propelled by wonder and the desire to explore.
As screenwriters, we are essentially observers for our readers. We plant the details that they discover. For example, in the story above, I didn’t drop you into a cafe with no direction. Instead, I used words to guide your attention very specifically. If it were a screenplay, the director would interpret my words into film language, using the camera and other elements of style to do the guiding.
Most of the time, an audience doesn’t even realize that they’re being guided. They’re too taken by their observations to consider that we made them first.
II. Externalize the Internal
One of the most important things to understand about visual storytelling for film is that as the screenwriter, you’re tasked with describing what the audience will see and hear at any given moment.
Logistically, what you’re doing is you’re giving your film crew direction about what to create and how to present that to an audience. Said differently, you’re suggesting what your film crew should put onscreen for your audience to observe.
Consequently, all of the writing in a screenplay must create an experience similar to that of watching a film. So, while in a novel you may be able to say:
Jessica sits on a bench and thinks of John. She misses him deeply. She thinks about the birthday parties, the Valentine’s Day dinners, the walks on the beach. She cries for the love they shared and the love they’ve lost.
In a screenplay, if you imagine the scene visually, all you’re really experiencing is:
Jessica sits on a bench, staring down at her feet. After a moment she begins to cry.
As observers, the audience doesn’t know why Jessica is crying, since they don’t know what she’s thinking about. A novel can take us inside characters’ minds, but a film is much more external. So, let’s find a way to convey what Jessica is thinking through what the audience will see and hear.
There are many ways to approach this, but here’s one:
Jessica sits on a bench. After a moment, she pulls out her phone and swipes through a series of photos: She and John at a birthday party, smiling; she and John dancing at a wedding; she and John sharing a dessert at dinner… She puts the phone down and begins to cry.
Here, the photos (what we see) visualize Jessica’s thoughts, prompting her to cry (what we hear). As observers, we conclude that the photographs are making Jessica sad, leading us to suspect that she misses John.
You may be wondering: Couldn’t Jessica just say that she misses John? Then the audience would know what she’s thinking about!
That is true. But it is also true that Jessica is sitting alone on a bench. Who talks about their feelings, and the reason for their feelings, to no one? It’s not a very normal thing to do, and outside of perhaps a very stylized film, such behavior would feel unnatural, drawing undue attention to the dialogue. Consciously or not, most of us would feel patronized.
But what about voiceover?
Yes, voiceover is a tool that can be used to let us into the mind of the character, sometimes to great effect. We could write an entire piece debating the merits of voiceover, and perhaps we will another day, but for now, suffice it to say that voiceover probably shouldn’t be your go-to storytelling strategy.
One of the strengths of the novel is easy access to characters’ thought lives, while one of the strengths of a film is easy access to the senses of sight and sound. Inner monologues are more at home on the page than on the screen. Film is largely a visual medium, so it’s often wise to play to its strengths. Moreover, many audiences love to observe and feel like they’ve figured out characters’ thoughts on their own. Why rob them of the experience?
It’s often more fun – not to mention, natural and economical! – to show us something that communicates what you need us to know rather than have your characters talk about it a lot.
In other words, visual writing.
In “6 Techniques for Making Your Writing Visual”, screenwriting teacher Charles Harris shares:
“Look at TV and print adverts – see how expertly they can condense a thought into a moment of time. Learn from them. How many ideas do you have in your script that could be expressed in a single visual, instead of pages of talk?
Amy is sacked unexpectedly. You could write reams of dialogue to show this – or she could open the door to her office and find all her belongings have been swept into a box.”
The truth is that in life, we don’t always talk (and talk and talk and talk) about what we’re thinking and feeling. A lot of what we communicate is shared non-verbally.
Think back to our stressed-out stranger in the cafe. It would have been weird for her to say to her boss, “You are really stressing me out and I wish this wasn’t happening to me, I feel very upset, and I feel like you’re just throwing away all of the work I’ve done and are putting me in a very difficult situation with our client.”
She doesn’t say anything even remotely like this. Instead, by observing her visually, we’re able to gather what she’s going through in a very organic and natural way.
III. Don’t Direct from the Page!
One of the most common questions about visual writing I get from students enrolled in our online film school here at Lights is:
“Shouldn’t I leave the visual decisions up to the director and actors?”
As the writer, it’s your job to define what you want the director and actors to express. It’s the director’s job to interpret that for the screen. And it’s an actor’s job to use the human form to convey their character to the audience. You can’t assume that either of those parties will know exactly what you want unless you properly illustrate it on the page. In the words of screenplay consultant Tim Long:
“Screenwriters can get locked into the movie they’re envisioning in their head, one that’s filled with amazing images, and casted with brilliant actors, and has amazing cinematography and sound. The challenge is that they often get so caught up in seeing it, that they lose sight of the fact that it has to be read first.
In other words, they’re so engrossed in envisioning the finished product as a movie that they fail to fully articulate the story on the page. And as any studio reader will tell you, that’s a knife in the belly of any screenplay that will instantly cut the life of your read short.”
What Long says here hits on something I’ve noticed a lot in screenplays by new screenwriters, which is that the writer assumes that the director and actor are going to know how to fill in the blanks without being visually guided. Why assume that they’re on the same page when what you want isn’t on the page?
To be clear, when we talk about visual writing, we’re talking about describing what is happening in a scene, not telling a director what camera angles to use. That is considered “directing from the page” and is widely frowned upon. When it comes to camera angles, yes, you generally should entrust those decisions to the director.
Here’s director and screenwriter Guy Magar in “A Screenwriter’s Challenge: Visualization”:
“As a professional director for 20 years, does it annoy me when I read a screenplay with direction built in, such as camera shots, lenses, angles, tracking, etc.? Absolutely, as it would most directors worth their salt.
Writing ‘we open WIDE on the beach’ or ‘we slowly ZOOM into her eyes’ or ‘the LOW ANGLE CAMERA SLOWLY TRACKS past the crowd’ is not at all what visual writing is about and is a sure way for most directors to quickly reject a screenplay. There is a huge difference between directing on paper and writing visually.”
That’s not to say that we can’t give any indication about what the image should look like! The beating heart of visual writing is finding language to describe what you want your audience to see in a way that succinctly paints a picture in the reader’s mind, which certainly can suggest how close – or how wide – you want an image to be.
For example, let’s say we have a man standing in the middle of a cabin washing his hands. A general, perhaps wide visual description might say something like:
INT. CABIN – NIGHT
Jacob stands at the sink, his back to the rest of the rustic room, which is a kitchen and living room in one. Beside him, a fire blazes in the fireplace, over which a mounted deer head rests in eternal peace. A rifle is propped against a weathered leather chair.
Now let’s say we wanted to experience all of that in Closeup, rather than Wide. Our visual writing, therefore, would have to get closer to the action:
INT. CABIN – NIGHT
A steady stream of water pours from a rusted faucet. Beneath it, two weathered hands – caked with dirt – massage a bar of ivory soap.
Jacob shakes his hands dry and turns away from the sink to face the fireplace: A KETTLE waits near the flames.
This may well be the exact same scene, but we’ve repositioned the vantage point of the reader – the faucet, the hands, the soap, the kettle in the fireplace. By guiding them differently, we’ve shifted what the viewer is going to see when the film gets made.
IV. Be Specific in the Word-Pictures You Paint
Writing visual description can be a bit of a balancing act. Yes, you want to tell your story thoroughly, but you also want to be succinct, and you don’t want to weigh your film crew down with too much detail.
For example, let’s say we have a scene about Cliff, who is 25 and about to see a dentist for the first time in his life. He’s really nervous, and that’s all we really need our audience to understand from observing him in the waiting room of the dentist’s office.
What we wouldn’t want is a scene like this:
INT. WAITING ROOM – DAY
Cliff, sitting in a chair, taps his right foot three times. He taps his left foot four times. He closes his eyes, he opens his eyes. He looks at the clock. He looks at his watch. He looks at the clock again. He cracks his right knuckles. He cracks his left knuckles. He looks at the clock.
What we’ve created here is burdensome choreography more than anything else, since it’s giving our actor a lot of unimportant action to remember. If all we really need the audience to understand is that he’s nervous, we probably could simply say:
INT. WAITING ROOM – DAY
Cliff shifts nervously in a chair, alternating his gaze between his watch and the clock.
It’s important to think about what you want your audience to come away understanding from observing any particular visual.
For example, typically, if you want your audience to understand that a man is well dressed, you probably don’t need to specify the brand or color of his suit. Doing so would tie the hands of the film crew – now they have to find a particular brand of suit in a particular color! Instead, you probably can say, “He’s dressed in a new, expensive-looking suit.”
Of course, there may be times when you feel like you need to get super specific with what you’re telling us. If you want us to know that someone is visiting a perfectionistic botanist, you may say, “He runs his fingers down a row of books, each a different volume of a botanical encyclopedia, arranged in alphabetical order.” If you just need us to know that there are books, but it doesn’t matter which kind, “He notices a shelf filled with books” may suffice.
It really all depends on what you want your audience to take away from what you’re showing them.
V. Embrace Your Unique Writing Style
You and I may write the same scene in very different ways, which is what’s so awesome about screenwriting – it’s colored by the heart and soul of the person doing the work.
Not surprisingly, style impacts a screenwriter’s approach to visual descriptions. For example, compare the first pages of the screenplays for Alien, by Walter Hill and David Gilner, and Chinatown, by Robert Towne:
Alien is sparing in its details, minimalistic and even haiku-like, well-suited to a story that explores how space and its terrors can reduce humankind to its survival instinct. Conversely, Chinatown reads more like a novel, offering up far more robust visual descriptions that support a nuanced noir story:
Neither approach is right or wrong. They’re just different. Style is often specific to the writer, which is one of the reasons that certain writers tend to be brought on for certain types of films. They have unique creative voices that inform how they paint with words on the page.
We’ve gone over a lot, here, so let’s recap!
- Visual writing can encompass many different things, including physical descriptions of characters, descriptions of characters’ actions, descriptions of places, and descriptions of what’s happening in those places.
- To watch a film is to observe. As the screenwriter, your visual writing guides the film crew – and by extension, the audience – effectively determining what they observe.
- Often, it’s possible to express something visually rather than rely on dialogue or voiceover.
- It’s not the screenwriter’s job to specify camera angles, but you can guide the visuals of a film by being specific in your visual descriptions.
- Write with intention! Know what you want someone to observe, and then choose details that lead them to that observation.
- Style will inform your approach to visual writing. Let it.
The more you practice, the more naturally visual writing will come. Have fun with the process! As a screenwriter, you’re ever in pursuit of that holy grail: externalizing the internal, telling your story with what you see and what you hear.
INT. BEDROOM – NIGHT
The screenwriter types a few words. Deletes them. Ventures more words but deletes them, too.
The screenwriter sighs heavily and pounds a fist on the table, frustrated. They look out the window into the night. The seconds TICK by. Somewhere in the darkness, A CAR passes, its tires loud on the rain-slicked road as it drives in and out of earshot.
A smile touches the screenwriter’s lips. They look back at the screen, and the words begin to flow.
– By Lauren McGrail
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