More Nothing: What Visual Storytelling Needs

Heather Anthony is an artist.

She creates family portraits.

To begin, she asks the family to send her photographs of each person.

She asks them about the clothes they like to wear.  And the fashion story they tell.

Creating context

From those contextual elements, she draws a digital sketch of the group for approval.

Only then does she transform the idea into a finished work of art.

I’ve been fortunate enough to see the reaction of people when the final work is revealed.

Ah, the moment of truth

Invariably everyone’s (and I mean everyone’s) first reaction is the same. In fact, it’s always stated in the same five words.

“It looks just like them”


My reaction is always, “No it doesn’t.”

“It can’t.”

“It’s just a bunch of different colored dots made of yarn.”

So what’s Heather’s cross-stitch secret?

The power of the missing

It’s simple. She simply sets up the basic context. And your mind fills in the rest.

Heather knows the power of the absence of information.

And so she has given us

Heather’s First Law Of Visual Storytelling.



Sometimes, what you leave out is more important than what you put in.


(By the way, you can experience this for yourself. Ask Heather to create a portrait of your family, or a friend’s or relatives. They make great gifts. Heather Anthony)

The power of the unresolved

In 1927, Gestalt psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik noticed a funny thing.

Waiters in a Vienna restaurant could only remember orders that were in progress. As soon as the order was completed, they seemed to wipe it from their memories.

Zeigarnik then did what any good psychologist would. She went back to the lab and designed a study.

A group of adults and children was given a bunch of tasks to do. Half were interrupted so that they couldn’t be completed.

Guess what?

People remembered the interrupted tasks two times better than the completed ones.

Zeigarnik credited the finding to a state of tension. Something akin to a cliffhanger ending.

Your mind wants to know what comes next. It wants to finish. It wants to keep working. And it will keep working even if you tell it to stop.

Psychologist Arie Kruglanski calls this a Need for Closure. It is a desire of our minds to do away with states of uncertainty and resolve unfinished business.

It’s all psychology

Artists use our psychological need for closure. They also use the absence of information. Together, they bring three things into their art:

  • They get our attention.
  • They drag us into a narrative created in our minds to provide closure.
  • The story in the picture becomes our story.

This helps shed light on why we care about the protagonist in a good story. Why every fiber of our body wants to know what happens next.

So we project ourselves onto the story. We empathize with the characters in it.

Dream on

In that sense, the story acts like a dream.

It allows us to experience something hypothetical. It reminds us, through emotions and imagery, that the world and how we move through it could be different.

Great stories push us to the forefront as people. They make our world larger and richer.

Most often, it is the absence of information in the story that creates this personal meaning.

Fill it in

We fill in the blanks. We create our own personal version of the story to tie together the pieces of the narrative.

That’s why we invest so much in what comes next. And that’s what provides the real reward.

And the real reward is not answers. Or information. Or data. Or a message.

The real reward is emotion.

Don’t believe it?

Here are a few more examples from the history of art.

Magritte’s Puzzle Postulate

Why is she only half there? Is it an enchanted forest? What happens to people who enter?


Why is there no light in the middle of the day? Has an unspeakable tragedy happened?


Is the painting an extension of the ocean or is the ocean washing up onto the painting?  Iron ball?


Solving visual problems makes us want to resolve the story.


Hopper’s Corollary To Magritte’s Puzzle Postulate

Is this a chance meeting in a diner? Are they falling in love? Are they breaking up?


What is she thinking about? Is she waiting for someone?


Where is she going? Is she on her way to meet her long-lost love. What is she reading?


“Imagining other people’s situations makes us wonder about the story behind them.”


Vincent’s Violent Theorem Of Emotional Involvement

This is a village full of excitement. Even the sky is exciting. Why? What happens here?


This man must be traveler. Where has he been? What exotic things has he done?


Lights. Light coming from everywhere. Where will they go and what will they do in this village of lights.


Are these people hired hands? Are they husband and wife just trying to keep their farm together?


Strong visual impressions create strong emotions. We resolve them by creating a story about them. Or by cutting off our ears


Not just for pictures

The absence of information is a powerful tool in visual storytelling. But it’s not limited to the images we see.

It also works for the words we use. The things we choose to leave out of our stories.

Ernest Hemingway proved that with:

Hemingway’s Wordy Application of Heather’s Law


In doubt? Take it out.


As the urban legend goes

World War I was finally over.

The period that followed was one of gaiety and optimism. So much so, it sparked a new era of creativity in America.

One of the most profound — and outrageous — influences was a group of a dozen taste-makers. They lunched together at New York City’s Algonquin Hotel.

For more than a decade they met daily to enjoy food, drink, wisecracks, wordplay, and witticisms. They came to be known as the Algonquin Round Table.

Just a bunch of trouble-making storytellers

The Round Table was made up of people with a shared admiration for each other’s work.

People like poet, writer and satirist Dorothy Parker. And Heywood Broun, the columnist and sportswriter. And author, playwright, Edna Ferber. And Marc Connelly, Pulitzer Prize winning playwright.

Outspoken and outrageous, they enjoyed quoting each other freely in their daily columns.

The Round Table embodied the era. And, as a result, changed forever the face of American humor.

Papa comes to visit

The core group of friends was sometimes joined by others who attended for short periods. That included such notables as actress Tallulah Bankhead and playwright Noel Coward.

And on at least one occasion, it included Earnest Hemingway.

Hemingway didn’t like the viciousness of the group. And he wasn’t intimidated by their intelligence or fame. But he did appreciate their talent for communicating.

Wanna bet?

So one day, he bet the group ten dollars each that he could write a novel in fewer words than anyone else.

Playwright and director, George S. Kaufman, went first with a lengthy three-paragraph story.

Robert Benchley, the humorist and actor, followed with something a bit shorter.

Amazingly, the critic and journalist, Alexander Wollcott, got his down to four sentences.

And so it went

Until it was Hemingway’s turn. He wrote his story on a napkin and passed it around the table.

And collected his winnings.

But is it a real story?

You be the judge.

  • Is it a narrative?
  • Does it contain characters?
  • Is it aimed at a specific tribe?
  • Does it include intention, obstacle, and resolution?
  • Does it show change?
  • Does it make us feel something?
  • Does it have a moral?

If you ask me, it is.

But then no one ever asks me.

Never the less, that’s my opinion. What’s yours?