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Everybody Loves a Good Story! List of 15 Visual Storytelling Elements Used in Filmaking

storytellingWhen you’re making videos, the single best way to keep your viewer’s attention is to entertain them with a good story.

Think about movies that you’ve seen and liked. Almost without fail, movies that deliver a good story are the ones that become blockbuster hits. Lots of fancy special effects aren’t enough. Stuffing the line-up with big names stars isn’t enough. Spectacular cinematography isn’t enough. What draws people in is the story.

So when you produce your video, give some thought to storytelling.

Even if your video is nothing like a Hollywood movie, try to weave a story in somehow.  This post will show you how.

This post also gives you a list of 15 Video Storytelling Elements.  A novice filmmaker needs to learn about these elements in order to be capable of using a video camera to craft a story.  They are the tools of your trade.

VISUAL STORYTELLING IS UNIQUE AND WONDERFUL

Most people have more experience with using the written or spoken word to tell stories.  In verbal and written storytelling,  you use words, formed into sentences, which form paragraphs, chapters and so on.  Famous authors are known for their unique style.  Are they long-winded and heavy on ten-dollar words?  Or do they write concisely using an elementary level vocabulary?

people talkingInformal verbal storytelling, such as chatting with friends  would have different word choices than any famous author.  Informal verbal storytelling also uses a different pacing, syntax and sentence structure than formal literature.

Different styles of visual storytelling reflect the same basic options authors or friends have when telling stories but instead of words, sentences and vocabulary, the filmmaker uses close ups, medicum shots, music, narration, special effects, graphics, and so on.  It is these things which make up this list of 15 visual storytelling elements every novice filmmaker needs to learn.  Keep scrolling for the actual list. Think of this list as the tools of your craft.

But first, stories begin with people.  People in your audience will care about what happens to other people especially if it relates back to them personally.

PROFILING PEOPLE TO TELL YOUR STORY

One of the best ways to tell a story on video is to find someone who exemplifies the point you are trying to make. Then, tell their story.  Your audience will identify (or not) with these people.

moneyLet’s say you’re doing a video about the economy. Pretty dry subject, huh? Make it more exciting and personable by finding some people who have experienced good or bad times due to the economy. Feature them as your story. Hang the dry facts and information about the economy on the emotionalism of their story.

Like this.

Your video shows Fred Smith and his girlfriend driving down the street in a red Ferrari. Music is blaring from the radio and they are both laughing.

Narrator reads:

old cars“Cruising down the boulevard in his hot new sports car is Fred Smith’s favorite pastime. He used to drive an old, beat up Volkswagen. What changed? His widget business took off when worldwide widget demand soared!”

That example might seem a little bit corny, and it certainly is, but I hope you get my point.

Stories are what happens to people.  People are full of emotion. Any kind of emotion you can spark in your viewer helps increase the likelihood your video will be enjoyable to watch.

There are a zillion ways to tell your story.  Precisely how  you chose to do so will become known as your “style” as a filmmaker.

Once you learn the basic of video production, you are only limited by your imagination.  And budget, can’t forget budget.

Are you doing a video about how to knit a blanket? Now that a fairly dry subject. Show a finished blanket wrapped around an adorable sleeping baby and I guarantee your viewers will be emotionally pulled into your “story.”

A story does not have to be complicated. You do not have to have an intricate plot. All you really need is some emotion.  Emotion can be added using elements like music and pretty pictures.  

baby
Picture by Josh Bennett

Viewers will react emotionally to cute or spectacular video, as in the blanket example. If you were watching a how-to-knit video, would you rather look at a cute baby or a pile of yarn? Which one is going to make you say, “awwwwwww!”?

Music adds emotion. Movies would be terrible boring without the musical soundtrack but lots of viewers aren’t even conscious of the music; they’re concentrating on the dialogue and action. So, take a tip from Hollywood and add music to your video.  Music makes it more of a story no matter what the subject is.  Music of course, is one of the 15 storytelling elements on the list below.

Your story might also be enhanced with things such as fast paced editing or dramatic lighting. In fact, every single video production technique available to you can be thought of as a storytelling element. Any of them can be used to enhance the emotion and therefore tell a story.

This might seem a little odd to you because most of us just have experience telling stories with the written word. When you first began telling stories that way, you learned all about the different components of writing: sentences, paragraphs and (ugh!) grammar. With more advanced story-telling you studied plot, theme and characterization.

LIST OF 15 VIDEO STORYTELLING ELEMENTS 

* Wide-shots- Wide shots are typically used to establish your setting. A wide shot usually isn’t too personable but it can tell a viewer a lot about where they are. Writers like Hemingway can go on for pages describing the setting. You can sum it all up in one wide shot.

* Medium-shots- This is your most commonly used shot and is what you want for general, run-of-the-mill action. It gives a nice, loose feeling.

golf club close up* Close-ups- Close-ups reveal the most emotion to the audience and are considered the single most important type of shot. If you really want to show someone’s pain, get a tight shot of their face contorted in agony. Although professional productions use lots of close-ups, novices tend to ignore them. Now you don’t have to make that mistake!

* Still pictures- Moving video is always best, but still pictures can be used to great effect and sometimes they’re your only option. Still pictures are extremely easy to import into any video editing program and they will also help you keep your budget down.

* Moving camera- If you deliberately move the camera, this helps create a sense of chaos or excitement. This is very common in music videos and crime shows. Is all hell breaking lose? Let the camera go wild!

* Steady camera- Quality video is usually rock-solid steady, which means it was shot off a tripod. Steady video helps your viewer forget they’re watching TV and concentrate on your message, not your production style. A steady camera will impart a sense of calm in your audience.

* Camera angle- Whether the camera is placed at a low angle, high angle, or eye level will also have a powerful effect on your viewer. A low angle shot gives the viewer the feeling that the subject is important and powerful. The low angle makes them look large and ominous, maybe even a little bit scary. A high angle does the opposite, making the subject look tiny or overwhelmed. Like a puny bug beneath your feet, your subject will seem insignificant if shot from a high camera angle. Most video, especially interviews, should be shot at eye level, which gives a neutral feel.

* Music- Music is probably the single easiest way to add emotion to your video and enhance the ?story.? Music is an instant mood inducer. Lots of videos can get by as just video set to music.

One thing to keep in mind about music is that unless you’re willing to pay huge licensing fees, you can’t legally use a song unless it a genre called “royalty free.” Royalty free music has a reputation for being sappy, “elevator” music but over the years, it’s improved a lot. Many incredible musicians have gone into the business of producing royalty free music so you can find some really awesome stuff.

* Narration- Narration is one of the easiest ways to tell a story. It lets you do just that, tell a story. Good narration is conversational and concise. Video narration is not the time to impress people with your huge vocabulary, rather, you should just speak naturally. Narration is typically a documentary style technique but some popular movies have used narration to great effect. Consider Forest Gump and A Christmas Story.

* Dialogue- Dialogue, like narration, can be natural or scripted. You might think that all video scripts are written out beforehand. Many are, but using “natural dialogue,” or just letting people just speak off the cuff, is the easiest way to make a video. An interview can also be used in this way. Just turn your subject loose and let them speak. This can eliminate the need to write a script altogether and save you tons of time.

* Sound effects- What would cartoons be without sound effects? Not very funny, that’s what they’d be. There are tons of free or cheap sound effects available for download over the web.

* Pacing- Pacing mostly refers to editing and how often the shot changes. A fast pace gives the viewer the feeling of chaos or excitement. A slow pace is generally regarded as boring, think PBS documentaries. ZZZZZZZ. That’s not to say that a slow pace is “bad.” Slow pacing can also be used to convey a sense of calm or peacefulness.

* Lighting- Want your audience to feel tension? Give them some sharp, direct lighting coming from a weird angle. Whatever lighting you use will instantly impart a mood on your video. Dark and shadowy is equated with a scary mood. Brightly lit diffused light indicates a cheerful mood.

* Editing transitions- In a fully edited video, your shot will probably change frequently. Whatever effect you use to go from one shot to another is called an editing transition. The most common is the simple cut, where one shot abruptly changes to the next. A dissolves is where one shot slowly fades out while another one slowly appears. Dissolves are usually used to indicate the passage of time. Wipe is a term for the million and one other ways you can switch from shot to shot. Digital video editing has added tons of wipes to the video producer’s bag of tricks. There are wipes to indicate a fantasy or dream sequence, an explosion, or even a sheep bleating. Although wipes can be fun, the general recommendation is to use them sparingly. Too many are considered cheesy and kind of low-rent. Of course, if that is the style you’re going for, exploit your wipes!

* Characters- Movies obviously rely on characters, but increasingly, so do short videos, like thirty-second commercials. Next time you watch TV, notice how commercials use well-defined characters. I totally love the Apple computers ads with the nerdy PC character and the hip Mac character. Those two very cliche-looking characters say volumes about the two products and it’s all instantly understood. Don’t be afraid to rely on stereotypes for your video characters. That’s the quickest way to communicate, even if it isn’t particularly politically correct!

kittenThat’s a pretty long list of storytelling elements. I hope it has helped you to see that telling a story in your video is actually quite easy. It’s also a lot of fun!  What kind of story does this little kitten look like its trying to tell?

Thanks for reading Video Production Tips

Lorraine Grula


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Lorraine Grula


Lorraine Grula enjoyed a fast-paced, multifaceted career in the television and video business, producing, shooting, writing, and editing documentary-style videos in both news and corporate settings. Later, she got to teach media and video production in two high schools, which then morphed into instructional design and corporate training. Lorraine is now dedicated to sharing her vast knowledge with others who wish to learn the art of video making, with an emphasis on storytelling and creating professional-quality videos for the internet as simply, yet creatively as possible.

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  1. Hi Brooks.

    I agree wholeheartedly. Music, lighting, and pacing work wonders. Music alone can take a boring production and make it worth watching.

    Glad to hear you liked Dave Kaminski’s course. His stuff is EXCELLENT in my opinion. I have always been extremely impressed with his stuff.

    Thanks for visiting my site and leaving a comment!

    Cheers!

    Lorraine Grula

  2. Thank u for the great sharing Lorraine. Being an untrained person making videos, I didnt realise there is so much depth in the art! Definately helps in the path ahead.

    Sean
    Singapore

  3. Hi Sean.
    Thanks for your comment. One reason I really like video making is because you can make it as deep (or shallow) as you want. Most people who are new to video making think it is all about what camera to use or what video editing software to use. Although those things are important, video making is all about storytelling. No two ways about that!
    good luck to you in the path ahead!
    Lorraine

  4. One element of a good story is conflict. If a problem or antagonist is presented for the character (or viewer) to overcome, it will keep the viewer interested in knowing the outcome.

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