What do Neanderthals and silent movies show? That telling stories with images is deeply rooted in our genes and ignites our souls. Below, we show you what makes a good visual for modern storytelling and explain why context, authenticity, tension, and focus are important.
1. Show, don’t tell
A good story needs only a few words when it’s backed by images: “a picture is worth a thousand words”. Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton films may be old, but they are some of the greatest film classics of all time – and they are silent movies. They used the power of showing without words, because when they were made synchronous recording was technically impossible. These days, movies no longer have to be silent. Nevertheless, examples exist of very good films with only a few words, for example, “Wall-E”, “Cast Away” and “The Artist”. So as a visual storyteller, you need to think about what content has to be told and what can be shown.
2. Context is everything
If we follow a character long enough with the camera, sooner or later viewers will assume that this is the protagonist. If he or she is dressed in a space suit, everyone assumes they are seeing an astronaut. Not a single spoken word is needed – it is already the beginning of a story. It is the result of assumptions made by the audience, which are suggested by the images. You can get creative and play with these assumptions – to build tension and surprise, to show something outrageous, something extraordinary, something to remember. The film “The Sixth Sense” was famous for exactly this kind of storytelling. Some characters were not what the context made you assume.
In creating context, the target audience plays an important role. Not everyone understands every context, and if they do, not necessarily in the same way. Perception depends a lot on factors like sociodemographics, culture, age, and more. A film targeted at millennials looks different than a video for senior citizens.
3. People want to see people
Sometimes it won’t be as easy for viewers to make assumptions as in the above example of an astronaut. But it’s critical for you to give them some clues because the sooner the audience can identify with (parts of) what is shown, the better the film will be received. The same rule applies to leading characters: in the series “The Big Bang Theory” the majority of the audience does not identify with Sheldon, but rather with Leonard or Penny. In “Back to the Future” it’s not Doc who’s in the lead, but Marty McFly. No wonder: A young man who is interested in music, skateboards and video games is more relatable than a nuclear physicist.
4. Be yourself
Videos that portray people authentically are demonstrably more successful than those that exaggerate. The sooner the viewer can identify with the person or situation shown, the more successful the video will be. True stories are more powerful than fiction because they could have happened to someone like you or me. The best proof of this is Steven Spielberg’s career. He first received an Oscar for “Schindler’s List”, a true story about the Holocaust. His earlier films “E.T.” and “Jaws” were extremely successful, but they weren’t enough to earn him an award.
Problems and conflict drive every story. No conflict or problem, no story. Conflicts or problems always arise when someone wants something, needs something or has to solve something and fight for it – be it an object, a love, an everyday problem, or sheer survival.
And if you really want to grab your audience, set the story in a place that viewers don’t get to see every day. But that’s luxury because often you can’t choose the location.
Get focused. Don’t take a minute to say something that can be said in ten seconds. With too many details you lose your audience. They are either overwhelmed or bored. And it’s not just about the variety of topics in the video, but much more fundamental. It’s about the structure of the image. Photographers know the lesson well: The way you arrange things in your picture can convey huge amounts of information, and at the same time create critical context for the viewer. Just like in photography, the rule of thirds applies to videos. The rule says that when you divide a screen into thirds horizontally and vertically by lines, the points where the lines cross are focal points that naturally attract the eye. These four points divide the image into four quadrants. Each of these can play a different role in the structure of the image. Clever use of the rule of thirds can direct the viewer’s attention to the information you want them to see, distract them from something, force them to make assumptions, and otherwise give you control over their perception of the scene.
7. Move, move, move!
Because stories flow, the images in the video must typically move. Nothing is more boring than a static lecture video or an interview taken from a single angle. Stories need a storyline. A timeline, a plan, or an arc to get from A to B. Standstill is generally bad. Monotony is boring. And once bored, it’s hard to win the audience attention back. So if possible, always film interview scenes, weddings, lectures, and similar events from at least two angles. If you can’t shoot with more than one camera, consider taking your camera off the tripod and move it dynamically. That’s not right for every situation, but it can sometimes work very effectively. Depending upon the type of video you decide to make, change of scenery, quick cuts between clips, or stories within the story can be great vehicles to create action and surprise.
8. Be unique.
Stories that surprise through suspense, play with context or have unexpected composition are stories that viewers remember. The wedding dance, which starts as a classical waltz and then turns into a frantic breakdance, stands out as unique in the viewer’s memory. There are many possible stylistic elements for this, from confrontation with unprecedented facts to sudden twists in the story, to unique editing techniques. Such uniqueness can arise in several stages of making a video such as creating the storyline, changing plans spontaneously during the shoot, or even in postproduction. Get creative and find ways to be unique.
9. Use clear visual language
Unless you’re intentionally trying to cause confusion or doubt in your viewer’s mind, leave no room for interpretation where there is more than one possibility. The visuals must convey your message unmistakably and as quickly as possible. As we discussed earlier, use photographic techniques that increase attention or direct the eye to specific elements of the picture. Common, industry accepted techniques (like the rule of thirds we talked about) usually work best, but don’t forget to be creative and unique either.