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Making Stories Visual

Copyright © 2002, Dorian Scott Cole 

In the heat of writing dialogue, we seem to forget that every time a character speaks, it is an attempt to communicate something. Communication in film is not like a stroll through a park that we take just for the aesthetics of it. My father, never one for tact, called endless talking, "Speaking just to hear a rumble in your head." Much speaking is not the essence of drama. "Dramatic action" communicates what the character wants (motivation) and his attempt to achieve the ends he wants.

Film is a visual medium. I mean particularly by that, that film communicates visually. Yes, dialogue is critically important, but when talking about visual communications, I lump dialogue into the visual bucket… because dialogue is inseparable from action that is presented visually. I used to say that stage plays and novels were typically heavily laden with dialogue, and OK, but they don't present well in film. But now I realize that you can take good dialogue from a movie, put it on stage or in a novel, and you have a much better presentation.

Visual presentation of dramatic action, in my opinion, doesn't lend itself to formulas. Some say that there should be a ratio of dialogue to action, and will automatically reject any script that has over 40 to 60% dialogue - but some stories are primarily movement, which is very visual, and some are primarily dialogue. If used properly, both can tell the story. Formulas are not something that I propose or support. I encourage architecture, which I use here in the sense of using a design strategy to create something that is structurally sound and aesthetically pleasing. Both structure and aesthetics are vital to the audience's enjoyment.

The Five Ring Circus of Movies

Communication in film is first of all a five ring circus, and the writer must keep each ring going. In ring 1 are the protagonist and his motivation. In ring 2 are the antagonist (or obstacles) and his motivation. In ring 3 are the supporting actors who communicate with everyone. In ring 4 is the set. Pieces of the set should be considered actors because they communicate both through their static presence and through their interactive use by the actors. In ring 5 is the audience with whom the presentation must communicate and who must be dynamically engaged in the action with their mind, emotions, and imagination.

To understand how to keep this five ring circus going, it can help to understand how we communicate. If you think you are good at communicating, send a paragraph about the length of this one in an e-mail message to someone and then look at his response. You will see that the person makes assumptions, misinterprets what you said, may go off on an unrelated tangent that is his hot button, and didn't "listen" well so he missed important details. You have just presented dialogue through a visual medium, and been burned. I send tons of e-mails, but experience has shown me that I have little hope of them being interpreted as I intended them, and talking face to face is just as failure prone, although you can clarify things more quickly face to face.

How do we communicate? In a myriad of ways. First our communication is culturally based. Our words, those symbols (signs) that we pass around, all represent ideas within our culture. Remove the culture and the words we use are basically meaningless - just nonsense syllables. But every person's culture varies. My culture is not necessarily the same as my neighbors. One neighbor may see the world through the cultural meaning filter of religion. You are either with him, or you are a target for acquisition. Another neighbor also sees the world through religion, but to him you are worthless, the enemy, and going to Hell in a handbasket, and he treats that type accordingly. Another neighbor sees the world through the cultural meaning filter of religion, and to him others are objects for his demonstration of kindness. That doesn't mean that I'm not a religious person. All of this may mean nothing to the neighbor next door sees the world through the cultural meaning filter of sports. If you don't play sports, your entire life is meaningless to him.

Each of these people have a different cultural view of the world, which gives meaning to their lives and to every word they use. For example, if I say the word "predestined" in a sentence to one, he may relate the word to the idea that God controls his every action and he is not responsible for making choices in his life or what he does, which gives that person tremendous comfort. Another may relate the word "predestined" to one's final destination, and not to any thought that any choice in his life is "predetermined," which gives that person tremendous comfort. Another may reject the entire idea of predestination, citing the absolute "free-will" of the individual, which gives that person tremendous comfort. Yet another may think I'm referring to the "determinism versus free-will" debate, which is different. None of these interpretations are compatible with the other, and some have profound results in their adherents lives.

Just as important to the meaning of a symbol is the "experience" that the person has had. Cultural ideas are just ideas until personal experiences give the person an understanding and appreciation of the consequences and implications of a word. For example, we all know that the word fire means something that has flames that will burn you. We have that "knowledge" because someone told us. Our parents said emphatically, "Hot! No! Burn! Hurt baby!" We understood "hurt," but two days later reached for the pretty flame again. All we had to do was touch the flame, and we got an appreciation for the instant consequences and long term implications of being burned. We got experience, which made the word personally very meaningful to us.

So given this varied cultural and experience milieu that we exist in, what does an audience member think when a character says, "Did you have 'sex'?" One may think of the acts that lead to sexual stimulation, and maybe climax. Another may think of sexual intercourse (penetration). Another, making love… another procreation... what is communicated depends on their cultural background and their experience.

Using Symbols to Communicate

Symbols give us an excellent way of communicating in movies, and we don't have to memorize a standard list of meanings to use them. We can create symbols to mean just about anything. We create symbols on an ad hoc basis by giving them provisional meanings. For example, in this article I used the words and phrases "architecture, " "dramatic action," and "film is a visual medium," and after each phrase I stated what I meant by each of these things. These are provisional meanings, that is, just for the purpose of this article and for a limited time. The effect may be more permanent in that I will probably use these words and phrases to mean the same thing in future articles, but maybe not - I'm not creating definitions, just trying to get an idea across by making sure we are talking about the same thing.

In a story, you can also create symbols that will convey meaning to the audience, but only for that film. for example, a gun is a well known image that everyone can relate to. When someone sees a gun, they may think, "Power, the ability to control, the potential for death or serious injury, or even see it as a phallic symbol (that is meaning sexual prowess and potency to the character)." But we don't have to use the gun to mean what is popularly imagined. We can load the symbol with new experiences that convey a different meaning. For example, if we show the gun being used to kill the father of a character, and then show the gun being stored with the victim's things, then we have a symbol with a new meaning.

Each time the gun is seen, it conveys the image of the father's death. It could go on to mean revenge, or could mean placing the son in danger if he tries to use the gun. Each time the gun is visible, it says, "Unresolved issue, my father's death" or it says, "Revenge," or it says, "Danger!" depending on the line we make it say. The gun becomes one of the characters in the five ring circus, sending a message each time it is statically present. (Static presence means here that the gun is visible, but not being used by a character.)

How can a symbol be used interactively? By becoming a communication device for a character. If the son picks up the gun and aims it at someone for revenge, it is now singing the tune of the character. By the character's actions with the gun, we know that the character is about to avenge his father's death. The son doesn't need to say a word.

If the gun begins to waver or droop, it says that the son is undecided or wavering in his resolve. If the son throws the gun at the antagonist, or the gun discharges and deliberately misses, we know through this action that his anger stops short of taking a life, but his anger is expressed by throwing or shooting and missing.

If the son shoots the antagonist, then there is some sense of justice, but now there is the sense that there will be consequences for his action. If he shoots the other character, what does he do with the gun? If he drops it to the floor, we understand that revenge is finished, but now he has to deal with the consequences. If he shoots himself, we know that revenge wasn't satisfying, or he is unable to live with the consequences of having killed someone. If he hides the gun, we now have an anxiety producing static symbol sitting somewhere ready to spout the truth.

The gun is a visual symbol which helps tell the story visually. Neither the character nor the gun have to say a word - the symbol communicates better than a whole pile of words. This helps present the story visually.

There are many types of symbols that communicate visually for us, either statically or interactively. Umberto Eco lists a variety of signs that point to cultural processes that are processes of communication, in "A Theory of Semiotics." These include the senses, such as scents and touch, vocal sounds (not words), gestures, music, languages, visual graphics and icons, objects (including architecture), plot, codes of behavior, and mass communication (rhetoric, advertising - communication meant to inform or influence). All of these things can be used to communicate a story to the audience, visually.

There is much more, and more to come. For example:

Sounds and intonations Close your eyes during a film and listen. Vocal sounds create images by using your imagination to manipulate images that you have already seen. In a visual medium, everything acts on the visual image to produce an effect. For example, we suddenly know that Beth is one of the whores in the whorehouse because we hear her moans coming from a room, and our "image" of Beth (the effect) changes. We might be prepared for this by music that precedes or accompanies the moans.

Suppose for a moment that you see in a movie a character speaking in a way (vocal intonation and word choice) that strongly suggests that he is trying to influence others, regardless of the validity of what he is saying. What he is saying may not be at all important to the story. What is important is that he is a symbol of deception. Every time you see the person, you are going to think, "deception."

Cultural expectations. Suppose during a class in a lecture hall, a professor points to the back of the room and says, "Look, the dean of the law school is here!" Everyone turns to look, there is no one there, and when everyone returns their gaze to the stage, the professor is gone. What do the students do? Will everyone leave the class? Probably not.

We have conventions in our culture that lead to expectations and govern behavior. We have a set class period, and expect class to fill that period. Professors don't leave class in the middle, but wait until the end. So if the professor is not seen, we expect the professor to return shortly. These cultural conventions are symbols that can be used to create expectations.

For example, when characters don't follow the expected behavior of the police, medical community, or professors, this alerts the audience that something is up. The professor diverted our attention, and didn't come back. Totally unexpected. Why? And what should we do. After a few minutes, most students would likely leave the classroom. Some might go to the professor's office to check on him and see what prompted this bizarre behavior. Perhaps he just wanted to make an impression on Philbert, who thinks that there should be no rules or conventions and they certainly shouldn't apply to him. Or maybe he was hallucinating, saw the dean burst into flames, and ran for his own safety.

How do you make a script visual? Know what the story and scenes are about, and then try to tell the entire scene without words. And then, put the words in. Alternately, as you write, think about which objects on the set (objects are another character that you can make communicate) and which actions can express what the character is thinking, wanting, and feeling.


A cultural convention that is used as a symbol in the movie Collateral Damageto create expectations is a police officer. When he doesn't act in the way we believe a police officer would, we know something is up. Fireman is another cultural convention that is used as a symbol in that movie.

In the movie The Time Machine a chalkboard is used twice as a symbol to tell us the internal state of Alexander's mind. First it helps tell us that he is a preoccupied and forgetful professor. We learn this when he is filling the board full of mathematical formulas, and his friend reminds him that he is to see his friend Emma that evening. It speaks to us again later when we see numerous chalk-boards filling Alexander's apartment, all filled with formulas. He is obsessed with finding a way to get Emma back.

In Priest of Sales, I use a symbol in one scene for multiple purposes. Scene example. Mark has a picture on the wall in his office. When he and Travis begin discussing the picture, Mark takes it off the wall and stuffs it in the waste basket. Why? When Mark originally hung the picture, it represented his interests. It was a delight to have on his wall. But it was coming to represent something he couldn't have - a career as a scientist. But he left it on the wall. When Travis took an interest in the picture, it doubly represented something Mark couldn't have - Gina. Travis was getting Gina's attention. So what did Mark do? He stuffed the picture in the waste basket. So the picture is a symbol that hangs on the wall because it represents something to Mark; it is an interactive symbol in the conversation, expressing Mark's disappointment; and additionally it communicates to Travis and the audience that Mark is upset with Travis about Gina. (Priest of Sales screen novel.)

In the screenplay Scene example I use nudity as a symbol of vulnerability. It is an interactive symbol in that the audience is part of the action and it plays on their vulnerabilities as well. The magician must perform the magic trick in the nude, and get dressed before the screen comes down. An audience member can check if he is really nude, but won't because of her own vulnerability. Nudity is being used in this scene as a metaphor (symbol) for vulnerability. (Riverboat Justice screenplay.)

Also see: What Is Visual Writing?

Also see: The Purpose of Dialogue

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