How To Add Story To Your Images

And Make Them Worth More Than 1,000 Words

Last week we discussed Aristotle and his Poetics. Those concepts are easy to apply to moving projects such as films, short films and animations, however much more difficult to use when working in still or static images.

This doesn’t mean that we can’t use these same principles and receive the same benefits (ie a soul in our work), but it does require a little extra thought and planning. Today we’re going to spend a little bit of time making that process easier.

First Off, Why Is It More Difficult?

In an animation you have the luxury of 24-30 frames per second in which to tell your story. You can literally make things move, have elements react to one another, and at times speak. You can show the beginning, everything that happens in the middle, and finish up with a fantastic ending without worrying too much about the process beyond translating the story into scenes.

With still images the opposite is true. You have one image which can be viewed for as long as you or the person looking at it desires. In that image you need to somehow hint at a past, show what’s going on in the present, and fore-shadow or point to a likely future. You also need to build your world, add context to the scene, breathe life into your characters, and create a pleasing composition.

Is it any wonder we get stressed out when creating a concept or putting together a new portfolio piece?

Plot and Character

If you’ve not read the post walking you through the 6 Principles of Tragedy, take a moment to do so now.

Plot and Character are the first two principles and the most important aspects of storytelling. Before we can apply our story to a still image, we must first create a story that works. Newsletter subscribers received an in-depth exercise on determining plot and character last week but if you missed it, go ahead and sign up now and I will be happy to share it with you.

Here’s a really high level summary of the steps;

  1. Determine what the story is about. Usually done in one line describing the ending and the twist. For example, The Prince Gets his Princess (the ending) but to do so he must defeat Death (the twist).
  2. Starting at the end and working backwards, determine what action took place directly before the current one. Example; The prince gets his princess. Before that, he awakens to find his sword gone. Before that he plunges the sword into Death’s hourglass (while dreaming). Etc
  3. After you’ve reached the beginning of the story, go back to the end and from the viewpoint of the main character figure out their actions and Why they acted as they did. For example, our main character is the Prince so we would go to the end where he gets the princess, and figure out why he did it. In this case, you have two answers; He defeated Death for her, and He needed a Princess to become King. You’d work back through the story until the beginning figuring out the literal motivations and the emotional reasons.
  4. Do the same for any sub characters that are still important.
  5. Write it all out in order into an outline. Et voila, you have a plot that makes sense and fleshed out characters.

Choosing a Good Snapshot

If you were working on a moving project you’d then progress to writing the full script, but since we’re working with a still image our next step is to choose the most interesting scene in the story. This lends itself to art series really well as there can be more than one ‘Good bit’ in your plot and it can feed into multiple pieces.

For our purposes you want to choose a point in the story where something pivotal is about to happen, or has just happened. A moment of tension where you can visually represent a decision. It doesn’t have to be the most action packed scene or the highest stake choice, and what you choose comes down to personal preference. In our Prince example this could mean choosing the moment where he strikes Death down, where he returns to the girl, before he rides off on his quest and is unaware of what’s about to happen or any other point in between.

Motivation, Mood, and Mannerisms

Once you have chosen a point in the story that you want to create your art around, then you get to have a little fun with it. From the plot you already know what the major pieces of your scene will have to be. What you don’t know (and now get to play with) are the little details surrounding that scene.

As part of planning your scene you need to take the 3 Ms into account.

Motivation – What has your character/plot done just prior to and what is happening right after this scene. Is there anything that could visually represent either the past or the future (or both) in a subtle way? If you can, this is a good way to add a sense of time to your art and realism to your character.

Mood – What is your character feeling? How can you show that in the posture, lighting, expression, and composition? If its a complicated set of emotions, how do you honour each one and blend it into a cohesive whole?

Mannerisms – What are your characters quirks? If your scene catches them at a moment where it would be obvious, is there a way to include it? Or, if less obvious, is there some prop or allusion you can make to the habit? Even something as simple as tobacco stains on a couple of fingers adds life and depth to your character.

Take some time to feel your way around the scene, the moment you’re capturing, and the character you’ve created. Having taken the time to really work out the story and plot will help with this. It should be fun – you get to discover all sorts of little things you wouldn’t have thought of initially and hide them in the scene for people to find if they’re looking.

Creating a Composition

With all the information you have gathered this part should be fairly straightforward. You know what to communicate (the story), how to communicate it (the characters and the tone of the piece), and all that’s left to determine is the overall position of the elements and the style. This is where you can play with colour, light, texture, position, posture, and so on.

Since you know what you’re creating and which emotions you’re trying to convey you can choose a palette that supports and enhances your work. Be open to experimenting a little when actually creating the piece too; you might grow to understand the subject better over time.

How to Use This Long Term

There’s good news and bad news.

The good news is that this stage of creating a new piece is probably one of the most fun parts and now you know how to fully enjoy it. Without all the extra frustration and guess work.

The bad news is if you only put aside one day at the start of each new project for this process then you’re going to want to add an extra day. Reason being that the first day can be taken up almost entirely by determining the plot and character alone, and you need the extra time to make it applicable to your own artwork and draw up a real plan.

Try it out just once and you’ll see what a difference it makes to the quality of your work. I believe it’s more than worth the trade-off.

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