The Beginner’s Guide to Visual Story Telling

The Beginner's Guide to Visual Story Telling                                                                  



We live in a world where stories are told in many different ways. Sharing stories is what makes communication so great. Of course there are many ways of transmitting a message. For instance, street signs make road communication possible.

Communication amongst humans started with symbols painted on rocks. The oldest known cave painting is located in Chauvet, southern France, and dates 30.000 to 35.000 years old. As humans developed, so did their language. Symbols were slowly integrated into paintings. Pictograms are photo-writing stories that in turn developed into ideograms: graphic symbols. The first writing system is believed to date back 4000 years. Spoken language developed from the need to vocalize those symbols.  Interpretation by phonetics means that we have to use our voice to deliver the message. This brought enormous advantages to civilization, myths and legends spread through the spoken word.

With the advent of the printing press at the beginning of the fifteenth Century, stories began to travel to various regions at a higher speed. Visual arts produced a need to add extra meaning to those stories. Religious myths were explained, royals lives were represented, wars were brought to public attention, and political propaganda became popular.  The idea of visualizing words became crucial in understanding the backgrounds of the stories, and so visual artists were the great masters of the centuries that followed.

The first newspaper was published in Antwerp at the beginning of the seventeenth century and the rest is history. Written language would compete for space with all sorts of pictures. News reports were accompanied by an explanatory image. Thus the image supports the written word, reaffirms the events and gives context to the story. Besides, an article that features at least one photograph is much more interesting, and helps the reader to relate to the events.

Images can have a great impact, they are easy to remember, they don’t need to adapt to any particular language and don’t require any extra effort to be understood.  Images feed our daily need to visualize happenings, staying longer in our unconscious mind. The universal language is visual; imagine a world without images. Nowadays, the increasing urge to share images, has opened new ways of communicating. Everyone can participate in the process of sharing a story. Visual communication is the twenty first century’s most popular language.


  The Story:


The story is delivered to an audience, which has varying levels of perception. Therefore, the delivery must be clear, besides having a common thread which is the essence of the story. The general pattern of written novels should be applied to any story.

The beginning gives some background information and presents the main characters.

The second part is the conflict characters have to resolve, the antagonistic forces that stand against their happiness. For instance, not an antagonist force, but a childhood experience leaves the central character traumatized. It could be one of a hundred of things from war to domestic issues. Anything that must be resolved and stands in the way of the central character’s well-being is the story’s starting point. From that point the story develops further.

The end could be open, which means the issues are left unresolved and the viewer has to visualize the finale. There are also tragic endings, or the classic Hollywood happy endings. Further, some stories leave the scenario open for potential sequels, so more stories are written based on the very first drama.

In the case of photography some stories are only staged for the sake of the pictures and others are real stories portrayed by the photographer. The angle used to describe the story could be influenced by the photographer’s point of view, the publishing house’s own agenda or the newspaper’s tone of voice. Therefore, sometimes it’s difficult to unveil the real story behind the lens. For example, a sensationalist newspaper is not going to portray the story in a clear and objective way, since their mission is to sell drama and shock the reader. The story represents a biased point of view with little or no detail of the real story.

It’s good practice to tell the point of view from various sides of the story; although, it may be difficult to achieve full objectivity. This is because story tellers tell the story according to their own personal view of the events. Although they may try to be objective and distance themselves from the events, they still use cultural references which helps them to pin point the issues they identify with more.

In conclusion, many factors influence our take on the story. There are times when it’s quite difficult to give a clear recount of the events, but the main priority is to stay true to them. In addition, you must keep the central thread/ aesthetics running. The feeling, the views, the environment, the colours and the characters must all be united by a common element.


  The Visuals:


Nowadays technology provides great tools for visual communication. Mobiles phones have very successfully reported events as they happened. But anything is useful to tell a story, for instance a disposable camera would be the perfect companion for recording someone’s day trip.

Visual aids allow us to define the story. The camera is a tool to recount the events. The events could be presented in many different formats. Video cameras have long dug into the hidden corners of the world, alongside still image cameras and more recently mobile phones.


Video Cameras:

The moving image gives the story a fast pace, immersing the viewer in the world of its protagonists. Since access to the story is very immediate the public can easily relate to the characters, even if they are in another corner of the world. The story unfolds by the minute, so viewers have to get a grip on events at the same time as the characters. Detailed analysis is left for later. Viewers can also feel more sympathetic towards certain characters as they identify themselves with their morals, behaviours and style.


Photographic Cameras:

The still image is the product of an experience recounted by the photographer. Because it’s static the viewer has time to gather some background information about the topic, observing the aesthetics in detail and the message the photograph is trying to convey. The still image gives time for contemplation.

In addition, many photographic cameras have a video option, meaning we can add movement to the still image. Photo stories are often reinforced with a short introductory video.


Mobile Phones:

Mobile phones are a hybrid between the video camera and the photo camera. The difference is that the mobile phone has an immediacy that the other gears don’t. It can record events without having to think too much about the aesthetics of the story. Besides, a mobile phone doesn’t require solid technological skills to be used.  Anyone can be a citizen journalist and report the story in a raw, factual and sometimes shocking way.


In conclusion, the impact of the story depends on the tools used to present it.  Each way of telling a story has its own characteristics. The choice depends on how you want the story to be portrayed and the sort of message you want to bring. Visual language speaks for itself. However, the format implies numerous meanings. Visuals help you to define the facts of the writing content, each element aids the other.  There are also many options in the editing process to make the story more interesting to the viewer.


The story should follow a common thread and have a clear message. For example, if you are focusing on the life of an immigrant in the city, it would be good to pay attention to his story before coming into the city, his motivations, and his dreams in his new habitat. You should find a balance between the past, the present environment and the hopes for the future.


I recommend keeping it simple and focusing on things that are familiar to you. Why? Simply because the subjects you encounter in your daily life are easier to relate to. This doesn’t mean that if you travel far, you won’t come back with a great story. As long as you are honest, the story will feel real to the viewer.  Be thoughtful, do some research on the topic and ask as many questions as possible. It’s also a good practice to recount multiple versions of the events, especially if you are talking about a controversial issue. Visual story telling is not only a way of communicating realities, it’s also a way of representing those realities – bringing them to life, and sharing stories with other people is what makes visual story telling so fascinating.