Some Thoughts And Tips About Wordless Storytelling

2016 Artwork wordless storytelling sketch

Although this is an article about how to tell stories without using words, I’m going to be spending quite a while talking about both wordless storytelling in general and about computer games. So, if you’re just looking for practical advice, then it’s probably worth skipping to the last few paragraphs of this article.

Even though I read about an old genre of comics from the 1910s-1930s called “wordless novels” last year, I hadn’t really thought that much about the idea of telling a full story without using words until I happened to watch a series of “let’s play” videos for a rather unusual “point and click” adventure game called “Dropsy” on one of the gaming-related Youtube channels that I watch regularly.

Although I’m not sure if “Dropsy” is really my kind of game, one interesting thing about the gameplay footage is that all of the dialogue in the game is replaced by either pictograms or meaningless scribbles. I’m not sure if this is an artistic decision (since the main character is implied to be illiterate) or whether it was to save on localisation costs, but it’s a really interesting concept. It gives the impression of language, without actually including any language.

Still, even though I haven’t really made a proper wordless comic before, I do have some limited experience with wordless storytelling. In fact, pretty much every artist does. With the possible exception of some landscape, abstract and still life paintings, virtually every piece of art tells a story of some kind or another.

Or, more accurately, a piece of art tells a small part of a story and it is up to the audience to work out the rest. After all, many works of art are almost like a single “frame” from a film or an animation. They’re a still picture of single frozen moment of time and, if the artist does their job well enough, then the audience will be able to work out what is happening, what has happened beforehand and what will happen afterwards.

This, incidentally, is also what makes art such a timeless and universal thing. Many famous historical paintings were made by people who speak other languages and who come from different cultures and, yet – for example- you don’t need to know how to speak Italian or to have a detailed understanding of early 16th century Italian culture to appreciate the Mona Lisa.

Pictures are a universal language and they were also one of the first types of written language too. If you don’t believe me, just look at pictures of prehistoric cave paintings or of several ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics.

However, there’s a huge difference between hinting at a story by showing a single moment in time and actually telling a longer and more complex story without using words. For a long time, I thought that wordless storytelling could only really be used tell more simplistic stories but – as the gameplay footage I linked to earlier shows – it seems to be possible to tell more complex stories without words.

I guess that the trick here is to use context a lot more than you might do in a traditional comic. For example, when you can’t use words, then things like the characters’ facial expressions and the style of the backgrounds become a lot more important than they might otherwise be. This is, I guess, kind of similar to the techniques that film-makers used to use in silent movies.

Likewise, as the gameplay footage I mentioned earlier shows, you can give the impression of language (eg: by using a fake language) if you present this fake language in a context where it’s meaning can easily be worked out.

For example, if you see a scary-looking sign with boldly-written gibberish, a red border and a picture of a skull then you don’t need to understand the words to know that it’s a warning sign. Everything else about the sign (eg: the bold writing, the red border and the skull) gives you the context that you need to work out what it means.

So, I guess that the main piece of advice I can think to give about wordless storytelling is that, if you want to tell a complex story, then context matters a lot more than anything else.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂