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Writing for Visual Thinkers: Narrative Structures

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The interesting visual-verbal connections in presentations, illustrated novels, interactive stories, and highly visual graphic novels add richness to the ways we communicate. In this chapter from her book, Andrea Marks explores the craft of narrative in these media and suggests some projects to strengthen both your verbal and your visual thinking.
This chapter is from the book
  • How does the word “narrative” relate to both written and visual work? Narrative structures are embedded in a story to help give the story a framework. Narrative moves a person through a story in a pleasurable and compelling fashion. A narrative can be heard, as in a radio play; it can be watched, as in a film; it can be read, as in a novel; it can be danced to, as in a song; and even seen/read, as in a graphic novel. Narrative structures vary depending on the medium and the purpose. A traditional linear narrative structure typically depends on a page-to-page reading for comprehension. A nonlinear narrative allows for the reader to move independently throughout a piece, often creating new meanings from discovering connections. But they all share one important and all so human job: to tell us a story.


Storytelling is a core human experience. Stories help us see how others view the world and help us find meaning in our lives. They help us grieve, help us celebrate, console us, and reinvent us. They are used in school to teach, in business to improve work habits, and in entertainment to escape. Stories are the difference between pain and pleasure in any communication activity.

Storytelling began as an oral tradition, combining speech with gestures, expressions, and sometimes music to help storytellers remember the narrative. With the development of writing, stories could be not only documented and preserved, but further enriched with illustrations. Finding intersections in your visual and verbal work can strengthen both. Think of your next visual project as a story to be told.

Jakob Trollbäck, president and creative director of Trollbäck + Company, talks about his storytelling approach to visual problem solving in his article “One Designer Shares: How to Use Design to Tell a Story.” Trollbäck combines writing narratives and sketching in his process, whether creating a new company brand or an animation. He views “design as a language and as a way to communicate,” and begins many projects by picking up a pen and writing a script.

The script can help organize thoughts and reveal “the essence of your approach.” He asks questions such as “what’s the idea and philosophy of the approach?” The script helps determine the premise of the story, or as Trollbäck refers to it, the “plot” of the story. Next, he looks at adding the necessary elements to help give the story its richness. He calls this “setting the scene.” His list of places to find inspiration for these elements includes poems, movies, architecture, music, dance, anything that moves him. Trollbäck will often create a project for one medium, say, film, and then re-create the same story in another medium like print. This allows him to see how the message or story holds up.1

Approaching a visual project from a storytelling perspective can bring a unique richness to the final message. The following examples show how narrative structures appear in various media.

Slide shows

When we think of slide software, we usually think about the countless slide presentations we have sat through with too much bulleted text, too many incomprehensible graphs, combined with clip art in a color that is difficult to read. In the hands of one who understands visual narrative, a PowerPoint (or Keynote) presentation can turbocharge a message. A picture is worth a thousand words. Some caveats apply, though...

According to Edward Tufte, (video) slideware such as PowerPoint has forced a profusion of bad content upon unknowing and innocent audiences. In the article titled “PowerPoint is Evil,” he states, “Rather than learning to write a report using sentences, children are being taught how to formulate client pitches and infomercials. Elementary school PowerPoint exercises (as seen in teacher guides and in student work posted on the Internet) typically consist of 10 to 20 words and a piece of clip art on each slide in a presentation of three to six slides—a total of perhaps 80 words (15 seconds of silent reading) for a week of work.”2 Tufte, author of the award-winning books The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, Envisioning Information, Visual Explanations, and his latest book, Beautiful Evidence, is a master at revealing how complex information (text and images) can in fact be both beautiful and meaningful. His argument is that software such as PowerPoint, when used without an understanding of narrative structures, image use, and typography, encourages presenters to create short, bulleted info bites, often at the cost of the content itself.

Fortunately, artists and designers are in a position to create both beautiful and meaningful electronic narrative presentations. As visual thinkers, their understanding of both the formal and theoretical framework of narrative structure puts them in a unique position to create powerful slide shows that make sense. Understanding text/image relationships (what is stated and how it looks) is key to helping an audience see the power in a visual narrative.

The musician and artist David Byrne (video) has been using PowerPoint as an art medium for several years. Byrne defends the software as “more than just a business tool—as a medium for art and theater.”3 His book E.E.E.I. (Envisioning Emotional Epistemological Information) is a collection of images and essays packaged with a DVD of five of his visual/audio PowerPoint presentations. Byrne took advantage of what the software had to offer (automatic slide shows, simple transitions, symbols) and combined these with his own photographs and music. As Byrne notes, “Although I began by making fun of the medium, I soon realized I could actually create things that were beautiful. I could bend the program to my own whim and use it as an artistic agent.”4

Think of a slide show like any multiple-page document. The slide show “Death by PowerPoint” does a great job of illustrating the dos and don’ts of slide presentations. There should be a clear introduction to the topic, supporting points, and a summary ending. Take advantage of what the medium has to offer (a simple but effective narrative structure, ease of combining words and images) and build a compelling story. Never forget that there is a person talking; remember the slide show is a complement to the script and shouldn’t be the script.

Explore’s slidecasts area for more examples of ways in which visual narratives are combined with audio podcasts. As well, a rich visual presentation such as Al Gore’s documentary An Inconvenient Truth can help visual thinkers see relationships between the visual and the verbal. No matter what you think of his politics, the combination of verbal and visual in Gore’s talk was compelling enough to both raise awareness of global warming and win the man a Nobel prize.

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