Visual Storytelling through Editing

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Stories are a fascinating aspect of our society. We can all think of a story that has had some significance to us in our lives; a family story, a religious story, a story about a night out with friends, or a story of hardships in life and how we overcame the odds. At BlueShoe Media, we believe that everyone has a significant story, and we want to share those stories.

In this blog post I would like to take the time to break down how to tell a story through visual media, specifically video and film editing. There are plenty of commercials or videos on the internet that have grabbed our attention and held onto it, in doing so we became a captive audience. Even though we had been unaware of this story just moments before, we suddenly realize that we care to see the story develop. We want to know this story. But why? What about the thousands of videos in our lifetime that we have skipped on a playlist, commercials we muted or fast forwarded through, or movies we passed on Netflix? While factors like the video’s agenda or different biases may influence our decisions on some of these things, I believe it has more to do with how the video is presented, or, edited.

Statistically, a video only has, at most, eight seconds to capture its viewer’s attention. More conservative estimates state that videos have only one second (maybe only 24 frames*) to capture the attention of a viewer. That poses a big challenge for content producers. How can an editor convey the compelling intricacies of a story in just 1-8 seconds of footage?

Well, that is what I hope to answer here. A quick search of “How to edit a video to tell a story,” in Google presents a plethora of diverse opinions and studies on the matter. Some deal strictly with marketing videos and websites for businesses; others do not even teach editing, but only focus on the actual filming of the video. Once you manage to find the right video, many are guarded by paywalls* from film schools. Rarely do I see a free article or video that gives clear, overarching, and simple steps on how to edit video and audio from a camera into a narrative story that people will care to listen to. That’s why I have listed some basic steps and outlines to editing video in order to tell stories that abide by one of the most important rules: keep it simple*.

Know the Story

It seems simple enough, but it is surprising how many editors do not actually know the story of the footage they are editing. Ask the director, producer, or writer for as much information on the story as possible–especially if you were unable to be present during the time of filming. If it still feels like you are missing out on some information, get in contact with the producer, director, or the subject of the story. This will aid you in being able to forecast and see how to properly convey the tone of the story.

Know the Rules

As an editor, you need to know the rules that the producers have set for you. First and foremost is time. I cannot emphasize this enough! If you make a beautiful edit telling the sincere and intimate life story of an individual that is ten minutes long and the producer said the limit is a maximum of five minutes, then you will have to start back at ground zero. Know the time limit for the final video and work within that. Leave yourself wiggle room and aim to be five to ten percent under your time limit. Second, be sure to make note of any other restrictions or request by your producer. Is there a budget for music? No? Find some royalty free music. Is there a rule on color? Black and white only? Alright, use shots that  have the most coherent contrast and remain clear for the audience. Follow the rules as an editor. If you feel they are restricting the video’s potential, make what is requested and then present any alternative ideas afterwards.

Keep it Simple

Remember in 3rd grade when we were taught Freytag’s Pyramid and how stories progress? Well, in case you do not, here it is:

Exposition is the introduction and necessary background of the story. It is relatively short in comparison to rising action and falling action. The rising action is that part when an issue or problem is presented to the audience. It is given time to be emphasized and to escalate. This leads to a climax where we see that the problem is manifested and a solution to the problem is introduced and potentially solved or if the problem is not solved and leads to disaster. The falling action is the new reality after the climax, but it is not the resolution of the story. The resolution comes during the denouement, a time where the audience is shown how the characters in story go on with life after the story has come to an end. This is one of the simplest and most powerful formats for a story, as it is flexible regardless of the limits and rules placed on you as the editor.


It is all about the visuals. Without visuals there would of course be no visual storytelling. Keep track of the order the shots were filmed in. Doing so will let you know which part of the story each shot fits into–since you should have already established what the story was. Now, here is where you start to build up and create those one to eight seconds that snag the audience’s attention and makes them invest in the rest of the story. This should always be a visual that presents the exposition of the story. Whether it is a flashback, flash forward, a close up establishing the character or wide angled shot establishing the setting, it needs to be gripping. Don’t be afraid to take some inspiration from videos or films that were able to grip you. After this, you can begin to dive into the story. Use B-roll* as eye candy that can show more about the character as the narrator explains and conveys the story. Always try to show more than you tell. Even if the video is just an interview, be sure to give it movement. It’s easy to mix around shots and angles along with B-roll to make the video feel more alive.

Music and Sound

This is another big one. You should be thinking of music that matches the tone of the video. You probably shouldn’t place a disco track with a video that is covering an individual’s funeral or a sad piano song to a fun day exploring the beach and a theme park. Don’t be afraid to experiment at times and cut the music for an intense dramatic focus, or in order for the audience to focus on the depth and emotion of a character’s expression. Also, if there is a narrative to the story, make sure to take advantage of running narrative audio underneath B-roll footage as a transition. Try to time shot transitions to the beat of music or the cadence of someone speaking–this is also known as stinging*! It will flow better.  

Practice and be open to criticism

Chances are your first edit won’t be your best edit. Try making two or three different, initial  edits that vary in shots and technique. This will help you hone in on your style and form. Keep yourself open to constructive criticism and acknowledge that you probably haven’t thought of all the best or most creative ways to tell the story. Doing so will open up new possibilities and feed your creativity in order to produce your best work possible.

Well, there you have it. I believe following these guidelines will help you establish the groundwork on which to practice and build your skills. Even if these rules may feel restrictive, I believe that they are a foundation to stand on as you progress in your editing abilities. Best of luck! (If any of the technical terms used were confusing, I have added an index to help clear up any confusion).


Definition of Terms

24 Frames per Second: The industry standard for recording and editing video is 24fps. If your fps is set too high or too low, people can usually notice. (Pro Tip: always have your shutter speed as double your fps while recording!)

Paywalls: This is a type of infrastructure that magazines, newspapers, and educational sites often use as “mandatory pop-ups” with the intent of making you pay for their content.

Keeping it simple: Don’t make your editing process more technical than it needs to be! Let it be organic and flow as you edit. While it may not seem simple at first, it often becomes easier over time.

A-roll/B-roll: A-roll is the primary focus of the video. This footage includes any interview footage or direct dialogue with that subject. B-roll is any background or complimentary footage. While it is not necessary to tell the story in a strict sense, it helps provide: a better understanding of the subject, a better knowledge of where the story takes place, and better understanding of overall themes presented throughout the story.

Stinging: This is the term that describes the process of synchronizing audio and video in editing.