Visual Storytelling

by Alex

Because I have been in that bliss period between handing in a new book and getting editorial notes, I’ve actually been able to read, and have been picking up about ten books a day. I can do that because when I’m reading for pleasure, 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 pretty much been the process over the last two weeks. Have only made it through two whole books so far.

Yesterday 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 Tally 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 yesterday 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.

24 thoughts on “Visual Storytelling

  1. R.J. Mangahas

    Interesting post Alex. I do agree that visuals certainly help the tone as well as any symbolism that the writer might be trying to convey. However, I think too much visual set up can drag you out of the story sometimes. I find there needs to be that balance between that visual and the story itself.

    As a reader, I like to get that sense of “I’m right there.” But, if there’s too much set-up, I tend to skip it or read just enough to give me an idea of the character, setting, theme, etc. I read one book that went on for several pages of scene description alone that I couldn’t keep going with it.

    As a writer, I certainly want to have a good establishing shot. As it is, I’m still trying to find that perfect (or at least close to it) between description, dialogue and over all story. I have to admit that one of my problems is that sometimes my prose is kind of flat. I’ve always been a dialogue person. I’ve tried doing intricate visual description, but it always seemed forced, to me anyway. And that’s one of the things I’m trying t continue and develop.

  2. Pari Noskin Taichert

    Holy cow, Alex! This is a fabulous post. When you take the time to write about writing, I always come away so incredibly enriched. Thank you!

    I was going to write about several movies, but decided to include the first paragraph from Alice Hoffman’s TURTLE MOON instead. I adore the last sentence of this tiny excerpt.

    Here’s a nice Master Shot and then some:

    “The Las major crime in the town of Verity was in 1958, when one of the Platts shot his brother in an argument over a Chevy Nomad they had bought together on time. Usually it’s so quiet you can hear the strangler figs dropping their fruit on the hoods of parked cars, leaving behind pulp and tiny black seeds. Since Verity is the most humid spot in Florida, local people know enough to drink their coffee iced in the morning. The air all around the town limits is so thick that sometimes a soul cannot rise and instead attaches itself to a stranger, landing right between the shoulder blades with a thud that carries no more weight than a hummingbird.”

  3. Libby Hellmann

    You’re telling all our secrets, Alex ! Great post. And right on. I can’t start a chapter until I’ve imagined the film, complete with establishing shots, pans, dollies, and back and forth C.U.s. Just wanted to add a thought… When I moved from video and film back to words, I was thrilled: rather than just two senses, I now had THREE…count ’em… THREE more to play with. Especially smell. That’s a powerful image in its own right. Still, it all starts with the film in my head.

  4. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Alex

    Brilliant post. While I write, in my head I’m watching a movie and all I do is write down what I see and hope that, when the reader picks up the book, they’re watching the same movie.

    And I so agree with Libby, too. People so often forget to include smell and texture and temperature in their writing, which is such a shame when I feel that smell in particular is one of the strongest triggers for memories and emotions.

    Set pieces in movies? Got to be RONIN. Beautifully shot, superbly choreographed authentic action sequences, packed with understated dialogue. By the end of it, who cares what was in the case?

  5. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Good point about too much visual description, RJ. A couple of other lessons we must be careful to take from film are pace and compression!

    But that fabulous paragraph Pari posted is the perfect example of what TO do. That’s a master shot that is SO much more than visual – it hits you in every sense, and entices you straight into Hoffman’s magically realistic world.

  6. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Libby and Zoe (yes, I still have not figured out how to do an umlaut) – I completely agree about smell. It’s just crazy to leave a sense so evocative out of the equation. And especially because we write thrilers, it kills me when authors don’t give me the sensory effects of fear and adrenaline in their descriptions.

  7. J.D. Rhoades

    “While I write, in my head I’m watching a movie and all I do is write down what I see and hope that, when the reader picks up the book, they’re watching the same movie.”

    Zoe, my sistah, I do the exact same thing. I tell people that’s why I write: so that when I’m watching movie play inside my skull, I can tell people I’m creating and not having a psychotic episode.

    One of the best set pieces I’ve ever seen is the climactic chase/battle scene in CHILDREN OF MEN. It looks like a seven minute long single shot (although I’ve read it’s actually several shots put together, but so cunningly edited you can’t see the cuts). Clive Ownn running through a battle zone, so convincingly shot it’s like a war documentary.

  8. Rae

    What comes to mind regarding set pieces in books is the way some very good writers can cause a place to become a character in a story. I’m thinking in particular of Lawrence Block’s New York and Robert Crais’s LA.

    Most recently, the set piece in film that really struck me was the very last shot of Tim Burton’s Sweeney Todd (I won’t describe it, for spoiler reasons). It was beautiful and arresting – actually, the whole film was one big, stunning set piece if you want to look at it that way. I don’t think I’ve ever seen cinematography to rival it.

  9. JT Ellison

    My head’s too far into this book to think about others, but this post is perfect timing. I do things a little differently, writing the story, then going back in with the establishing shots. I find I’ve already unconsciously written the scenes visually, so it’s just a sentence or two here and there to finish evoking the appropriate mood.

    This is gold, though, Great advice. I’m with Pari — I learn so much when you write about writing.

  10. billie

    Thanks, Alex, for this lovely post.

    And Pari, for reminding me of that gorgeous opening from Turtle Moon!

    I had to smile when I came in this morning and read the post – I often read blogs first thing, then head to the barn to feed/do chores, but this morning I went out first and ended up doing some work on the equine labyrinth I’m building. Seems like everywhere I turn lately, I run into labyrinths. Very intriguing.

  11. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Rae, yeah, SWEENEY TODD was a visual feast. Musical theater is always great for some knockout production design – I’ll always remember one set of a not very great musical, but oh, did it nail Hollywood in a visual, symbolic sense.

    There was a Christmas party going on in the tiny, cramped apartment of the struggling screenwriter – and all the guests were struggling actors, writers, D Girls, grips. Everyone so young and ambitious and hopeful and alive – everyone desperate to get to the top of the Hollywood mountain… and halfway through this song the set sinks and the area above it is revealed and it’s Norma Desmond’s mansion, with Norma drifting through this luxurious, cavernous space alone while all the Hollywood hopefuls are crowded into this tiny space below her, all wanting to be where she is.

    An electrifying, devastating image.

  12. Louise Ure

    It’s a bit too long to include the entire thing, but I’d suggest the Prologue to Tana French’s In The Woods as an incredible establishing shot.

    Lines like: “The wood is all flicker and murmer and illusion … In the ruined tower, someone’s abandoned stronghold, nettles thick as your wrist seize between the stones, and at dawn rabbits bring their kittens out from the foundations to play on ancient graves.”

    And ends with “These children will not be coming of age, this or any other summer… This summer has other requirements for them.”

    Set up, forboding, and an establishing shot all in one.

    Fabulous post today, X. I learn a lot from you.

  13. R.J. Mangahas

    Now that I stop and think about it, Alex, theater and film are amazing when the visuals work. Sometimes I wish I could just better translate, if you’ll pardon the expression, from stage (or screen) to page.

  14. Fran

    It’s not a mystery, but for sheer visual and sensual imagery, read Sarah Katherine Lewis’s “Sex and Bacon”. Just sayin’.

  15. Elaine

    Yes! I just re-read “Lovely Bones” and I was so disappointed by the first sentence.

    What it took me to, re-reading it, though, was an image of Warren Beatty doing pushups in the clouds with the movie of “Heaven Can Wait”.

    Heaven Can Wait images actually made me a runner as an unhappy teenager. The image of Warren Beatty doing pushups in heavenwas good enough for that, and in those crackling silly ways, may have let me live into my middle age.

  16. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Keep at it, RJ – it is a struggle at first to get the same kind of visual impact on the page as you can get from just, well, SEEING something.

    But the way to learn is note every time you read something that really works for you visually. I will be sure to take my own advice on that one! 😉

  17. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Fran, no one has to twist my arm to read something called “Sex and Bacon.” Thanks for the rec!

    EE, what a great example. That pushups in Heaven scene just makes you love that character.

    It’s great to see you here – hope that means you’re feeling better.

  18. Stephen D. Rogers


    Great post (except … by helicopter I think you meant crop duster).

    While this is great advice — very needed advice — I’m having trouble applying it in a tight first-person story. Steiner simply isn’t going to start every scene describing the establishing shot.

    Any suggestions?


  19. Jake Nantz

    Sorry I’m late, had a wedding to go to out of town…should have stayed home and saved the money, too.

    I’m kind of like Ms. Ellison, in that I get the story down first with some description (so I don’t overdo it), then go back and try to find one or two images only–for pacing reasons–that sum up the visuals.

    However, as far as a master shot goes, re-read Harper Lee’s description of the town in TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD. She doesn’t have to drop one line of visual the rest of the novel, if she doesn’t want to, and you can still see it vividly.


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