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Visual Shorthand in Storytelling

Visual shorthand can mean a lot of things but it's instructive for anyone learning to tell stories.

By Sean PatrickPublished 20 days ago Updated 20 days ago 3 min read
Visual Shorthand in Storytelling
Photo by Jan Antonin Kolar on Unsplash

Let's talk about how to make something mean something that it might otherwise not mean. Investing meaning into something is a great visual shorthand and the best filmmakers understand and use visual shorthand to avoid having to bluntly exposit important character information. In this article, I want to discuss a piece of visual shorthand that is a strong explanation of the concept for novice writers interested in learning about visual shorthand.

I recently watched a movie wherein the main character uses the 'thumbs up' gesture as a visual signifier of their frustration. It's a sarcastic thumbs up to indicate that everything is fine even though things are clearly not fine. A particular scene, in the second act of the film, finds this main character at an immense emotional precipice. In the scene, the character is lying face down in the grass, framed by a giant pair of oak trees. The visual hints at how small the character is in relation to the trees but also how small they feel following a recent setback.

As our main character is lying face down they are approached by another character who, out of a sense of duty and politeness, asks if our main character is alright. The response? A sarcastic thumbs up delivered while the main character keeps their face buried in their arm, face down in the grass. The supporting character tries to offer some words of comfort but the sarcastic thumbs up remains the only response from our main character. The sarcastic thumbs up is a repeated motif for our main character.

The visual thumbs up happens in the first act, returns in the scene I described in the second act, and then, it returns in the third act with the meaning changed When the main character delivers a thumbs up in the third act, due to the circumstances of the story, an the current state of the main character at that time, the thumbs up, which had only been a sarcastic gesture, now takes on a new emotional dimension. The gesture retains a bit of sarcasm but what has happened to our main character reframes the sarcasm into something meaningful.

After having undergone a complete emotional meltdown that involves a physical assault on someone who did not deserve it, time in jail, and a reunion with a family member, our main character regains a sense of themselves. They've been through a lot and they have found a place of understanding, love, and safety. Thus, when a new supporting character asks how they are doing, the thumbs up gesture is only sarcastic in that it understates how things in our main character's life have improved. The thumbs up had been a symbol of resigned frustration but it is now transformed into a shared joke, a bit of sarcastic understatement that makes sense to them and to us in the audience.

Through telling this story a simple, physical gesture, is morphed into a multitude of different meanings. Instead of a character delivering a monologue about why they are doing okay or sarcastically inflecting their speech to communicate dissatisfaction with their lot in life, the director takes a simple gesture and through visual cues, context, and storytelling, uses the gesture as a meaningful piece of visual shorthand. There is still a great deal of work to do to lay the groundwork for your choice of meaningful gesture, but think of this example if or when you find yourself struggling with moving your story forward with dialogue. Perhaps a visual shorthand might help.

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About the Creator

Sean Patrick

Hello, my name is Sean Patrick He/Him, and I am a film critic and podcast host for the I Hate Critics Movie Review Podcast I am a voting member of the Critics Choice Association, the group behind the annual Critics Choice Awards.

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Comments (1)

  • Shirley Belk20 days ago

    I very much appreciate all your writing tips, Sean. I'm going to think on this one, too.

Sean PatrickWritten by Sean Patrick

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