Alfred Hitchcock’s Rules of Visual Storytelling

  • Harry Hayes

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Hitchcock Didn’t Just Understand the Rules of Visual Storytelling. He Practically Invented Them. 

The rules of visual storytelling are like a cinematic language that we all understand. Visual cues and devices that filmmakers have been using for years to communicate with the audience.

In fact, I wrote a post about visual storytelling in corporate videos. You can read it here.

So what are these rules and where did they come from? They were developed years ago, in the early days of the film industry.

And Alfred Hitchcock—the “Master of Suspense” and director of acclaimed films such as “Psycho” and “North By Northwest”— is often credited with perfecting the rules of visual storytelling.

Here are a few of them:

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Rule #1

The first of Hitchcock’s rules of visual storytelling is to start with a wide establishing shot. That means start out with a wide-angle lens, and communicate a sense of place, before introducing the characters.

The audience needs to know where the story is taking place. Is it in someone’s home? In an office?

Sometimes, knowing the setting is an integral part of understanding a story.

Alfred Hitchcock’s Rules of Visual Storytelling

Rule #2

Another of Hitchcock’s rules is “Don’t Direct the Actors, Direct the Audience.” In other words, film every scene, every shot, with the audience in mind.

This really gets to Hitchcock’s core philosophy about filmmaking—that visual storytelling is a much more effective way to communicate story elements than words or dialogue.

He used his camera to represent the eyes of the audience, to show them where to look, and when.

This enabled him to control the story being told, and what the audience knew.

And, by extension, it enabled him to manipulate the emotions of the audience, how they felt about a character or about a sudden plot twist.

So yes, Hitchcock used images and editing to direct the audience watching his films.

Of course, not every filmmaker works in this way. Many communicate stories mainly through dialogue.

Hitchcock called this “photographs of people talking,” and found it boring. He believed it was much more effective to engage the audience, and draw them in to the story. 

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Rule #3

The third rule is the best known of the rules of visual storytelling—so much so that it’s often referred to as “Hitchcock’s Rule.”

The size of an object in the frame should be proportional to its importance to the story at that particular moment.

In other words, use the framing of the shot  to help communicate important story elements or details.

If a story element or detail is really important, use a close-up. This places extra emphasis at that moment.

This also includes dialogue. You should also cut to a close-up when a character says something of particular importance.

It’s like telling the audience to pay special attention.

Rules We All Understand

Anyone who grew up watching movies and television understands these rules. Some of them are so common, they’ve become cliche.

But that doesn’t diminish their impact. Decades after Hitchcock’s death, these rules are still used in storytelling today. And audiences still respond to these visual cues whether they realize it or not.

And we all have Hitchcock to thank for that.

BTW, elements in the video above were “borrowed” from The Whole Equation, a UK-based YouTube channel about the art of filmmaking. Visit their channel to find more interesting content like that.


About the Author: 

Harry Hayes is the owner and executive producer at Content Puppy Productions, a corporate video production agency based in Charlotte. Before starting Content Puppy, he spent 20+ years as an advertising writer and creative director.


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