K.M. Weiland

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 Writerswritesmarternotharder.com/visual-fiction

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?