Visual Storytelling

Screenwriters may spend a great deal of time working with dialogue, but sometimes it’s best to step back and let the story speak for itself. You can spend your time studying silent films, the ultimate in visual storytelling, but there are some great contemporary films that also work well as learning aids. One of my favorites is The Little Matchgirl, directed by Roger Allers and released in 2006. Hans Christian Anderson’s timeless tale of a child selling matches on a winter’s day works as a story as well as a wider meditation on loss and empathy (or the lack thereof).


How does Allers accomplish all this without words? Watch that first minute, because a great deal of information is communicated. The exposition is told in simple contrasts. The match seller lives in a bustling square, but is entirely neglected by the passersby. She watches a rich girl accompanied by her parents, and a careless troika driver doesn’t watch for her. The match seller is observant, the people are rude and dismissive.

Allers adds some strong color contrasts to emphasize his message. The warm reds and oranges of the matches oppose the cold light of the snow. Matches are home, security, and safety; the snow is the haphazard dressing of the public square. By setting up such strong opposites, Allers foreshadows an unhappy ending—between the light of a match and the deluge of a winter storm, does the girl even have a chance?

Watch the transitions, the composition of each shot, the seamless way these seven minutes are storyboarded. No moment is wasted and no note of the Borodin score is ignored. In many ways, this short contains more depth than many two hour features I have sat through.

Sure, a great many of those details were worked out after the script, but without a strong textual basis, none of them would be possible. Find ways to tell the story beyond a couple of characters talking and remember to visualize your script. It’s advice I’m still trying to follow.

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4 responses to “Visual Storytelling

  1. Oh my God, how sad… 😦 But yes, it is very well told.

    I remember my first day of screenwriting class in college, my professor told us that everyone thinks screenwriting is about dialogue, when in reality it is about imagery. The best students took that advice to heart–I tried to be one of them. The worst students insisted on writing a bunch of talking heads.

    • One great movie I saw recently that, like the Little Matchgirl, is told through action not dialogue, is the Illusionist. Worth checking out.

  2. Film is still a visual medium… unfortauntely many people seem to forget that, so does James Cameron. He’s marvelous at creating great images, but once his own written characters open their mouths, the magic is over.

    I love silent conversations. One of my favorite scenes is the father & son scene in Jaws at the dinner table.

  3. Steven Spielberg is a master–no question if anyone can, he can pull it off.

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