I love visual art. I particularly love the art of film, but all visual art is pretty spectacular: illustration, sculpture, architecture, and graphic design—all of it.
Now I know not every single bit of visual art is meant to tell a whole story. Maybe it’s just supposed to evoke a feeling, or in the case of product design, for example, it’s supposed to improve functionality. But there are many pieces of visual art that DO tell stories, just the way writers do.
Think of your favorite painting, or other piece of fine art. What colors are used with the piece? If it represents a human or an animal, what facial expressions are there? What kind of stuff is going on in the background? All these things tell a story
Let’s take my favorite painting, “A Girl Reading” by Johann Georg Meyer, and ask those questions.
The colors are very warm and earthy, with red and golden tones being dominant, which evokes as sense of coziness and well being. The little girl has an expression frozen somewhere between amusement and annoyance, and her posture implies she’s quite comfortable reading that book. She’s sitting in what could be a farm kitchen; plaster walls that are cracking, fruit bearing plants, a bottle of wine, huge window, rustic wooden table and bench, and a canary in a cage.
All those things tell us something about the girl. Especially that book. We know she is educated, and for being so young, this implied she was from at least a middle class family. The forgotten knitting also intrigues me.
It seems as though Mom or Housekeeper caught our heroine taking a break from some chores, or has come to find her to do her chores. I imagine she’s from a happy family, educated and financially stable. I could build a whole backstory for this girl solely based on the moment the artist captured, because Meyer is telling a story.
What is important here is the relationship Meyer is building with his audience. He’s pulling us in, getting us to think and imagine—the same thing writers do with poetry, or the precious first few lines in a book.
Film is an especially powerful storytelling tool because it can adds an element written or static visual art doesn’t usually have: sound. Whether through the absence of music or the focus on one particular ambient noise, sound really enhances the experience.
And keep in mind when I say “film” I don’t just mean big-screen stuff, I’m including televisions and film shorts, as well.
“Peaky Blinders,” a BBC series about street gangs in 1919, is an exceptional example of visual storytelling. My favorite part about the production is that they really make an effort to utilize every tool they can to tell the story: camera angles, lighting, music, slow motion effects, costume, ambient noise, and even the (artificial) weather.
My favorite scene is between Cillian Murphy, a gangster, and Sam Neil, who plays a copper. They have come to this ridiculously ornate public tearoom on neutral ground to conduct negotiations. The walls are pink and covered with floral paintings. The tables are dressed with white clothes, delicate porcelain, and gold or silver serving towers. Murphy and Neil are dressed in charcoal wool suits. They sit opposite from each other at the table and start whispering.
During their conversation, two cameras are at work, one shooting over each man’s shoulder and zoomed close to the other’s face, focusing on eyes or mouths. Everything feels secret and tense. The pink walls and ornate furnishings enhance the ridiculousness of two enemies negotiating a peace. Two brutal men trying to be civilized.
You can’t hear anything but their conversation until the camera pulls out, at which point ambient noise filters back in. Teacups clinking, people murmuring.
It’s a glorious scene, a story unto itself. The whole series if full of moments like that, which really help with layered character development. The producers also like to film key moments in slow motion, without sound, and then overlay moody music on top. I love that.
I describe this scene in detail a) because I can’t find a production still or video clip to use and b) because we, as writers, can write scenes like this.
They don’t all have to be like that—there’s something to be said for vague or sparse descriptions—but if you want to highlight something, incorporating detail in juxtaposition is a great way to do it.
So here is your challenge, my doves. In the next few weeks, study a visual artist. How do they tell a story? Pick a painting, or a scene from your favorite movie. Really analyze it—don’t be afraid to over think things in this context, it’s going to help you. Figure out what helps to drive the story the artist wants to get across.
Befriend a visual artist and learn from one another.