Writing for Visual Thinkers: A Guide for Artists and Designers, 2nd Edition

Writing for Visual Thinkers: Narrative Structures

Excerpted from Writing for Visual Thinkers: A Guide for Artists and Designers, 2nd Edition (New Riders)

By Andrea Marks


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.

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. 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 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. 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."

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 slideshare.net’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.

Image/Text Novels

A typical novel is usually printed in black and white, with little to no imagery: think of paperbacks that smell like newsprint and contain pages of justified text. Yet more and more examples can be seen of novels, both fiction and nonfiction, that push the boundaries of text and images in unconventional ways.

The book VAS: An Opera in Flatland is a unique novel that offers a visually rich, hybrid narrative. Author Steve Tomasula and illustrator Stephen Farrell use an exquisite array of visual concepts to illustrate the unique storyline. Another novel that does this in a more subtle way is the book Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer. Throughout the novel, the author intersperses devices such as black-and-white photographs, video stills, typographic experiments, graphic elements, and even blank pages to emphasize the poignant narrative of a child’s reality following 9/11.

Graphic designer, book artist, and performer Warren Lehrer is internationally known for his many books that incorporate text and imagery. These include Versations, I Mean You Know, French Fries, Nicky D. from L.I.C., Crossing the BLVD: Strangers, Neighbors, Aliens in a New America, and his latest book The Rise and Fall of Bleu Mobley: a life in books. Lehrer has been influential in crossing boundaries among words, design, art, and performance in both fictional and documentary narratives. His lectures are a combination of visual presentation and theater performance. As Lehrer says, “I’m interested in re-evaluating the rote way we tend to use language, the more pedestrian way we go about writing... I compose text and stories and when it is put into book form, I use typography as the vehicle to see that text realized so it becomes a composition.

Crossing the BLVD, 2003

French Fries, 1984

Hypertext Fiction

Non-traditional ways of reading, such as hypertext fiction, allow the reader to move through the narrative structure however they choose. Click on one link and you might end up rescuing people, but click on another link, you might fight in a battle. In essence, readers choose their own path in the narrative. An example of this in book form is the “Choose Your Own Adventure” series, in which the reader chooses a particular page and creates a new narrative.

Storyspace and HyperCard, two early hypertext programs, paved the way for more complex interactive environments. The use of hypermedia today extends far beyond these early programs, into stories, games, the Internet, art, and design. The hypertext fiction book Grammatron, by the artist and writer Mark Amerika, became a landmark cyber-novel and was one of the first pieces of Internet art to be accepted into the 2000 Whitney Biennial.

Graphic Novels/Comics

The term “graphic novel” typically refers to a comic-book-style story with an extended narrative, bound into a book form. This visual art form evolved from traditional comics, and over the past 10–15 years has become somewhat of a cult genre.

The graphic novel is a powerful visual storytelling medium, with its use of iconic visual language, hand-written type, and diverse sequencing of narratives. Graphic novels can help visual thinkers interpret and explore subject matter from historic to fantastical in new ways with few restrictions. They utilize literary devices such as symbolism, simile, allegory, and metaphor just as traditional books do, but their unique nature asks the reader to dig a little deeper into interpreting the story.

Image from graphic novel Wake the Devil, of the Hellboy series by Mike Mignola.

In 1969, the author John Updike (who was interested in becoming a cartoonist as a child) was giving a lecture addressing various new ways a novel might be presented. He stated: “I see no intrinsic reason why a doubly talented artist might not arise and create a comic strip novel masterpiece

While Updike’s lone genius theory has been realized in such masterpieces like Art Spiegelman’s Maus, more often graphic novels are group efforts, just as plays and films are. For example, the noir take on Batman, The Long Halloween, sports an almost film-length credit list: it’s written by Jeph Loeb, drawn by Tim Sale, has colors by Gregory Wright, letters by Richard Starkings and Comicraft, and thanks the creator of Batman, Bob Kane.

While many are quick to write off comics as foolish escapism, a new breed of comics has emerged that tells powerful personal narratives. In Art Spiegelman’s Maus, we see a child of Holocaust survivors come to understand both his parents’ eccentricities and their nightmarish past, told visually with Jews portrayed as mice and Germans as cats.

This visualization doesn’t soften the all-too-familiar stories of gas chambers and mass burial, but rather the use of familiar childhood symbols increases the dread and horror.

The simple drawings of Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis (video) allows us to place ourselves in the story of a rock-and-roll girl growing up in Iran during the Islamic revolution. Their abstract nature somehow allows us to relate to something alien to Western culture.

Even superheroes have grown up in modern graphic novels; Alan Moore’s Watchmen looks at psychosis as a source of “dressing up to fight crime” and represents it visually in Rorschach’s ink-blot mask.

One of the best ways to learn about comics is to read the bestselling book Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art by Scott McCloud. In this over 200 page black- and-white comic book, McCloud cleverly illustrates and analyzes the history of narrative structures and how words and pictures work together to communicate ideas.

The following list of noteworthy graphic novels/comics reveals a wide variety of stories, from the more classic “superhero” genre (Watchmen and Dark Knight), to Sandman’s straddling classical and comic mythology, to Maus’s personal retelling of history.

Maus: A Survivor’s Tale by Art Spiegelman (1992 Pulitzer Prize Winner)

Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons

The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller

Bone: One Volume Edition by Jeff Smith

The Sandman by Neil Gaiman

Palestine, Safe Area Goražde, The Fixer by Joe Sacco

Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi

American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang

Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth by Chris Ware

Fun Home; a family tragicomic by Alison Bechdel

Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud

Zap Comix, Keep On Truckin’ by R Crumb

American Splendor by Harvey Pekar

With so many exciting examples in our image/text-rich culture, now is a great time to explore narrative structures and how the visual and verbal work together. The interesting visual-verbal connections in presentations, illustrated novels, interactive stories, and highly visual graphic novels add richness to the ways we communicate. Working with a visual project as a narrative strengthens both your verbal and your visual thinking. So, think about your next project as a story and explore the many ways it can be told.

Internet narrative

The Internet is a perfect tool to explore a narrative structure. Each time you click on a website or a link, you have created a path or thread. Create a short written narrative based on the last 10 links or sites you visited on the Internet. How could you write a story based on the order of your exploration?

Look at a picture

Find an image with people in it and think about what they see when they are looking outside the frame of the picture. This forces you to write from a different point of view.

Making marks

Find an existing artifact that contains writing (for example, an old phone book or a brown grocery bag) and make marks (visual, words) over the existing text to create a new visual piece.

Open the mystery drawer

Everyone has a drawer (usually in the kitchen) filled with random objects such as keys, pennies, old batteries, birthday candles, matchbooks, and tape. Determine the order the objects seem to have been added to the drawer and base a narrative on that.

Find five quotes

Find five quotes that inspire you about art or design. Next, write a one-page story and insert these quotes within the story, as part of the narrative. This can be a personal narrative, fiction, or a combination. Place quote marks around the quotes, but it is not necessary to include who said the quote within the story. (The citation can be placed at the very end of your story.)

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Excerpted from Writing for Visual Thinkers: A Guide for Artists and Designers, 2nd Edition by Andrea Marks. Copyright © 2011. Used with permission of Pearson Education, Inc. and and New Riders.