Motion pictures are often referred to as stories told with pictures. In order to develop their visual story telling ability, film school students may be asked to write and direct a silent film before they move on to sound. Telling a story visually is a very different skill than what’s required for writing a novel. It doesn’t come naturally to everyone, since we’re accustomed to communicating through words.
So if telling a story with pictures alone is hard, then telling a story with a single picture is going to be even more difficult. And that is essentially what a diorama is: a three-dimensional picture of a single moment in time. In my first post on this blog nearly a year ago, I defined it as a “miniature slice of reality.” But there is no dialogue and no music. Everything is conveyed visually.
Why then do people in the modelling community say that a diorama should tell a story? This seems like wishful thinking, given that the vast majority of dioramas depict scenes rather than tell entire stories. Dioramas can show things like tanks rolling into battle, pilots discussing strategy in front of their aircraft, or ships pulling into harbour. All these examples can be classified as scenes. But is it possible for a diorama to tell an entire story?
To answer this, let’s start by breaking a story down into its components. Every story has (1) characters, and (2) a progression of events involving those characters as they interact with one another.
Putting characters into a diorama is easy. Characters are usually human, but don’t have to be. Remember Stephen King’s Christine? The title character was a car.
The next step is getting the characters to interact with one another. My Drug Runners diorama, for example, depicts military personnel from an unmarked helicopter exchanging gunfire with two men hauling contraband in a speedboat. The wake behind the boat tells us that it is in motion, which heightens the excitement of the scene. If it were part of a movie, it would be an action scene.
But how do we go from scene to story? In a movie, scenes are strung together to create a progression of events, and the end result is a story. We can’t do that in a diorama, since we’re limited to one moment in time (a notable exception is a museum exhibit featuring multiple dioramas which are meant to be viewed in sequence).
To transform your diorama from a scene to a story, the viewer must be sufficiently intrigued to fill in the missing details himself and build a story around it. To do this, your diorama must be thought provoking and raise questions. Here are some of the questions raised by Drug Runners:
- Will the men in the boat escape?
- Where are they taking the contraband?
- What organization do the soldiers in the unmarked helicopter belong to?
An imaginative viewer will start filling in their own answers to these questions as they contemplate the diorama. Eventually, they’ll concoct a story their head, which is their interpretation of what happened before the scene and what will happen after. So now there’s a progression of events, and we have a story. Much of the story is implied rather than explicit, which means that it will be different for every viewer.
An intriguing diorama can thus invite the viewer to become a creative collaborator and help build an entire story around one scene. With artist and audience working together, the diorama no longer just depicts a scene. It does much more: it tells a story.