Visual Storytelling: Adding pictures to words

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Visual StorytellingA couple summer ago, I was fortunate to spend an afternoon at a workshop with Sarah Leavitt, a graphic novelist who published a memoir of her mother’s decline with Alzheimer’s. Our focus was the basics of visual storytelling, or what’s known in some circles as “graphic forms” and in others as “comic books.”

It was a fascinating session that really made me think differently about outlining, editing and what’s needed to create an image in a reader’s mind. I still use some of the techniques Sarah shared when I’m having trouble with a really sticky bit of writing – when I want to turn something into a scene, as opposed to exposition, or when I’m trying to breath energy into a passage that’s flat or extraneous. Sometimes being forced to boil the story down to six key beats to develop a panel really helps sharpen my thinking around what’s important and what could be collapsed, integrated, explained differently or else forgotten entirely.

Recently, I spent a morning with Kyo Mclear, a noted picture book maker, who talked about a few of her inspirations and how narrating picture books can help develop storytelling skills for other formats, whether poetry, prose, theatre or even non-fiction.

Here’s one of many points she raised that’s worthy of just holding in one’s mind: the idea of counterpoint. Most picture books we remember from childhood have words and pictures working in perfect harmony. James liked to sit next to Rebecca on the bus ride to school would be accompanied by a picture of James and Rebecca sitting side-by-side on a bus, smiling.

But Kyo encouraged us to think about ways to have text and illustration go further, to deepen the uncertainty of what we’re reading or seeing and to play with ambiguity and slipperiness.

There’s something a bit delicious about that. Ambiguity and slipperiness.

James liked to sit next to Rebecca on the bus ride to school could be paired with a picture of the two of them deviously launching hard candies at their fellow passengers. It could have them separated, looking longing toward one another. It could show James beaming and Rebecca looking like she’d rather be at the dentist. All of that enriches the words – they give extra (and sometimes completely contradictory) information.

Maclear also talked about the techniques picture book writers and illustrators use to change up the pacing of their stories, whether allowing the pictures to take over the book for a while, which can invoke a sense of quietness, so that you, the reader, can concentrate on the details without the chatter of dialogue or narration. White space can help make the text or picture feel particularly poignant; it can build emotion. Sequential panels – bubbles, circles, anything to contain more than one image on the page – can speed up the action, churning us closer and closer to some kind of conflict or change.

The page turn is a way to heighten tension and build suspense. It’s interesting to think about this, in today’s digital world, that the reader can, in essence, control whether he or she turns the page and whether she first stops to savour the mystery of what comes next or races headlong into the void.

I don’t have children and so I don’t have an obvious reason to read picture books, aside from being drawn in by the art. So I was surprised to hear the wide variety of subjects that these types of books tackle, considering their audiences are often pre-literate. Dictatorships. Loneliness. Isolation or exclusion. A sense of otherness. Even death.

We ended the morning with an exercise. Kyo had us view a series of images, all containing some kind of tension or conflict, and then challenged us to write a passage to go along with it, using some of the story techniques we’d discussed.

Here are a few examples:

visual storytelling

As we discovered in class, one image sparked multiple ideas, with at least three students taking the image of the whale in a teacup in entirely different directions, each wonderful in their own right.

A couple recommendations from Kyo for further reading:

(Photo courtesy of Pixabay. To order prints of the above writing prompts, clink on the links embedded in the photos.)

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