Month: June 2021

How Visual Storytelling Solves 3 Big Problems for Fiction Writers

Try the exercise at the end of this post to improve your visual storytelling skills.

Right now, I’m doing a deep dive into visual storytelling — using imagery as a form of exposition, showing more and telling less.

Visual storytelling solves three big problems that you face every time you write a story:

Problem #1: How do you draw the reader into the story as quickly as possible? 

Problem #2: How do you keep your reader immersed in the story despite all of life’s distractions — and make it easy for them to get back into the story after they’ve put it down?

Problem #3: How do you make it easy for your fans to convince their friends to read your book?

Why is visual storytelling so powerful?

Because our brains have evolved to associate words with images — so strongly that a 2017 Harvard study found that participants couldn’t help visualizing sentences that they were reading, even when they were asked not to. Your readers automatically start seeing a mental movie when they read the very first sentence of your story.

And when you use imagery to convey information about your characters and their story world, you’re helping the reader make a more engaging mental movie with less effort.

If you incorporate visual storytelling into your first scene, your reader doesn’t have to work as hard to put themselves into the story world. As a result, they have more mental energy to bond with your characters. (Problem #1 solved!)

If you use visual storytelling throughout the book to spark your reader’s imagination, it’s less effort for them to stay submerged in the story world. When you use visual images that are evocative and memorable, it’s easier for your reader to remember the last thing they read and to reconnect with your story’s emotional journey when they pick up the book again. (Problem #2 solved!)

If you use visual storytelling to reinforce your story’s big moments, those moments will stay with your reader — they’ll describe some of those images as they’re telling their friends about your story. 

Guess what? That means potential new readers see a “trailer” for your book as they listen to a friend talk about their favorite moments from your book. As they listen, they can’t help but make their own mental movie based on what they’re hearing. (And the more interesting the images, the more exciting that mental trailer will be.)

How can you get better at visual storytelling?

A lot has been written about how important it is to include the five senses in your writing (or the 20+ senses, if you’re up on the latest research in sensory perception).

But there isn’t much written about how to tell stories through imagery — at least not for novelists. (Most of the books seem to be for film directors, focusing heavily on types of camera shots.)

The best resource I’ve found so far for novelists is this blog post by K.M. Weiland at Writers Helping

It’s a great place to start — but I also want to train myself to think visually when I’m writing.

For that, I’m studying graphic novels.

Graphic novels combine the visual aspects of film and tv with some of the same techniques we use in prose storytelling: dialogue, interior monologue, and narrative exposition.

Here’s the exercise I’m using, if you want to try it too:

Try covering up the words in a single panel of a graphic novel or comic, so you can study the image.

What’s happening in the image?

What do you know without seeing what the characters are saying or thinking?

What can you guess without reading the “voiceover” explanation at the top of the panel, if there is one?

Once you’ve identified everything that’s happening in the image, uncover the text. 

How good was your guess?

Does the image convey the same information that the words do? Or does it convey something else?

Does the image reinforce the text? Or does contrast with the text, creating ambiguity or double-meaning?

How do you use visual imagery in your writing? Do you think about imagery before you write, or does it emerge naturally in the draft? 

4 counter-intuitive workarounds to help you keep writing (or get back on track)

I didn’t mean to go so long without posting. It feels like forever — and hardly any time at all.

I could tell you all the ways my life fell apart last year, but I’d rather do something helpful: share the lessons that 2020 taught me about writing when life has other plans for you.

Right before I got sick with covid-19, I’d made commitments that would have been ambitious for healthy me: collaborating on novels for two different pen names, as well as co-authoring a nonfiction series about making sure your story’s emotional journey is as strong as it could be. 

If I’d known what was coming, I might have postponed some projects, but I was being optimistic. I figured I’d need a few weeks of rest before I’d be ready to work again.

A month later, I was getting worse instead of better. 

And I started to feel panicky about how far behind I was falling. The way I was used to working wasn’t working. 

Out of desperation, I started doing some big experiments — here are four things that worked and four things that didn’t work:

What didn’t work: Setting SMART goals and creating a detailed plan. I never had to wonder what to do next, but I also didn’t have the energy or focus to execute on anything. My word count plummeted, but my despair skyrocketed.

What did work: I lowered the bar — so low, it was practically on the ground. I let myself write in 15-minute sprints, and when that was too stressful, I aimed for 100 words, then a break. If something felt too hard to write, I let myself put in placeholders like “describe the tower later” or “fistfight goes here.” And when I was editing, if I couldn’t see a fix, I left myself a note about what felt wrong and moved on. And I napped as much as I worked.

I couldn’t believe it when my word count went up. So I choose two more things to try.

What didn’t work: Being more disciplined about sticking to a minimum number of timed writing sessions. This works great for me when I’m healthy — or even mildly ill — but I was so sick that I would run out of creative energy before I’d done all my sessions. Spending more time at the keyboard didn’t result in more words, it just made me more tired the next day.

What did work: “Writing about the writing.” Long ago, I’d read a book by a therapist who specialized in helping writers break through writer’s block, and his primary technique was to get them journaling about the thing they weren’t ready to write. So I started each day by freewriting about the day’s work — what I thought might happen in the outline, what I wasn’t sure about yet, how I wanted the reader to feel at the end of the next scene, or even about what shouldn’t go in the scene.

My word count didn’t go up, but the words I did write started to come more easily, and I was feeling less exhausted at the end of the day. And I started to find passages in my journal that I could retype into the document as-is.

But I was heading into the worst of the illness at this point, and my energy started dropping again. Feeling panicky, I tried two more experiments:

What didn’t work: Bribing myself to get the work done in the morning, before my energy ebbed. But a bribe doesn’t motivate much when you’re too sick to enjoy it.

What did work: Giving myself more daydreaming time. Rather than forcing myself to sit at my desk after the words had dried up, I wrapped myself up in a warm, fluffy blanket on the couch and let my mind wander around the topic of my project. Ideas would come, and I jotted them down. Sometimes they turned into complete sentences or paragraphs that weren’t half bad. Other times, I woke up from an unintended nap to a half-written sentence.

My word count fluctuated wildly, and I worried that the daydreaming time might be a waste of time; I was getting a lot of ideas, but they weren’t necessarily translating into more words on the page (yet). But I was too tired to spend that time writing anyway, so I kept at it.

Once I turned the corner and entered the recovery phase, I had more energy to write — but I also had more energy to panic. And there was plenty to panic about. I was months behind on everything. I would have to write almost twice as fast as usual to catch up.

But I hadn’t even gotten back up to my pre-covid word count yet.

So I went back to the drawing board.

What didn’t work: Starting a writing streak. Scheduled writing sessions had always worked better for me than a streak in the past, but the old rules no longer seemed to apply, and I hoped that my desperation might be enough to keep the streak going. But there were still a lot of ups and downs: one day I’d write for 5-6 hours, the next day I’d be back on the couch, writing 100 words at a time. And every time I broke the streak, I felt more demoralized than before.

What did work: Immersive incubation — I’ve been a fan of keeping your project front and center for a long time, but now I took it to an extreme. I re-read the previous day’s work or reviewed my outline before I got out of bed, and again before falling asleep. If I couldn’t write, I edited what I’d written before. If I couldn’t outline, I spent my writing session re-reading my character work and daydreaming about the characters’ some more. 

Surprisingly, my word counts jumped up by more than 50% — even though I wasn’t spending more time at the computer, I was writing more words per hour, and they were coming more easily. I also started recognizing that many of my new ideas had taken root during those daydreaming sessions. 

For the rest of the year, I kept up these four practices, and as my body slowly recovered, so did my productivity. 

When I tallied my word count at the end of 2020, I was shocked to discover that I had written more than half a million words. 

But more importantly, this year of illness reminded me of two things:

First, it reminded me that no matter how long you’ve been writing, there are still things you can do to improve your creative process. (And I’ll share some of the other things I did in another email.)

Second, it reminded me how powerful creativity can be, when we’re willing to meet it halfway. Like the daisy that pushes up through a crack in the pavement to reach for the sun, your creativity is always looking for a way to express itself. Even in the worst times.

It’s easy to lose faith in your creativity when life falls apart, but your creativity will never lose faith in you.

Action Prompts:

  1. Is there some area of your creative process where it might be worth lowering the bar to take the pressure off?
  2. What journaling prompts might help you see your work-in-progress from another perspective?
  3. Can you set aside 5-10 minutes today to daydream about your one current projects?
  4. What could you do to immerse yourself more deeply in the story you’re writing?