August 10

Visual Story-Telling Basics: The Film School Challenge


When I was teaching high school TV production, one of my students applied to film school. She was required to send in a story containing no more than 5–7 shots.

Silent shots. No audio allowed.

The story had to have identifiable, differentiated characters and a real plot.

To do that successfully, you have to pack a lot of information into each shot!

film school logo

She struggled for days before coming up with a love story that relied heavily on exaggerated facial expressions, a close-up of a diary entry and cliché-ridden costumes.

You put a guy with slicked-back hair and tattoos in a leather jacket, have him pull up on a beat-up motorcycle, and that just screams, “No good wandering Romeo,” don’t ya think?

sexy man on motorcycle

Make one female a weepy blond wearing frilly pink and the other female a snarling, spike-haired brunet in leather and everyone immediately assumes which is innocent, no words necessary.

Now granted, great storytelling isn’t so cliché ridden, but with only 5–7 shots, you have to get to the point. 🙂

When you’re trying to produce a simple, quick, down and dirty video, leaning on a few clichés can make your job easier. Take a gander at the soap opera divas. The vast majority of them stick to the blond = good girl, brunet = bad girl stereotypes.


If you want the audience to grasp a concept instantly, don’t feel guilty about relying on visual clichés, especially if your video is short. Watch any :30 second TV commercial that relies on characterization. They’re all cliché with their characters, up to a point. The trick is to do it without being obnoxious and rude.

Obviously businesses advertising on national TV are trying hard to walk the politically correct line and not offend anyone, so some stereotypes are not even remotely a good idea, but there are plenty of non-offensive clichés that make an instant visual point. And don’t forget to work character into your entire video theme. As director, you have many ways to communicate visually with background sets, props, colors, lighting, sound effects and other storytelling elements.


No sign-up necessary.  


6 empty box drawing template
Use a template like this to draw a six shot visual sequence.  This is called a storyboard. You can download this one and use it or make your own.  

A simpler version of this film school admissions assignment is the first one most film students receive, once they do get into the school.

I make my students do this frequently.  This method doesn’t require actual shooting, so can be done quickly. The point here is to make visual thinking second nature.

Here’s the assignment.

Draw a three to six picture sequence that tells a story any viewer will instantly understand without ANY WORDS.  I have three examples below and a list of topics to choose from

DO NOT WORRY ABOUT AN INABILITY TO DRAW WELL. Stick figures are fine. Drawing skills and visual story telling are two different things.

Remember to use visual variety and lots of close-ups! Make sure your visuals form a sequence. Sequences are to visual storytelling what a sentence is to verbal storytelling.

Here are some examples I have prepared to show you what I mean.

  • Hungry dog steals a bigger dog’s bone.
  • Hospital patient thought to be incurable miraculously recovers.
  • Teenager aces test after studying all night.

Notice how each individual image (representative of a shot in a real video) advances the storyline.

Notice, too, how individual details within each frame also advance the storyline. (Like the dog’s ribs, telling you he is chronically hungry).  These are visual cues.  The more visual cues you use, the more you communicate to your viewer.

As a film director, you have the options of using dozens of visual cues unique to movie making.

This 4-shot story features a brave and hungry dog.  Notice how using details helps advance the story.

dog story in template

This six-shot story shows a teen dedicated to her studies.

What visual clues tells the viewer this teenager stayed up all night to study?  What grade did she ultimately make?

teen story in template

This six-shot story tells of an angel rescuing a terminally ill patient.

story in template

Now imagine each one of those as a short video. These drawings can function much like a storyboard.  Making a storyboard is often the first step in producing a film.

The point of this exercise is to sharpen your visual storytelling skills, so it becomes second nature.  You are not limited in this exercise by budget or practicality.  You can use any location or prop that you are able to draw.


Select any one of the storylines below to get you going:

  1. Poor man wins lottery.
  2. Woman misses her child, who is away at college.
  3. Woman breaks off engagement because her boyfriend is a cheat.
  4. Athlete trains hard and wins gold medal.
  5. Dancing partners win a dancing contest
  6. Crooked businessman cheats a customer.
  7. Mother bird builds a nest, lays eggs, and later feeds her babies.
  8. Man robs bank and then gets caught.

Ask yourself:

  • What important events would tell this story?
  • What visual details can I add to the story?  Think about backgrounds and other visual cues.
  • What will the viewer recognize?

Remember to use storytelling elements and director’s tricks like change of scope (WS, MS, CU) and change of camera angle.

When you’re finished with your three to six drawing story, analyze it.

  • How many drawings are wide-shots, medium shots or close-ups?  The distance the camera appears to be from the subject is known as camera scope.
  • Did you ever change camera angle?  Changing camera angles ads visual variety.
  • Does each and every visual contribute to the story?
  • Did you add style to your choices of angles and camera scopes?
  • What combination of visuals best tells the story?
  • Should you have done it differently?
  • What happens to the story if you remove a visual? Does the story hold up? If a visual is expendable, get rid of it. Unless it contributes to your story, you don’t need it.
  • Give your story to someone else and see if they can “read” it. Why or why not? What information did they need to understand that you didn’t give them?


If you’d rather not mess with a pencil, cut pictures out of a magazine and use them to tell a story. I distinctly remember doing this for one of my first assignments in college.    Visual story-telling can use any visual you have available.

Virtually everyone who learns visual communications starts with simple exercises like this. So you should too!

Thanks for reading Video Production Tips.

Lorraine Grula

For further analysis of the above 3 stories, see this post.


film making basics, film school challenge, film storytelling, learning ho to tell a story visually, visual storytelling exercise

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