We've talked a lot about the art of storytelling and general prose, but today I want to focus on Screenwriting and Visual Storytelling.
Screenwriting and Visual Storytelling
If you've worked in or around television and film, you've probably heard the idiom that it is a "visual medium." This is an important factor that is often lost on new screenwriters. As the fingers on the keyboard, it can often seem that your job is to fill the page with as much dialogue as possible. Most classes teaching Screenwriting will fill your head with the idea that more white space on the page (dialogue heavy pages versus action heavy) is better. This fails to teach one of the most important lessons of screenwriting, which is how to tell a story with pictures rather than words.
Now, it may seem a little backwards to think this way at first. "But Adam," you cry out, startling the other customers in the Starbucks. "Isn't visual storytelling the Director's job?"
No. No, you foolish fool who foolishly hath fooled yourself.
Visual storytelling is your job. You are painting word pictures all the live-long day, and that should be your resting state. Snappy dialogue is a must, and being able to move a plot forward through character interactions had better be your bread and butter, but revealing elements of the story through images and inference is the most important tool you can have.
Let's take a look at two scenes in which visual storytelling is done well, and done super poorly. For this exercise, I'm going to use examples from other writers, but I want you to know that I have been guilty of poor storytelling on a NUMBER of occasions. There is no shame in failure, only in failing to learn.
Just for fun, we'll start with poorly.
Poor Visual Storytelling
Picture the opening of a movie. In this case, picture the opening of the movie Sahara, an underrated movie about some nonsensical Indiana Jones-esque tomfoolery. The movie opens with a long shot of newspaper clippings, with the credits rolling over the top. You learn a lot about the characters backstories in a very short amount of time, without ever bothering with meeting them or hearing them speak.
Okay, the use of "poor" may be a little harsh. What I mean to say is that this is an example of lazy visual storytelling. Is it effective? Definitely, but it's less visually interesting than it could be.
You see this type of "drive-by exposition" done in a lot of movie. Often, it comes in the form of photos or another character just SAYING things about another character that no human being would ever say.
"You can't seriously think I'm sending you out there. You're the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Lois Lane of the Daily Planet!"
As always, we have to stress that it is super easy to critique other people's work. Most likely, the original draft of Sahara used different storytelling methods, but it was cut down by forty rewrites. That's okay, and compromise is a part of this industry (until you're Christopher Nolan and suddenly it isn't).
Now, let's look at a better method.
Good Visual Storytelling
Note that this is good, not great. I would say that the best visual storytelling came from the era of silent films. Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin owned that genre, carrying movies without a single word or title card. But, since we can't really go back to that method of film-making, let's look at strong examples from our own timeline.
Indiana Jones enters a tomb, along with a nervous assistant. At a crossing, Dr. Jones suddenly grabs the aide, preventing him from setting off a trap. We SEE that Indiana is aware yet bold, inquisitive yet action-oriented. He makes decisions, stepping decisively, and follows through.
Suddenly, Jones is in front of the Idol he's sought all this time. The golden figure rests atop a platform, and Jones pauses before proceeding. He surveys his scenery, identifying traps, and pulls out a sack of sand. He's getting ready to make a switch. But WAIT! The sack is too heavy. he drops some sand out. Then, in one motion, he MAKES THE SWITCH!!!
What did we learn about Jones without a word being said? A LOT! Dr. Jones is smart, creative, and does his research. More than that, we can tell this isn't his first rodeo. He is too calm, too expectant, in this tomb of traps and death. We now know enough about our hero to follow him on a grand adventure.
Visual storytelling is a difficult tool to master, but you cannot call yourself a great writer without adding it to your belt. What are some other examples of SHOW Don't TELL you can think of? Comment below and keep the discussion going!