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.
See this photo? Sometimes it’s easiest to teach by bad example. Here are some reasons you shouldn’t do this:
- The text below this image appears to be a new section, even though I don’t intend it to be.
- Is this a caption? Or part of the body text? It’s hard to say in a non-fiction essay like this one. If this were a fictional story however, you’d easily recognize it as body text (which is what it should be).
- If you’re on a laptop, you probably can’t see the man on the right. But he’s visible in the photo I uploaded. Auto-cropping is necessary technically, but it can harm relatively complex images like this one.
As a final step, we conceived a simple test to gauge success. Over the holidays, we literally sat and watched people read our stories. The more often they scrolled up before finishing, the less engrossing—and less successful—our storytelling.
I’d like to think that the stories in this project, one each by Spencer Strub, Melissa Graeber, and Peter Prato, are the best representations of this strategy, but they’re certainly not the first. When I originally began scouring Medium for photo stories, I was surprised that the only three carefully built posts I could find were also fictional. They don’t fit the above mold perfectly, but they’re good early examples of what’s possible. The first belongs to a series by Nicole Matos, illustrated entirely with animated gifs. The second was published before Medium 1.0 was released (and thusly ignores all my advice). And the third isn’t just fiction, but was published by a fictional account.
Strategy 2: The classic photo essay (best for non-fiction)
If you’re keen for readers to look deeply into your photographs, you’ll want to skip the advice above—and hell, you might even find it offensive. Roughly speaking, the above strategy uses images to guide a mood and queue scenes; alternately, with the right editing, you can design stories that put the interpretation of images front and center. This strategy is best suited to journalism and documentary storytelling, and works well in image-first workflows. Guidelines:
- Important images should be full-column (like below). This setting presents images as large as they’ll get without automatic cropping.
- Use other image sizes only for support. Full-bleed images work best if they have simple compositions and clear meanings. Small sizes are good for adding ancillary details.
- Expect readers to stare. People will naturally pause at full-column images, so don’t shy from complex and challenging compositions.
- Caption everything. So as long as you’re telling a non-fiction story, your images will benefit from captions—and might look weird without them.
Unfortunately, there are only a handful of examples of this style on Medium. Two notable ones include this post by Alyssa Schukar, though she uses the full-bleed setting even for complex shots, and this post by the web magazine CYFE. I’ve also personally experimented with this style: a good example is here.
As I argued previously though, I think it’s only a matter of time before more photographers, especially photojournalists, embrace Medium, and this later strategy will best suit their work.
A few years back, the game designer Jesse Schell gave rise to the idea that every game rests on four pillars: aesthetics, mechanics, story, and technology. Visual stories on the web are subject to remarkably similar forces. That thought line has led me to think about Medium this way: The platform takes care of the technology and mechanics; the aesthetics and story are up to writers and photographers like our small team—and like you. Awful convenient stuff, considering that’s what we do best.
I’d be remiss to end this post without an enormous caveat: As much as I’ve tried, there are, no doubt, great visual stories on Medium that I just haven’t found. Does one come to mind? By all means, please share a link in a comment, and I’ll add the best to this collection. I’m also keen to find folks using other visual strategies effectively—especially if they don’t conform to what I’ve outlined here. As hard as we worked on the project that prompted this post, I’ll be bummed if someone doesn’t one-up us—and the sooner the better.