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How To Write Visually

Copyright © 2009 Dorian Scott Cole
From material in 2004

Abstract

A picture can tell a thousand words. A word can communicate more than a thousand pictures. The right word can conjure up a mental picture. A visual or auditory symbol can communicate meaning. A series of words, pictures, and symbols communicates a complex story. A writer doesn't "tell" a story, he communicates a story through auditory and visual devices.

 

When listening to television programs, I marvel that it usually isn't necessary to actually view them. Typically you can listen to the audio and get the story. What is this? Is the visual component just some enhancement to the audio? In the opposite way, books are all printed words – there is no visual. Or is there?

What is this visual thing that writers, directors, and editors are always talking about? Is it really that important? When it comes to conflict, the heart of drama, isn't a great verbal argument what is really needed? Why write visually?

A single picture, if it has the right composition, can tell an entire story. The moment in time that is captured in a picture is preceded by many moments in time that resulted in that final point. Although the other frames are not in full view, we know that they are there from their result in the final picture. If the right action is captured, the images (symbols) in a still picture tell the entire story in a very brief form.

An example of this is the picture of a family leaving a pet shop. The mother is carrying a newspaper with a puppy coupon on the page, and has a very satisfied look on her face. The little child is beaming and carrying a puppy, which is licking the child's face. The father is steaming mad, and lugging a dog cage filled with a bag of dog food, a bowl, an owner's manual, a paper-training kit, plus has a leash dangling around his neck, and he is unwittingly dumping a package of flea powder, which is sprinkling the sidewalk. The storeowner is standing in the window timidly peeking out at them. What we see is the final scene that we know was preceded by at least three previous scenes: the request for a puppy, the age-old battle over who is going to do the work entailed in having a pet, and the showdown in the pet store. Daddy is down 3.

Pictures are static; they capture a single moment in time, even if they do refer back to previous times. Stories, whether told in poetry, novels, plays, journalistic pieces, or screenplays, present temporal and spatial movement – that is, the dramatic action takes place while moving through time and space. To capture this moving drama in words, the writer has choices. He can tell the story through dialogue alone, or relate the story through pictures alone, or use a combination of both methods.

Both dialogue and images are powerful communications tools. But simply presenting only dialogue relinquishes the tremendous power of the image to communicate, and in the process loses settings, and loses character physical actions that reveal inner states.

The writer is always a narrator – he has to put the story into words. He is always telling the story (writing narrative), even if writing for a visual medium. Dialogue is just one component of narrative. In narrative, the writer describes an unfolding drama in a real world. The more valued writing skill is describing the dramatic action visually, regardless of the medium in which the work will appear. When the story goes into words, both the novel and the screenplay have the same narrative task.

What is the difference between telling through dialogue and relating through visual action? The proof is in the pudding. Consider the following two treatments of similar drama (in screenplay present tense but novel format):

Treatment 1 – mostly dialogue:

John rises from behind his office desk, anxious. "Sarah, I love you more than anything in this world. I can't let you go to Paris. I know I have done some things wrong – forgive me. I can't live without you. Marry me now. Please, I'm begging you." Sarah simply shakes her head, "No."

Treatment 2 - visual and dialogue:

Sarah walks quickly down the pier, nearing the gangway of a passenger ship with the banner, "European Getaway." John hurtles down the pier at breakneck speed, tripping over rough boards and careening into people. "Sarah," he yells, "Sarah… stop! Please wait." Sarah ignores him and picks up her pace. Just as she gets onto the gangway, he lands in front of her, blocking her way. Breathless, he splutters, "Please. Please… hear me out. I know… I hurt you. I'm sorry." Sarah's face is emotionless as stone.

"Give me just… this one moment," he pleads. "I… I can't live… without you – " The ship's horn bellows loudly, drowning him out. The crew is waiting to withdraw the gangway, and two men are taking down the banner. Sarah quickly steps past John, to board. John grabs her arm and pulls her to him, spinning them both around. "Don't you understand? I'm begging you. Have you ever seen me beg? Have I ever even said "I'm sorry?" No, this time is different? Marry me! Marry me today!"

Sarah looks at him disdainfully. "Look," he says, and fishes in his back pocket for something. Sarah sees the two men have removed the banner and are carrying it up the gangway. As John extracts a piece of paper, she shoves him backward into the banner. He falls, becoming entangled with them. While she runs up the gangway past the ship's Captain, worriedly glancing back at him, he waves the paper at her, which says "Marriage License."

The second treatment uses the power of the setting to communicate. I call the setting and props, the "third actor," or "dynamic symbols," because they – the banner, ship, gangway, horn, marriage license - have the power to communicate information to us, such as, destination, urgency, distance, going away, and marriage intent, eliminating the need for dialogue to pass information, and enhancing visual appeal. They also have the power to interact, such as by interrupting. The treatment also uses the power of character physical actions to communicate, such as fleeing, chasing her, blocking her, and pushing him over, to make strong indications of the characters' inner state.

Movies offer a choice: Just say, "No," or show, "No" through physical action. Describe the action.

- Scott

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