10 Rules for Visual Storytelling

For some people, “visual storytelling” means photographs. For others, it means film or video. An epic movie such as the Lord of the Rings trilogy may spring to mind — and few would disagree with that as a fine example of visual storytelling.

In journalism writing classes, students learn: “Show, don’t tell.” When we provide a visual, that maxim carries even more weight. The less text or audio that an image needs to be understood, the better it is.

Some photojournalists think it’s best to let photos stand alone. Some like to publish their portfolios with no captions at all. This is a pet peeve of mine: I want to know more. I always want to know who, when, and where. Always! For me this is part of authentication, which is part of what makes it journalism and not interpretive art. A photo without a caption is not journalism.

Rule 1: Include basic factual details as needed for credibility. These might appear at the end of a linear presentation (video or animation), or below or beside a still image or graphic.

Another basic difference between journalism and art is literal truth. Whether the camera is shooting video or stills, the journalist behind the camera must not direct. As soon as you tell people what to do, you’ve changed the scene from fact to fiction. Portraits are the exception; they usually require some direction from the photographer.

Rule 2: Any reasonable assumption a viewer would make must be true. When we see a portrait, we assume it was posed. When we see someone jumping, falling, or raising a flag, we do not assume it was a re-enactment.

Where does the storytelling come in? It is possible for one image to tell a story, but it may be useful to think of the single image as an iconic work (think of the World Trade Center with dark smoke billowing, or Eddie Adams’s famous image in which a Vietnamese general shoots a man in the head) — a symbol, a condensation of meaning. A child who sees Adams’s photo today sees only one man shooting another — not the whole long tragedy of the Vietnam War.

Rule 3: A visual story requires more than one image.

In his chapter about photo stories, Ken Kobré wrote: “How does a picture story differ from a collection of pictures on a topic? A picture story has a theme. Not only are the individual pictures in the story about one subject, but they also help to support one central point” (Photojournalism: The Professionals’ Approach, 6th ed., page 232).

Like Kobré, I encourage students to write a headline for their visual story even before they go out to shoot. I go further and urge them to include a subject, active verb, and object in their working headline. “Scenes from the life of a medical student” is too vague to make a good story. “Medical student confronts all-night cram sessions, microscopes, and corpses” assures me that this story has a chance to be interesting.

Rule 4: Know what the story is before you start making images for it.

Visual stories can transport us — not only to another place, but inside another person’s life.

Visual stories often leave out a lot. This is part of their power, part of what makes them so effective. The best visual stories are compact, visceral, evocative.

Visual stories should be able to stand alone and make sense on their own. That does not mean they must be complete. I think this is one of the hardest things for journalism students to negotiate. If they try to cram in too much information, the visual story stalls, dragged down by the weight. If they fail to supply sufficient information and context, the story floats loose, inconsequential, pretty but meaningless.

Rule 5: Edit ruthlessly to pare away all that is unnecessary to the essential story. Background and context can be supplied in a linked text, in other separate components.

Rule 6: Ensure that the story makes sense if it stands alone. This does not mean it has to tell everything or “show both sides.” (I put that in quotes because it’s a huge fallacy to assume there are only two sides.)

Sometimes a visual story needs illustrations, charts or graphs, maps, diagrams. One of my favorite examples of great visual storytelling is a story from National Geographic and MediaStorm that integrates still photography, video, and information graphics in a tightly edited video format: Ivory Wars: Last Stand in Zakouma. Specifically I recommend the animated map sequence that starts at about 5:33. I think you will realize this as the map animation progresses: Nothing else, in any format, would tell this segment of the story as effectively.

Telling a story entirely with graphics is different from telling a story with photos or video. This too can be journalism.

Rule 7: A visual story does not require a camera.

When I was watching a 25-minute news program a few days ago, I experienced a small moment of sheer delight that was purely visual. It keeps coming back to me. The reason the three-shot video sequence was so successful was because first it showed me something appealing (a child’s face, at 14:25), and then a fuller view of something that seemed very familiar (a kiddie Ferris wheel, at 14:30), and then it surprised me by showing something unexpected about the same subject in the previous two shots (at 14:35).

Recently I watched the film The Story of the Weeping Camel, and I noticed how often a new sequence started by showing a close-up of someone’s hands or feet (or even an extreme close-up of a face) before cutting to a wider shot that revealed what was going on. In a quiet story set in a remote rural area, where not much happens, this technique worked really well to hold my attention.

Rule 8: Show things the viewer has not seen before, or show things in a way that is unfamiliar to the viewer.

Rule 9: Keep changing what the viewer is seeing. The visual brain will become bored if the image stays the same. Vary the angle and the distance — especially if the subject remains the same!

Finally, what makes a story a story? It has to move along an arc. If it’s flat — if it’s just a sequence of images and/or facts and/or events — it does not have the shape of a story. The shape is a mountain on which we travel upwards. The storyteller conveys us up that mountain, and when we reach the top, there has to be something there for us that made the journey worthwhile.

Ira Glass calls this the moment of reflection — when we stand on top of the mountain and see something.

For me, this is a hell of a lot more helpful than telling students their stories need to have a beginning, middle, and end. What does that mean? Every person’s day has a beginning, middle, and end — that doesn’t mean there’s a story in it!

The story must start with something (a strong visual) that makes us want to go up the hill. That’s the open. Then the story must hold on to us to keep us moving up, up, up (see Rule 9, above). Ira Glass says we do this by raising questions and answering them, one after another, until we reach the top. This question-and-answer process can be done visually: Show us something that’s not usual or typical (question; see Rule 8, above) and then show us a fuller or more complete version (answer). For video, the Five Shot Method provides a template.

The top of the mountain is the climax of the story — but it’s not the end. Don’t cut us off suddenly — don’t throw us off the summit! Make sure you leave us with a sense of satisfaction, a feeling of conclusion. Bring it to a point. The closing image should make us feel like we have really reached an ending. It can give us hope, or it can convey a sense of hopelessness. It can make us feel like this story continues, or the chapter is closed. It should leave us with a feeling of some kind.

Rule 10: Tie a single string from the beginning to the end. Pull it taut and high just before the end. Then release gently, stopping at the firm final knot.

17 Comments on “10 Rules for Visual Storytelling

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  6. Rule 7: A visual story does not require a camera.

    I’ve read this several times, and I still don’t quite get where you’re going with this point.

  7. Mindy, I did. Perhaps it should have been under the rule, which was part of my confusion.

    And I still don’t think that’s an effective example of visual storytelling. I know the text animation effect is cool these days, but does that little girl graphic tell the story as effectively as a photo of a 12-year-old in her wedding outfit? A 14-year-old pregnant girl? A girl dying of HIV at 15?

    I do understand your point better, however.

  8. Bryan – I respect your opinion. Now, a challenge: Imagine the real-life photos that would illustrate the story (The Girl Effect), and then try to imagine how your emotional center would respond to those images. I would say the outcome is different — and that’s a good reason to handle the material differently.

    Marshall McLuhan liked to talk about TV being a less “interactive” medium than radio. Images we imagine will have a different effect on us than images that we see. Especially in this case: The girls I imagine might be totally different in location and appearance than the girls you imagine.

  9. I did think about that issue wrt the photos, and how removing the particular features of a person in favor of a graphical representation of “girl” removes an opportunity for viewing the victims of such horrors as “The Other.”

    It’s a fair point, and I think also drives at the issue I have with the piece: is this more effective than images of real people?

    I don’t know. Perhaps it is more of an individual matter. I wonder if there has been any research about that particular difference?

  10. Wow @ the girleffect video. Looks quite influential. I think animations like that can certainly cause an impact and illustrate the point very well. Sure, photographs are very important – they show real life situations like they exactly are, but we can’t forget most people would find animations compelling to watch.

  11. This is great! But I would expand on #4, based on my own experience and discussions with others who have been practicing visual journalism for a long time.

    Be wary about over-scripting, even in your mind. Formulas and templates are a starting point, but they shouldn’t drive the content.

    Be careful about deciding, beforehand, exactly what the story really is. You should have an idea of what the story is before you begin so you can focus on a theme. However, remember that the primary strength of images – still or moving – is their ability to make emotional connections with the audience. Either by conveying emotion or by evoking it.

    It’s prudent to develop an intellectual understanding of your subject before beginning to shoot, but be open to wherever the emotion elements of a story lead you. While actually shooting, keep looking for what MOVES you, and focus on that.

    Many, many times, I think the story is going to be about one thing, but once I begin shooting, I find that something else about a particular subject is more emotionally compelling.

    It’s not that you lose focus, it’s that your ideas about what a story is might change in the course of reporting it. You just have to be open to that potential change in approach.

    Don’t have too many preconceived ideas or agendas. And that’s good advice even for writers primarily focusing on text. But I’ve found it to be especially true from a visual approach. Images should follow the emotion, and words should help give context.

    Remember, you are the story-teller, but it’s not YOUR story.

  12. Great advice, Scott! Thank you!

    I have a little story I tell students about shooting at a farmers market. The typical student practice is to go up to a farmer selling stuff, interview him or her, shoot some totally boring shots of people buying vegetables, and go home. What’s really unfortunate is that the interview itself contains nothing new or unexpected — so it delivers nothing of interest.

    If instead the storyteller looked for something of visual interest — some activity that is at least a little unusual to see at a farmers market — he of she might find a farmer’s child playing or unloading crates or washing veggies. Shoot the child’s activity and then ask the farmer-parent about the child’s role in the market business.

    That simply, you have something that is at least a little bit different from 10,000 farmers market stories, and something more interesting to see than a person buying carrots.

  13. Yes, Mindy. Video is still something new for most print journalists, and I still see too many folks relying on templates and scripts – shoot your A-roll, which is usually a straight interview. In other words, a talking head. Then shoot B-roll so we don’t have to look at a talking head the whole time. And hopefully, some of that B-roll shows what the talking head is talking about.

    It’s a formula for bad television news. It’s hackneyed. The internet offers an opportunity for much richer story-telling.

    I’ve had the occasion to teach college journalism students still photography, and right from the start, I try to emphasize that the principles of visual story-telling apply to both still and video. All the technical stuff still applies, such as proper exposure, sharp focus, interesting composition, creative angles, etc. More important, however, is being patient and finding story-telling moments. Shooting people DOING what they do, instead of talking about what they do. In video, I hate series of one-second cutaways. It tells me that the photographer wasn’t really engaged in what they were shooting

    I might encourage folks to try this: instead of knocking out that talking head shot first, see how much of the story you can tell without the interview. Try letting the images and the audio tell the lion’s share of the story and then use an interview to give context .

    Every story is different, so different approaches are necessary. But some folks might be surprised at the results when they let images and nat sound dictate the tone of a story instead of a “word-first” approach.

    The best visual journalism uses images EXPAND on a story, rather than regurgitate what words already tell us. Words, visuals, and sound all work together to give a more complete reportage of events and issues than any of those disciplines can accomplish alone.

    I really believe that practicing journalists who embrace this approach will thrive, and journalism students who embrace this approach will be better prepared and more in-demand as they enter the field.

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