Book: Writing The Visual Scene: for screen, plays, novels, journalism.

Chapter 1: Portraying dramatic action visually

Watch for the book in 2005.

Copyright © 2003 Dorian Scott Cole

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Why make it visual?

While 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. Why is this? Is the visual component just some enhancement to the audio?

Similarly, 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?

Consider this: 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 the 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 frustrated father is steaming mad. He is lugging a dog cage filled with a bag of dog food, a bowl, an owner's manual, and a paper-training kit. He 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.

From that picture, we know that moment was preceded by probably three scenes: the request for a puppy, the age-old battle over who is going to do the work entailed in owning 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, on the other hand, 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 (what people say) 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 through settings, and character physical actions that reveal inner states.

The writer is always a story teller, a narrator of sorts - he has to put the story into words. He has to put the story into some kind of narrative (story) form, 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 creating the narrative by describing the dramatic action visually, regardless of the medium in which the work will appear. When the story goes into words, the novel, the screenplay, or the journalistic story, have the same narrative task, to communicate in such a way that the reader understands fully what is happening. This task includes intensity and physical action - elements that are often better portrayed visually.

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 and novel format):

Treatment 1 - mostly dialogue:

John rises anxiously from behind his office desk. "Sarah, I love you more than anything in this world. I can't let you go to Paris. Please, I'm begging you."

John can see that his words are to no avail. "I know I have done some things wrong - forgive me." Again his words fail to move Sarah.

John goes down on one knee. "I can't live without you. Marry me now." Sarah simply shakes her head, "No."

Now consider Treatment 2 - dialogue plus visual presentation:

Sarah walks quickly down the pier, nearing the gangway of a passenger ship with the banner, "Getaway Vacations!" 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 put gates across the gangway and withdraw it, 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 down the pier. As John extracts a piece of paper, she shoves him backward into the banner. He falls, becoming entangled with them on the pier. The two other men place a rail across the gangway. While she runs up the gangway, worriedly glancing back at him, she sees him wave the paper at her, which says "Marriage License." She continues running, past the ship's Captain.


The second treatment uses the power of physical action, the setting, and props 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, going away, destination, urgency, distance, 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.

This treatment also uses the power of character physical actions to communicate, such as fleeing, chasing her, blocking her, and pushing him over. These give strong indications of the characters' inner state.

What visual elements were added to the dialogue?

  • A more powerful setting: a wharf, indicating imminent departure.
  • Running to: adding a sense of urgency and intensity on John's part.
  • Hurrying from: adding a sense of Sarah's anxiety, and revealing the intensity of her need to escape.
  • Banner: With the title "Getaway Vacations!" a suggestive symbol reflecting Sarah's mood.
  • Men removing the banner and gangway: enhancing the sense of urgency.
  • Horn blowing: A third actor which silences John, adding to the tension.
  • Pushing John: action indicating the intensity of her refusal to even listen to John.
  • Banner: a third actor, entangling John.
  • Rail: a third actor, preventing John from further pursuit.
  • Running up the ramp: action indicating the intensity of her intention to not deal with John.
  • Looking behind her anxiously: action indicating the intensity of her anxiety.
  • Waving a marriage license: a third actor that reveals the intensity of John's intentions.

In the first scene, which was mostly dialogue, we don't get a sense of whether Sarah is toying with John and might give in if he pleads long enough, or if her refusals are final. We don't get a sense of whether John is just trying to get Sarah to stay, or if his intentions are real.

In the second scene, by using visual techniques, we get a powerful sense of Sarah's desire to get away from John, and the finality of her feelings. Despite his fervent pleas, she won't listen, she won't even give him a chance to talk; she pushes him away, and she has no interest in the marriage license waved at her - she hurries up the closing gangway to get away.


Visual writing techniques enable you to write, or rewrite, scenes to communicate with much more power. They enable you to competently turn lifeless scenes, that you don't know what to do with, into powerful communications that give life giving depth to the dramatic action.

Some things, at times, are communicated more effectively through words, while some are communicated more effectively through images. Visual writing employs the use of various techniques to communicate more powerfully. It does not exclude the use of dialogue, but together, words and images communicate very powerfully.

Visual elements include settings that create mood, motifs that create mood, props (objects), sounds, and actions that are symbols, and character actions that communicate intention and intensity. Subsequent chapters explore these elements.

Competency endeavors

Using visual elements, convert the following dialogue into scenes that communicate visually and powerfully, and add to the story as you wish:

Jerry and Phil

Jerry stops stepping over huge rocks on the inclined path and looks up at the mountain ahead of them. "Phil, I don't see how we can climb all of the way up that mountain. Look at it - it goes on forever." Phil stops walking. "Always the pessimist. Have you ever tried to climb this mountain?" Jerry takes a drink from his canteen. "We're like ants climbing a vine to the moon. I measure the task and try to make an informed decision. Look at it." Phil continues walking up the rugged terrain. "One step at a time."

Bob and Avery

"I hate you, I hate you, I hate you," Avery shouts at Bob. "You never do what I want to do." Bob groans. "Oh, Avery, not this again. You know I hate sitting through those dumb stage plays your friends put on." Avery sits on a footstool. "Yeah, like I love watching sports with you every weekend." Bob rolls his eyes. "Oh, come on, it isn't the same." Avery crawls over to Bob and puts her head on his knee. "Let's not argue. Can't we just compromise, for once." "I suppose," Bob replies. "OK, then you go to the play with me, and I watch sports this weekend with you." Bob jumps from his seat. "No. No way!"

Mimi and Ginger

"It's only a giraffe," Mimi argues. "They can't hurt you." Ginger points to their car. "How would we get it home? Where would it stay? We can't have animals - we don't even have a cat in the lease. Animal control would be on us in a day - you can't hide something with a long neck like that - " Mimi interrupts, "We can put it behind the house. Animal control can't see it there - " Ginger cuts her off, "No. No, this is not happening. How did you buy a giraffe - I mean, you can't legally buy them... can you? It belongs in a zoo." Mimi begins to pout. "He's so cute, you can't let him go back to the zoo." Ginger closes her eyes and clenches her fists. "Noooooo! We absolutely cannot do this. How did you get this thing?" Mimi smiles as she replies, "He just followed me. He likes me."

- Scott

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