A versatile framework to build a strong visual narrative, followed with a list of visual storytelling principles, and an expert opinion.

Think of the last time you were exposed to a story without any visuals. That's almost a bizarre concept in these days, isn’t it? I mean even a book has some sort of illustration on its cover.

Video is the #1 form of media used in content strategy, overtaking blogs and infographics, according to a HubSpot report .

At the same time, 80% of all internet traffic is expected to be driven by videos by 2021, according to a press release by Cisco. People just prefer visual content.

The question is: How do you tell a visual story that stands out? Is there a formula for a successful visual story? To find the answer, we’ve studied Neil Cohn’s research “Visual Narrative Structure.” Here’s what we've found:

Visual narrative structure: What makes the viewer understand a visual story the way they do 

In his work, Cohn suggests that for a narrative to successfully emerge out of an image sequence, the sequence should adopt the following structure: establisher, initial, prolongation, peak, and release — which Cohn refers to as the “narrative grammar.”  

Establisher sets the context for the story. Initial lays the foundation for the tension that’s coming up (the first action). Prolongation is an extension of the initial and the path to the peak. Peak is the climax of tension. And release is the aftermath of the narrative.  

One thing to note about the “narrative grammar” is that it can have sub-sequences under the main sequence structure (aka arc). For example, an initial can contain a pair of initial and peak within itself, and a peak can contain a set of establisher, initial, peak, and release, etc. 

An alternative use of sub-sequences is what’s called the “left-branching visual narrative,” in which each scene serves as an initial for the next. 


To better understand the importance of each element in the grammar narrative, Cohn tried eliminating one element at a time from the sequence, and then reordering them, and then replacing them with an action star. Here’s what he's found: 

  • Establisher can be omitted without making the audience feel like something is missing. However, it can impact the narrative pacing.

  • Prolongation can be added to heighten the anticipation of the peak, but doesn’t interfere with the audience’s understanding of the story if omitted.

  • Release is used a lot in humorous narratives and serves as the punchline. In other forms of narrative, it can be omitted without confusing the audience.

  • Peak is the only scene that can be used to represent the whole story. When the peak is deleted, the story no longer makes sense.

  • Deletion of the initial makes for a more surprising narrative, but in some cases, it can make the audience feel like something is missing. 

  • An action star indicates the characteristic of a peak without revealing what it is. This forces the viewer to infer the hidden event. When the action star is used in place of the peak, the narrative still makes sense. But when it’s used in place of the other elements, the story is no longer comprehensible.

While sketching your storyboard, one way you can tell what each scene does to the viewer is to delete it from the sequence and see what effect that creates.

According to Cohn, this gives you an insight into the characteristics of each scene. Also, one trick to tell if your story has a peak is to find that one scene towards the end that can somehow sum up the entire story, and without which your story doesn’t make sense.

Now that we’ve learned the basic structure for a visual narrative, let’s move on to the storytelling itself.

Principles of visual storytelling 

There are old-school principles of storytelling that work like a charm no matter what form your story takes — visual, audio or written. With a little bit of creativity and visual thinkinging in the way you apply them, these rules can come in handy and serve as the guidelines for your narrative creation.

  1. Show, don’t tell: As old as storytelling itself, however, this principle may sound a little too obvious in the context of a visual narrative. But using visuals instead of words is not really the point here. To apply this principle, ask yourself this question: Can this be any more specific? For example, you want to establish early in your story that a couple is not getting along, then give specific examples of their conflict.
    Something like: one person always rolls up the toothpaste tube after use while the other just doesn’t care to do so, and then they fight about it. For the audience to truly believe that there’s a conflict between this couple, it has to be shown, not told.

  1. Make it relatable: The point of view that you choose to tell your story can affect the way people perceive it tremendously. If it seems like the audience can relate to your main character, they will enjoy the story more. That is the reason why commercials often start out with a person representing the brand’s customer who’s struggling with a problem that their product can help solve. Commercials don’t begin with a CEO bragging about how fancy his product is. Although some do.
  2. Don’t underestimate your audience: A journalist is supposed to decode all the jargon for their readers, but at the same time should not overexplain everything as though their audience were stupid. Same with visual storytelling, don’t spend 10 scenes explaining something that can be shown with just one frame. This only makes your story seem lengthy and storytelling skills seem weak.
  3. Every story has a climax: And a visual story does, too. As mentioned above though Cohn’s research, a climax or a peak is a must-have, and is what your audience awaits. Without it, the story has no point. The climax is the reason why the audience is even viewing your creation at all.
  4. Stir up the human interest: In storytelling, “human interest” is usually triggered by “novelty” — something different, unexpected, bizarre, or simply something that is not usually disclosed to the public. In other words, take them to a place they’ve never been before, or put them in someone else’s shoes for a new perspective.
  5. Don’t lose focus: Don’t flood your story with too much information and overwhelm your audience. Only show what needs to be shown. This applies not only to the flow of the story but also to the composition of every scene. Sometimes too many details in one scene only make people confused about what they’re supposed to look at.
  6. Don’t stop moving: A frame should be there only if it needs to be there. Don’t show the same image for 10 seconds without a damn good reason to justify it. This may sound easier for moviemakers than animators, but the idea here is to give the audience the sense that they’re progressing through your story and not just waiting for something to happen. Sometimes, too long of a pause could really interrupt the viewer’s immersion in your story, taking them out of the imaginary world that you created and back into their heads. Once they start thinking “wait a minute, what’s going on here,” then you know you’ve lost them.
  7. Be unpredictable: Don’t go for the easy path. If the audience could easily guess what’s coming up next, they’ll skip watching. People’s attention span is short, and the amount of content begging for their attention every day is huge. Surprise them with some originality. 
  8. What’s the moral of your story? At the end of your story, do you want to hear the audience say “I just wasted x minutes of my life” or “that’s deep, man”? Even in the context of commercials, this principle still rings true, because a strong brand story conveys a message, while a weak one just tells people what to buy. From my experience, it is usually easier to develop a narrative based on a real-life story that taught you some lesson, than to start out without a key message as a foundation and then try to cast some soul into it with a last-minute made-up lesson.
  9. Leave your mark. You know how when Beyoncé’s on the radio, you can tell right away that it’s her? Or how when you see an animated movie with dead-looking characters and a Halloweeny vibe, you know it’s directed by Tim Burton? That is because they have developed their own signature, something that differs them from the competition. When you level up in your storytelling profession, try to find your own style. It could be the way you tell the story, the color scheme that you often use, or the funny twists that you slip in at the end. 

Good old principles they are. If you just follow the visual narrative grammar by Cohn and these timeless storytelling principles, you know you’ve got a pretty solid story right there. But the truth is, there are many decent visual storytellers out there. The competition is tough. So how do you turn a pretty solid story into a great one?

“You’re not a motion designer, you’re a people mover. Motion design is about merging the visceral and the technical.

Using animation to crystalize ideas and synthesize emotions.

Breaking down big concepts into masks and layers and then reassembling them as images that get remembered.”

Tom has 20 years of experience in design, animation, and film-making (both analog and digital). His works are recognized globally, earning several awards, and featured along with major brands including Nike, Jaguar, and Microsoft. 

“Every story is taking us on a kind of journey”, Crate said. “This is true whether it's an epic Hollywood movie or a logo reveal.”

Now being a Motion Design instructor at ELVTR, Crate breaks down the recipe for a great visual narrative with three key ingredients: change, contrast/tension, and revelation.

  • Change - Any journey needs a start point and a destination. Sometimes we can go on a loop and end up back where we started but there is always some form of transformation that takes place along the way. That transformation could be anything from young Padawan to Jedi Master or a square to a circle.
  • Contrast/Tension - The bigger the change, the more challenges our hero will face on the journey, and the more exciting it becomes. When applied to motion design, this can be extracted down to contrast of shape and color and tension and release through variation of sharp and smooth motions. 
  • Revelation - A good story invites curiosity at the beginning and ends with the reward of new information. Whether it's the downfall of an evil empire or a simple logo reveal, you must leave the audience with something new.

Since the emergence of social media, human society has taken on a completely new approach to communication and research — one that’s heavily driven by visuals.

Nowadays, if you don’t know how to bake a strawberry cake, you can just go on YouTube and find a video recipe. If you are just simply bored, you can go on Facebook to view memes or watch funny videos. You can also open TikTok and participate in their video challenges. 

While visual content is such an efficient way for creators to reach their audience, to tell a visual story that really resonates with people is not an easy task. Hence, having some basic understanding of how visual narratives are developed and what really makes a story stick with people will help you substantially on your journey to becoming a professional visual storyteller. 

*ELVTR is disrupting education by putting proven industry leaders in a virtual classroom with eager rising stars. ELVTR courses offer 100% instructor driven content designed to give you practical knowledge within a convenient time frame. Choose the right course for you!