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What is Visual Writing?

Copyright © 1997, 2001, 2002, 2003 by Dorian Scott Cole
Fourth Edition

Writing It Visually
Semiotic approach
Visual Science
Around the Edges

Writing It Visually

You know it when you see it. It may be on stage, or on screen, or even in a novel. It's a scene or a story that is so well presented that you are completely immersed in it. The story seems completely real.

You may be surprised that it can be done in a book. No surprise - even plays and screenplays have to be written by a writer first. It isn't the director who makes characters alive - no director yet has been able to raise the dead. If the writer doesn't put life in characters, it isn't there - the readers won't like it - it will never get to the directors and producers. The novel won't get published nor the movie produced.

What it isn't

Putting more words on paper. Tons of description. More dialog. More conflict. More realism. "Bigger" settings. "Bigger" action. "Bigger" drama. More sex. More violence. Longer stories. Different story forms. Of course, some of these things can help a lifeless story.

What it is

Visual writing is the language of stories. This language translates a vision of some potential reality, including settings, events, motivation, and dialogue, into aesthetics, movement, and dramatic action, that can be presented cinematically. If writers were able to do this, they would be writing "shooting scripts" and directing, and their names would be given prominence at the front of the film. But few writers can write visually, so directors have someone else translate the script into visual language, if it gets done at all.

Effective communication has been studied for over a century. What is plain is that the effectiveness of communication is greatly enhanced (up to 90%) by the addition of nonverbal cues: body language, movement, action, etc.

Visual writing's three characteristics:

  • It constructs dramatic action so that the reader visualizes the character's experience. This includes the set, symbols, the motif, and the set as character.
  • It constructs dramatic action so that the producer and director can easily translate the story to screen.
  • It projects dramatic action primarily from the experience of the character, and secondarily from the writer. Doing it should begin from understanding what an actor does. It is not the writer telling the tale, it's the characters.

The word "visual," as I use it on this site, means "The totality of the visual medium in creating an effect," including all things that accompany a visual image to convey a reflection of life. This applies to books as well, because the author's descriptions of settings and drama create mental images. I think that many elements are blended in visual writing. They include the basics first:

  1. Honesty. Honest characters getting into honest situations, causing honest events, and finding honest solutions. The more honest, the more involved we become. (Note: "realism" isn't the issue here.) See: Creating Honest Characters
  2. Drama that engages the reader or viewer. If you can't answer the question, "What does it mean to the character - what are the stakes?" then it isn't engaging drama.
  3. Dramatic action that reveals the character's emotions, conflicts, and decisions - leaving much less to dialogue and "telling" about inner states.
  4. The effective use of symbols for communicating experience.
  5. Engaging the reader or viewer's imagination by not showing everything in complete detail. For example, "Black-box theater" works amazingly well.
  6. Character physical action involved with the setting.
  7. Settings that complement the dramatic action.
  8. Motifs (music, sound, images, scenes) that help establish mood.

What about dialogue, is it visual?

Screenplays that are all dialogue usually aren't very engaging. This doesn't mean that dialogue can't be visual. It's because the writer is simply "telling about" the story through the characters and this is passive, providing more form than content, and lacking vitality; he is not presenting it actively and visually. It's the difference between, "I should eat," and "I could eat a horse." But I include dialogue in my conception of what is visual. Good dialogue is very visual. Dialogue engages the viewer. Dialogue is composed of symbols (words and phrases) that point to experiences within the viewer - experiences that have a visual component - and these experiences relate to previous images in the mind's eye, that is, the effect of previous experiences.

I'm not necessarily referring here to word choices that are "active" or visual, but these are better choices than abstract words, and word choices are important. For example, words that relate to experiences rather than ideas, as in, "I'm starving" rather than "I should eat," communicate better. Prefer "experiential" words and phrases when there can be a choice.

Dialogue creates situations and transcends locations. The characters might be plowing a field, or knocking around Paris on vacation, but consider the impact of the following dialogue: A telephone voice says, "If you don't refinance your loan to make it current, we're terminating the loan on your business." The character replies, "We'll be ruined! We'll lose everything!" We understand "lose everything," regardless of where the character is physically located.

Through these phrases, both the character and audience are transported to another world. The situation created by phrases touches all that the character holds dear, and by extension brings those thing to the mind's eye of the audience. Through the experiences the dialogue touches, we picture the business, financial ruin, family pain, crisis. It is the same as in a silent film when the villianous banker shows up with the mortgage in his hand. The owner, with his family crying at his side, desperately offers a few dollars, and the banker callously shakes his head no and gestures them all off the land. Dialogue touches the same experiences and has similar impact. The more concrete, explicit, and experiential the dialogue, the more it creates a picture. The more abstract, the less it creates pictures.

Additionally, dialogue is presented visually by the actors. Listening to dialogue is a very different experience than hearing it while seeing accompanying images. To help communicate, actors use inflection, pauses, body language, proximity (as in, "in your face"), they do "stage business," and they interact with the set to express meaning if the writer puts this in (or as a choice if the director permits).

Good dialogue is focused so the points that are made are very specific and powerful. The more meaningful the dialogue is, the more it relates to experiences, and the more visual it is. Good dialogue "builds," creating a continuing experience to captivate the audience by the experience by being reactive or proactive, either reacting to the other character in some way, or proactively instigating a response.

So for dialogue to be visual, it should point to viewer experiences by using experiential words and phrases, it should be focused, be reactive or proactive, allow actor choices, and include interaction with the set.

There are at least two paths to visual communication, the direct visual path, and the indirect auditory path which creates visual images. Which one to use is a matter of choice regarding which will be more effective for conveying the image and the action. Or a third alternative is simply exposition, which conveys information without action.

Semiotic approach

The Visual Writer site includes an emphasis on a semiotic approach to evaluating and understanding stories. Semiotics is the study of signs (symbols*). This emphasis is because the vehicle of communication is symbols, both verbal and visual, which each person (both sender and receiver) interprets uniquely. These symbols attempt to convey experience, which is difficult at best, however they immediately touch related experiences within the audience. These symbols participate in our experience in significant ways. What then is effective, and what are the implications? This site examines these questions.

While semiotics has been used in the past in the analysis of film, it ran its course. What I present is not a rehash, but an approach that is more grounded in an experiential association to symbols, which I believe is more effective at conveying understanding and using symbols. In reviewing the literature, I have seen hints of this in other writers on semiotics, but my approach is original to me through my own analysis, and not a rehash or parroting of other's theories. I have found resonant ideas in the works of Umberto Eco and the late French film writer/director Jean Mitry, and in tribute to their mastery, would recommend their books for additional study. My terminology is slightly different from theirs. For my thinking regarding the experiential association with symbols, I am indebted to Eugene Gendlin, who writes on the topic.

* I use the word "symbol" to mean a sign (pointer) that actually participates in experience.


What is visual communication?

"Visual communications," in the sense that I use it on this Web site, I describe as the communication of meaning through images, through touching basic needs (such as love) and experiential memories (knowledge, experience, and emotion). These images may be spatially located, or virtually generated through language and other associations. The images are signs or symbols that are typically spontaneously assigned meaning.

"Signs" point to something else. For example, a personal object that is accidentally left lying on the floor, points to the person that left it, and signifies their prior presence. "Symbols," as I use the term, participate in our experience. Most story images are symbols, pointing to either a basic need, or to an assigned experience to which we can relate.

"Visual writing," I describe as the use of the written medium to virtually generate images. Visual writing focuses the mind, drawing into focus distinct details from the intricately interconnect experiences of the individual.

Visual writing is a good language for storytelling in any medium, and it is the writing form most closely representing the action filmed in a movie.

In film, the dramatic action unravels through images, which is composed of partly spatial images, and partly verbally generated images, which form a coherent story. Written in a visual language, stories are more effectively presented through actors, setting, dialogue, and action.

Visual communication engages meaningful experiences and feelings within individuals through richly embedded image symbols which are conveyed either directly through sight, or indirectly through other communications that trigger images as responses that generate or enhance visual communication.

Meaningful experiences typically convey more than facts or information - when sequentially presented they convey drama. Sight conveys characters, emotion, costumes, settings, situations and culture. Non-sight (dialogue) also conveys characters, emotion, settings (sounds), situations, mood (motif), and culture.

Images can be created by using meaning laden words, and also by description.

  • "I stood there surrounded by police officers."
  • "I looked up as a giant wave hovered over me, a frothing blue mouth about to swallow me whole."
  • "The graph ramped downward on a steep ski slope trek."

In a story the meaning of each image presented to the individual, whether through a film, a picture, or stimulated by language, gains its meaning from the context of preceding images which move the action of the story and continuously change it. No single image, even if the subject, setting, and miscellaneous artifacts are the same, carries the same meaning in all movies. The meaning of story images depends on context.

A story is not a sequence of disparate scenes or images. Each moment of dramatic action, and the accompanying image, has no inherent meaning or absolute meaning. Each is interpreted relative to the context of the story, including previous action and motivation. For example, a picture of a mother crying over a baby may be interpreted as a distressed mother, when preceded by a couple being told that their baby is unable to hear. The same scene might be interpreted as a happy mother when preceded by a couple having their kidnapped baby returned to them. A coherent sequence of images permits movement of the story and dramatic action to be produced.

Stories touch what we have sensed. Still images and moving images are representations that suggest reality and give us an approximate knowledge of real aspects of life. While a single image can tell a highly condensed story with very few details and very little movement, a story enables much greater understanding, appreciation, and enjoyment. Only real life offers real experience that provides experiential knowledge.

When seen from this perspective, telling a story visually is not about composing a perfect scene, but about composing scenes in which visual images relate to other images. Thinking of making images coherent with other images is an entirely different process from focusing on each scene.

One aspect of visual language is that it is a fluid language, spontaneously assigned meaning by the context of the story.

A second aspect of visual language is the composition of images used and scenes to convey meaning. The focus will include some scene composition (not specific shots - leave this to the cinematographers). This is an area commonly handled by the writer, production designer or set decorator, and director. Following are some of the various composition elements:

  • Contrast: For emphasis, or to cast doubt, differentiate, or expose a lie.
  • Metaphor: To show or explain through similarity to a dissimilar thing.
  • Enhancements: Adding elements to complement something.
  • Symbols: Communicating meaning through things that point to something else. Even an action, such as people kissing, communicates meaning.
  • Camera proximity (subject closeness): Altering emotional distance.
  • Suggested world: A real world representation of a possible reality, without distracting bumps. For example, typically no ages spots are seen on actors in film, and other distractions, such as kids, are often not presented.
  • Depth of affect: Emotional effect(see the paragraph following this list.)
  • Dynamic compositions typically have the following parts that suggest reality:
  • Setting and Background: Enhance "place" by creating mood.
  • Motif: Sets the mood and atmosphere.
  • Symbols: Objects (point to other things), character placement (such as threatening), situation (context), and actions (such as running away), that convey meaning in context and by their presence.
  • Foreground: Provides focus on the subject of the shot, including important set features and characters.
  • Characters: Communicate motivation and action.
  • Locus of activity: Slightly different from the subject of the shot, the locus is the area or collection of things around which the action revolves.
  • Action: Creates meaning and moves the story forward.

Depth of affect

How much we are affected by an image depends on many factors. That is, how much an image taps in to our emotion laden experience depends on many things. Those can be focus (duration, intensity - repetition and connected emotions in the story), sensitivities, identification, attitude of the presentation (comedy, action, drama), and the viewer's attitude.

The image presented can have the same effect as reality. But usually it is going to have a modified effect that depends on contextual presentation. The story does not accurately represent reality, but a possible reality, a fictitious one, told through the lens of attitude.

A third aspect of visual language is dialogue that uses words that invoke images, which has already been covered.

Images are very subjectively interpreted, even if the objectives are known. Ask a group of people to choose a picture to represent their experience, and the resulting choices vary widely. Show a people a picture that you want to represent some thing or an experience, and some people will love it and think it very effective, while others will hate it and think it very ineffective.

Reactions to pictures are very inconsistent because the content of experience varies so widely. So it is very difficult to compose a picture to which everyone will react in the same way. The composition of any scene and individual shots depends on the context of the story.

How much can be conveyed by the composition of a scene depends on many factors, such as duration, simplicity, focus, and other things which allow attention to be drawn to details. In watching people of high educational level (physicians) trying to grasp complicated charts with many complicated factors, in momentary study, grasp of details, or even understanding, just doesn't happen. The visual message needs to be very easily and quickly grasped.

Only a certain amount of information can be conveyed visually. In a movie with continuously changing images, the audience sees two or three things maximum in a still shot. Additionally the background, setting, and costumes are enhancements to the shot and convey some information and meaning. Objects in scenes, used as symbols, require focus (highlight, duration) to gain perception and meaning.

Visual Science

Are there pictures in the brain? Can we communicate through images? Scientists can tell if you are thinking about a face or landscape by watching your brain activity with an MRI. In more recent experiments (2012), scientists have been able to show pictures on computer screens of what the brain is seeing. At this point in time, there is a large body of theory and research, but no answer. Evidence suggests that we are better able to create representations of objects in our mind if we are more familiar with the characteristics of the object. The better the familiarity, the more accurate the representation. But this is on objects that we perhaps haven't seen, but create from a description (as in architecture).

Research done using MRIs indicates that both seeing an object, and imagining the object, uses the same areas of the brain. But this correlation doesn't mean that an image is stored in the brain, but probably means that visual information, whether seen or recreated because of some stimulus, is processed in the same area.

My suspicion is that the brain's basic mapping function plays a very active role in presenting visual information. Basic "forms" (as in templates) most likely are a learned part of the mapping function and aid in the recreation of basic images. Most objects or scenes are not normally remembered in any great detail, but are reconstructed from basic forms, with important details presented by using remembered position relationship information and emotions that are related to having seen the image. Specific details are only remembered when the object or scene is more memorable, such as during heightened emotion or by familiarity, or by details that are an exception to the norm.

Different parts of the brain do respond to different things, such as outdoor scenes and faces. While images are seen in the visual cortex in two dimensions, images created within the brain are typically in three dimensions. So mental processes seem to differ widely for processing information that seems to us to be very similar. Not only that, long term and short term memory may process images differently.

Additionally, each individual brain seems to fundamentally categorize information through a process that creates categories that are unique to each individual, with each unique category being very extensible, growing as needed before breaking off into another category. The words within a language have unique meanings to each individual that varies according to the individual's unique experience. I think that both images and visually produced language stimulate similar pathways within the mind.

While some general image processes will probably be identified, there will probably be nothing that holds true for every individual. We are unlikely to ever be able to say that a mental process universally responds to the same stimulus in the same way. An image that communicates one thing to one individual is unlikely to communicate exactly the same thing to all other individuals.

Visual perception is the major way in which we perceive our environment. It tells us the location and characteristics of things within our environment, or something imagined. Basic forms become signs that communicate our environment to us. This is visual communications. These signs become symbols that participate in our experience, bringing meaning to us, and becoming a collector of meaning. For example, a sidewalk is a path that comes to mean, "for your safety and quick navigation, walk here." A chair means, "sit here." A person means, "human intelligence, caring, physical capabilities." These objects point beyond themselves to other things. Similarly an image of an object is a sign that points to the real thing that it represents, and to the meaning of the object, even meanings that are unique to the individual.

Perception can lead to profound communication. A smile or a shaken fist communicate emotion and intent. An image of a person we recognize may be a symbol that communicates love, hate, fear, etc. The image of a person communicates all that person has been, and potentially may be, hopes, commitments, etc. The communication is so effective that speaking to the image, such as a dead loved one, may be perceived as actually speaking to the person.

The argument over whether we think in images or words, to me is an irrelevant argument. We seem to think in symbols, regardless of what those symbols might be. We find expression for our ideas, needs, and motivations in both verbal and visual form, depending on the communication channel we are using. Both words and images act as collection points (focus) for meaning. A picture can be worth a thousand words, and a word can be worth a thousand pictures. In a story, a blend of both actions (through images) and words (through dialogue) can very effectively convey meaning, and do so aesthetically. Together, images and words are a powerhouse of communication.

Around the Edges

Frequently I am asked questions on the fringes of writing and it makes me think more deeply about visual writing. Art (paintings), still photography, journalism, and documentaries are, to me, solidly entertaining as well as informative. I spend more time watching documentary and news channels on TV than any other type of show. Artists (painters), journalists, photographers, and cinematographers should keep in mind that I am trying to borrow from them, not invade their territory (in which case I would bring out authoritative books). These art forms are very visual, and tell a story often with just one picture. What do these tell us about telling a story visually?

In still photography and journalistic photography (as well as cinematography), I know that professional photographers feel that getting the right shot is both an art and skill that is difficult to define. I think that one good shot often takes a lot of waiting and a lot of film - that is, shooting frequently, take after take, and from different angles, and most of the shots are waste. Catching a moment when people are expressing emotion, even actors, is time consuming, but it shows the human impact of the events that are happening. One expression can tell the entire story.

Capturing a still image while things are in action creates a sense of things happening. And on the other hand, sometimes capturing an object that is still, tells a story, for example, capturing on film something that has been abandoned or symbolically thrown away or destroyed. Photography revolves around human beings and a moment in their lives, capturing what an event means to them, and determining how that meaning can be captured on film. This applies equally to a writer who may have to write part of a scene several times, change the setting, change the physical action, change the props and symbols, and add music or motifs, before he captures just the right nuances to bring the drama to life.

Film, whether still shots or moving, is a visual medium, and stories are told through a combination of visual and other elements, which illustrate the human condition. What still photographers are often doing is trying to catch a moment of human drama to tell a "story" through a captured moment in time. That is a lot to ask, especially to interject yourself into a real dramatic moment in time, wait for a precise moment, and react quickly to capture the spirit of a drama.

An artist faces the same problems, but I think that an artist more often has the element of time on his side. His larger tasks are the elements of composition, creativity, symbolism, motif, and the outward signs of human expression. Keeping in mind that some of the best work on stage is done in limbo (against a dark setting with no props) which focuses attention and harnesses the viewer's imagination, and keeping in mind that it is easy to overload a scene and distract from the action (expression), it occurs to me that a painter (I'm not one) has a place to start with a physical expression of emotion from a character (or subject), an action (reacting in some way to the physical world), that reveals the person's motivation, and a setting that does one of the following: complements the action (such as a motif), contrasts with it (shows what the character can and can't have), showcases it (frames it), or is appropriate to it (shows the cause of the emotional reaction).

Real life stories, such as journalism photography, documentaries, and news stories, are much like fiction stories. These stories are brought to life by the crews who write and film them. In the following paragraphs, I don't distinguish between staff members even though there is often a photographer, cameraman, producer, writer, and an on or off screen reporter involved.

I should note that a news story may be a special class of entertainment. I feel strongly that those who report (photograph) the "news" have two obligations. First is to give a true and accurate report that is not misleading and not influenced by the camera or story. This is a gigantic feat in itself because as soon as people know their story will be reported to others they begin to act differently. Observing the process actually interferes with it. And there is always a temptation to hype the story more than it is worth to get a good audience.

Second, if the event is worth reporting, it is for one of two reasons. First, because the event has impact and relevance to people. Second, because it is "discovery" within pure science, and advances knowledge. But even "discovery" usually has impact on people.

A reporter or photographer in a news story or documentary has the obligation to tell the story that has as its heart the question, "What does it mean to people?" There may be some form of human drama involved in the event, and the reporter can capture that. It may be that the drama will unravel right in front of the camera, such as during the arrest and conviction of a criminal. But in so many news stories the impact comes later, often out of the range of cameras, and it is up to the reporter to understand what the impact will be for people and to somehow work this information into the story. The writer of a fiction story has to answer the same question: "What does this mean to my character?" And then the writer has to illustrate this by showing the impact.

The most straightforward way to tap into the drama as it unfolds, whether real or fiction, is through the following storytelling techniques.

  1. Understand what the impact (consequences in people's lives) will be and if possible tell this to the audience through one of the following:
    1. The reporter tells the audience at the beginning of the story.
    2. The reporter films other people telling what the impact will be.
    3. The reporter shows dramatic scenes of people who are involved in the drama so that the story is telling itself.
  2. Use mystery, suspense, and conflict during the filming. What is going to happen? What will the outcome be? What impact will it have? What will happen to "Johnny?" Film the drama - anguish, fear - as people wait. Show the drama as people act. Ask questions, if possible, about what people think will happen, and how this will affect them. Let this build up to the climactic moment.
  3. Film the climax showing the crisis as it reaches its peak and concludes. In the courtroom, this is the final persuasive witness, the accused's reaction, and the jury's verdict. The accused will not escape punishment, but what will he get?
  4. Film the denouement as much as you can - that is the resolution of the problem as the loose ends get tied up. The accused gets his sentence, shows his reaction, and is escorted to a lonely jail cell. Try to show the impact that the event actually had, especially through the camera capturing the real human drama. Ask questions about how people feel and what they think is going to happen. Revisit this after some time has passed, if possible, as a reality check. Once viewers get involved with dramatic events, they want to know how things really turn out.

The most difficult part in all of this is for any writer to be prepared - to understand as much as anyone can what are the possible outcomes. Focusing on unlikely outcomes is misleading. What makes this especially difficult in real life is that events happen with very little notice, so a reporter has no time to prepare. This same element of spontaneity and surprise can be written into fiction stories as well, catching characters and the audience off guard. It makes a much better story (and sells better).

Another difficult part is to immediately see real life events as fitting into the framework of a complete story. Stories revolve around some conflict or human dilemma, and have four parts. Stories have a set up that tells what is about to happen. They usually have a long struggle. Then the story comes to a climax, followed by the resolution.

Following are some examples:
    Example 1, a flood:
  1. Happy scene - Family homes and businesses, children playing, people working - shows what there is to lose.
  2. Event scene - Flood waters damaging land, businesses under water, homes being swept away.
  3. Climax scene - land is devastated and desolate. People are in homeless shelters, children are crying, people are upset.
  4. Resolution scene - government agrees to move people into new homes and communities.
    Example 2, civil crime:
  1. Opening scene - a political leader is charged with embezzeling funds from his district. Poverty - people could use the money for their community.
  2. Event scene - prosecutors struggle to get evidence, trial proceedings during which prosecutors struggle to present enough evidence.
  3. Climax scene - politician is convicted.
  4. Resolution - people are pleased, and see what happens to the money.

While a story told in time has a beginning, middle, and end, and seems different from a still picture, every scene in a play is actually a microcosm of the whole. Each scene relates directly to character motivation, theme, and plot. A still picture is a microcosm of an unfolding story, capturing only a small amount of story detail, motivation, theme, and plot.

    One approach to writing a visually powerful scene is the following:
  1. Think through the emotions that are going to happen in the scene. Action followed by reaction, followed by reaction..., all accompanied by expressions that reveal emotions. Are these a microcosm of the larger story? Capture these states on paper or in your mind. This is not the time for settings or extensive dialogue. Perhaps even creating a storyboard of the scene with character emotional expressions and brief dialogue captions, against a blank setting, would be helpful. Watch a silent movie for inspiration.
  2. Add symbols that relate to the situation that is looming over them, or represents consequences. For example, a suitcase full of money, with blood on the bills, could represent a crime, and a large key could represent being locked up in a jail cell. See Symbols and Motifs.
  3. Add a setting that is bland so the characters have the focus (limbo) or a fuller setting that enhances the dramatic action in some way: complements (heightens- such as a daring or tragic setting or a motif) the action, contrasts with it (maybe shows what the character can and can't have), showcases it (frames it), or is appropriate to it (such as, shows the cause of the emotional reaction).
  4. Add a motif or other accompanyment, that sets the mood and tone, such as music or a recurring theme. See Symbols and Motifs.
  5. Write the scene with the characters interacting with each other and their environment.
Example of this process: Wife For Sale story, and Writing Electric Scenes in Sequences.

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