Storytelling in an Image


Splash Image

By Thomas Zenteno

Thomas Zenteno is a Freelance Concept Artist working in Film and VR. Thomas’s credits include The Lego Batman Movie, Disney’s Descendants 1 & 2, and Ghostbusters Dimensions. More at


Anytime someone looks at an image the image maker is in control. You can show them anything, literally! So it becomes just as much about what you don’t show, as what you do show. Below I’ll go into a few Visual Story Principles that are important to think about but none of them have hard rules that can’t be broken.

Of course you need to use all these principles to tell a good story, but try focusing on one to start with, then add a second one in a minor focus once you’re comfortable. The principles are:

  1. Expression
  2. Dominance/Control
  3. Movement and Acting
  4. Direction to Reveal
  5. Absence of Character(Environment)
  6. Rhythm and Breaking it

Think of every image you make as if your viewer just woke up, and all they see is your image: What do you show them first? What do they latch on to in order to understand what is going on, and in what sequence?

1. Expression

Expression can tell a story by relaying motivations or reactions to situations. Animators and character designers use mirrors to reference their own faces to get the expression just right. Your story can be told through how a character is reacting to a situation, and their expression can tell the viewer what your character is thinking.

One approach to finding a character’s expression is to play a scenario out. For example, If two characters are planning a heist, and your protagonist hears their sidekicks version of the plan, how does your character react? Are they angry? Excited? Pensive? Each expression reveals a different direction your character will take, and therefore the story.

First expression.

Watch the 1,2,3 read of each character’s face. You know exactly what they want and how they are reacting to the villain in the center. Each expression leaves us with a question and as we move left to right we find our answer on their faces. Artist is Sunmin Inn 

Sunmin Inn - Expressions

Second expression.

In this iconic moment from The Incredibles the parents and children are reunited as a family. They are together again, working in unison, and determined. Their expressions and costume tell the story of them as a team.

The Incredibles - Assembled

2. Dominance/Control

How much of the frame are you using to your advantage? Your character, or an object they are represented by, such as a vehicle or building, can be in a position of power by visually by taking up more of the frame. If a character is towering over another, they probably have the upper hand… at least for the moment. In a static image you can show a moment, but by using multiple images you can plan out this shift of power by asking, who owns my frame at this point in time?

A few scenarios might be: A parent and child relationship? Cop and Criminal? Dictator and Philosopher? Whatever your story is make sure your audience has a clear sense of who is in control and when that shift in power occurs.

First Dominance/Control.

This is an image of Kingpin from Batman by comics artist Bill Sienkiewicz. He dominates the frame, to the point of bursting out of it.

Bill Sienkiewicz - King Pin

Second Dominance/Control.

A frame from the film Touch of Evil. Who’s in Control?

Touch Of Evil

Third Dominance/Control.

This image isn’t from a movie, it’s of US President Lyndon B. Johnson and his tactic of intimidating people to make deals within congress. Some of Frank Underwood’s mannerisms from House of Cards are based on him.

The Lyndon B. Johnson Stare

Fourth Dominance/Control.

I think we know who’s calling the shots in this storyboard by John Watkiss. Storyboard from Sky Captain of Tomorrow..

John Watkiss - Sky Captain of Tomorrow

3. Movement and Acting

The gesture and pose of your character are important to how they express themselves. Viewers pick up on really subtle body language signals. You may be tempted to think about it as posing for a still shot but thinking of it from a filmmaking perspective is actually better. Instead of imagining your character posing in a figure drawing class, imagine them moving and acting. What’s the movement? This can give your images a deeper sense of story by using the body as an extension and reinforcement of expression.

In one scenario you might show how open or closed off a character is to an idea. Confident or nervous? You could show a moment where one character betrays another by showing the way the their body language appears to another character, then behind their back the viewer might see something that changes the story of the entire scene.

First Movement and Acting

Every person in this illustration is reacting to the fight that just happened. Each expression and gesture is exaggerated perfectly. Definitely check out the work of Albert Dorne, a master illustrator in the 50’s.

Albert Dorne - Reactions

Second Movement and Acting

The motion of Spiderman swinging through the air tells us which direction to look in, and his gesture reinforces it. We can tell he’s in motion, going from Point A to Point B not posing for a camera.

Spider-man - A Webbing Movement

Third Movement and Acting

In this sketch by John Watkiss for Disney’s Tarzan we see two different responses in body language, one open, the other closed.

John Watkiss - Tarzan

4. Direction to Reveal

To pull off “direction to reveal” you must first hook the viewer’s eye; give them a definite focal point. The first read should be pointing them in the direction they should look next. Afterwards we should see something that gives us a new understanding of the image and the relationship between the primary focal point and the payoff at the end.

What’s the goal your character is after: A Treasure Chest? A kidnapped boy? A love letter? Once we establish the elements within an image, you can turn it on it’s head by revealing a conflict, or showing a deeper understanding of the scene the viewer catches upon a second viewing. It’s like doing a head fake or double take, you’re diverting your audience’s initial attention in order to surprise them later on.

First Direction to Reveal

This image is by Scott Zenteno. You get the first read of Little Red Riding hood, the goal of the house, then see the wolf in the background. The road provides the direction line and the image reads left to right as a storybook. 

Scott Zenteno - Into The Woods

Second Direction to Reveal

In this painting of a scene by Mead Schaeffer we read her face first, then the light is our direction to the reveal of the murder below.

Mead Schaeffer - Leaning

Third Direction to Reveal

In this image we get the dominant dead body in the foreground and the gesture of her body is our direction to how she died, the car accident. By Frank Stockton.

Frank Stockton - Body

Fourth Direction to Reveal

This one is extremely visually impactful. The costume is both the hook and direction to the girl. The title is “Her womanhood” by Edmund Liang 

Edmund Liang - Her Womanhood

5. Absence of Character/Environment

So if your viewer just woke up from a coma, see’s your image and there is no character, or the characters aren’t emphasized, what do they latch on to in order to get them through the image? Objects, the environment, and atmosphere can all substitute in place of a “character”. Storytelling through environments becomes a game of detective, and you leave clues for the viewer to find all over.

One assignment I’ve seen students do is to draw a crime scene. A lot of students go too over the top, putting syringes and guns all over the painting, but that’s just like screaming crime scene at the viewer, it’s too much and it’s obvious. You could instead build a very neat, pristine home, maybe a family picture on the desk, then the viewer see’s a cupboard slightly open and you see a syringe and a drop of blood. This sets up a very clean and pleasant scenario, then subverts it.

First Absence of Character/Environment

Who lives here? Why? Did they just leave, or have they been gone years? Image by Edmund Liang 

Edmund Liang - Human Absence

Second Absence of Character/Environment

Bioshock has been showered with praise for its storytelling, particularly it’s environmental world building. In this introduction to Dr. Steinman the player gathers clues about this plastic surgeon gone mad. Something is clearly wrong, and you learn about obsession with beauty turning to something much darker. Mood and Atmosphere helps too!


6.Rhythm and Breaking it

The final principle I’d like to share with you is storytelling in it’s most basic form. By repeating an idea the audience gets used to it and see’s this as normal; then when you break from it, it sets up the question of why is there an exception to the rule. You set up a rule, and then break it.

This could be a factory of broken down, decommissioned robots, and then we see one alive and moving! It could be doors that are all open, then one is closed. It’s a very simple but provocative idea that can be pushed to extremes.

First Rhythm and Breaking it

“When I grow up” is an amazing short by Jasmin Lai. Watch it here.

Still from 'When I grow up'

Second Rhythm and Breaking it

We read from left to right and see a normal… wait not so normal scene on the elevators. By Juliana Ouyang

Juliana Ouyang - Normal/Unnomal

Second Rhythm and Breaking it

We read from left to right and see a normal… wait not so normal scene on the elevators. By Juliana Ouyang

Captain Americas Weakness

Hopefully these principles help you think about the story you’re telling in your own images, and how you can enhance your story with these visual cues. Audiences today have been trained to become more and more visually literate through film, comics and games. The sooner you can learn these visually cues to guide your viewers eye, the better off you’ll be in communicating clear and impactful images.