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A few days back, three genre-bending stories were published here, here, and here on Medium. They make up a series of fictional stories based on photographs by Koci, an Emmy-winning multimedia journalist, two-time Pulitzer nominee, and well-known Instagram photographer. The project is an unabashed experiment in visual storytelling, though I’ll admit I’m a bit biased—I served as its editor. But as our small, wide-eyed team alternately hacked and blundered its way to engaging stories, we learned stark lessons that transcend the narrow scope of still-image fiction.
For my part, this post is a summary of those lessons. It starts here with a bit of theory, and then continues with guides to the two most effective visual storytelling techniques currently in use on Medium.
As it went, our first challenge had nothing to do with storytelling. Instead, we came face-to-face with you—the citizens of the Medium medium—and specifically, your behaviors, habits, and expectations.
Introspection is helpful here. Consider what keeps you coming back to Medium. Great stories? Beautiful interface? Few distractions? These are my reasons, and they all fall under the broad theory of the uniform reading experience. For most readers this stuff is subconscious, but if you plan to publish on Medium, it’s essential to know that readers enter your stories with the expectation of reading. Seemingly obvious stuff, so let me take a step back. Way back.
Waayyyyy back. To tell stories with photos, printed newspapers and magazines have traditionally relied on multi-page spreads. Here, editors arrange photos, graphics, and text across physical space with the intention of inviting readers to “hop in” at any point. The experience fits the medium: People flip quickly through printed publications, so the more entry points, like captions and pull-quotes, the better the odds of catching a reader’s attention. At its best/worst (depending on who you ask), the experience is more like exploring, less like reading.
On the other hand, publishers on the web love slideshows. Almost always, they live in their own widget, and it can take multiple clicks to switch between them and the written story, if there even is one. Where did we get this standard? The first reason is frustrating: the most common tools, especially WordPress, weren’t built for rich visual storytelling. The second reason is gross: many publishers use clunky slideshow widgets with the intention of increasing page views.
You might have noticed that neither print nor online publishers put storytelling first—distractions are plentiful, and sometimes intentional. But readers on Medium expect the reverse: they want stories that can be read from start to finish without interruption. No choose-your-own-adventure playgrounds, no distracting gimmicks.
In order for our visual stories to meet these expectations, we developed the following strategies.
Strategy 1: The seamless, single narrative (best for fiction)
There are many ways to constrain a story, and as we learned on this project, the choice of fiction had a huge impact on our visual strategy. What’s it like to read a great novel? How about a comic book? Or a movie? Our hypothesis was that great fiction must be engrossing—for non-fiction, that’s optional—and ideally, readers will complete a fictional story in a single sitting. To translate this to Medium, we established four guidelines:
- Don’t use captions. They draw the reader’s eye away from body text.
- Blunt, emotional photos work best. Because people (usually) read fiction quickly, images are most effective when they are clearly related to the text and can be digested at a glance.
- Full-bleed images (like below) are natural signals of transition. Think of images as punctuation. In particular, full-bleed shots will start or end scenes even if you don’t intend them to.
- Full-column images should be avoided. They cause readers to stop and stare; you want to elicit emotions, not invite interpretation.