If a Picture Paints a Thousand Words

Picture Paints a Thousand Words

The Plays of Shakespeare

If a picture paints a thousand words then how many pictures will it take to portray a Shakespeare play. We look at how to convey a story in a single image. In our previous post about story-telling through images, we looked at the series of images typically required to tell a story, such as a wide shot to set the scene, close up of a fine detail, etc…

In this post, we are going to take it a step further by putting the old adage that “a picture paints a thousand words” to the test. We are going to see if we can tell a story, in this case, a classic, well-known one, using just one image. This is essentially an exercise to stretch your creativity as well as test your technical capabilities.

If “a picture paints a thousand words” then all of Shakespeare’s plays would require 868 photos. With an average 23 photos for each play (or one roll of film each, if you remember those days).

Picture Paints a Thousand Words - word count for Shakespeare's plays

Word count for the plays of Shakespeare, showing how many photographs would be required if a picture paints a thousand words.

Romeo and Juliet

Take one of Shakespeare’s best-known plays, Romeo and Juliet. It is around 25,000 words, so with 25 photos, we should be able to portray the whole play.

Capulet’s Orchard

Let’s take one scene, Act II Scene II (Capulet’s Orchard), which is perhaps the best known, with Juliet standing on the balcony calling out for Romeo. This is around 2,000 words long, or two photos.

Word count for Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet Act II Scene II - Capulet's Orchard

Word count for Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet Act II Scene II – Capulet’s Orchard


Setting the Scene

So,  we want to try to paint this whole scene in just ONE, possibly two, photos, how are we going to do it?

Well, it’s no accident we call it a “scene”. This is a device that playwrights use to set the scene in which their characters deliver their lines. There is a stage, backdrop and props etc., all of which essentially constitute an image.  What are missing are the characters, their lines and how they deliver them. Somehow we need to work out how to create a single image that conveys all of the lines within this single scene into a single image.

This scene is relatively straightforward with Juliet standing on a balcony and Romeo down in the Orchard somewhere. So this image is already coming together and we really didn’t need to think too much about what it should contain. Now comes the hard part though.

Telling the Story

Images fall into one of two categories, “narrative” and “conceptual” (Kress & van Leeuwin, 1996). Act II Scene II (Capulet’s Orchard) is clearly a narrative type image, one that actively presents an unfolding of events with transitory spatial arrangements. With narrative images, the participants need to connect to one another through lines or vectors.

There can be no stronger vector than the one between Romeo and Juliet!  The question then for us is how best to depict this? Juliet is up on the balcony, looking out across the orchard uttering those immortal words…” O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?” She is basically talking to herself, questioning why her beloved Romeo is a member of a rival family, while he stands unnoticed in the orchard below listening to her.

Composing the Shot

So, how would compose your image to tell this story? 

It’s night, so it’s a low key image, with dim, soft romantic lighting. Perhaps a small key light on her to emphasise her loneliness on the balcony. You will also need a catchlight or so on Romeo to show he’s around. She hasn’t seen him, so she’s looking off into the distance, but he is beneath the balcony, listening to her every word. He might be looking up, longingly at her, or he might be looking down at the ground in a pensive mood, your choice I guess.

How do you show that vector, or connection between the characters? soft romantic light? colour coordination? some emblem of love such as a dove or apple (it is set in an apple orchard after all). She might have her arms outstretched, he might have his arms reaching up to her, etc. etc.

All of this, you should be able to compose and tell pretty much the whole story of Act II Scene II (Capulet’s Orchard), in one shot.

Yes, we chose a fairly well-known story, so your audience will probably be able to fill in the blanks. Try picking a different story and play through your mind how you might compose your single shot.


Further Reading:

Kress, G.R., & van Leeuwen, T. (1996). Reading Images: The Grammar of Visual Design. New York: Routledge. ISBN 0-415-31915-3.


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