Are You Sitting Comfortably? Then I’ll Begin….

A long time ago, in a far and distant land, modellers started saying ‘storytelling’ at each other in excited whispers. It started with the strange people of Diolandia, and soon the people of all the kingdoms started thinking their models were great novels and storied fables…

Seriously though, “storytelling” is the latest buzzword in modelling, especially on the Model Podcasterati (I’m sure as hell guilty on the SCU) but what does it even mean?

Before I get into it, I want to refer you back to my previous essay on Art HERE, as the two are related. I would also like refer you to a fantastic chat I had with Barry Biediger (from the Small Subjects Podcast) on one of my podcasts: Models from Ukraine, recently, but you won’t need to listen to it to understand this argument.

I can also strongly recommend Marijn van Gils’ book for AK Interactive, the snappily titled “DIORAMAS F.A.Q. 1.3 EXTENSION – STORYTELLING, COMPOSITION AND PLANNING” (Jeez, what a mouthful). Ignore the title, it is actually the only book you will ever need on the art of the diorama.

Enough supporting material, lets dive in:

A Disclaimer

Storytelling has taken on an importance in a lot of modellers minds. It’s something lots of people now want to get into, but it is not important for a model to tell a story. As I outlined in “The Tyranny of Realism”, it’s perfectly fine to make a model that is just a study in engineering. Basically, to make a small version of the real thing, as accurately as you can. That is a more than legitimate way to model and I am not saying you need to make models into stories or art, and I am not saying models that do that, are better than any other. I want to make that clear, because on social media, a few people have misrepresented these blogs in that way.

Enough Supporting Material, and Caveats, Let’s Dive In:

What are we even talking about? What is a story? In modelling terms, we are basically talking about adding a sense of time to our models.

There are two schools of thought on how to do this:

1. Contextual story telling – This is where we read the weathering of a model, or the setting, to deduce what has happened to it in the past, and maybe where it is now. This form has no narrative theme, it is a history of the depicted model rather than a true story in the sense we associate with a novel, say, or a film or play.

2. Narrative story telling – This has a story, with a cast of characters, that the view can read or decipher. It tells us that an event is happening. This usually takes the form of a vignette or diorama, but not always. This is a story in the traditional sense, with characters and events depicted or implied.

These are difficult to describe in brief, so lets look at them in depth, and with some examples.

1. Contextual Story Telling

The benefit of this method is that you can apply it to a single model, if modelling a single machine, or figure, is your preference.

In this style of storytelling, how you build and finish the model tells the story. You may add elements and details to the model such as personal items for the crew, or battle damage, to give the object of your model an individualised past, that a clean, prototypical model does not have.

Example A – “Super Bug” by Will Pattison

On the face of it, this is a very dirty late version F-18. Already I can hear the gnashing of ‘Realist’ teeth about its filthy appearance. “They aren’t old enough, they never get that dirty, no crew chief would ever!” blah blah, use your eyes. The clues are on the model, it tells you the story if you look close enough.

The first things you might notice, are the dirt and the paint patches. These tell us the aircraft has done a lot of deployments on a carrier and been patched a lot for corrosion control. It looks beat up, which is not what we expect to see on a Super Hornet. But look closer and we see the clues. On the left side of the nose, the message “300 HEI 26Nov32” is written, and the ship name on the rear fuselage is “USS Doris Miller”, the planned forth carrier in the Gerald Ford class, which will not be laid down until 2026. So, what we are looking at is a future projection of how an F-18 will look in 10 years. With these clues the weathering makes sense. The story is completed by the well observed dirt and corrosion control, translated from older aircraft like F-14s to an F-18 in 2032.

Example B – Sherman by John Murphy
Spud’s Sherman is multi-layered in visual cues that tell a story too. The patina tells us the tank has done some miles. There is dust clinging to the matt paint and collects in the crevices and where angles meet. But where the crew mount the tank, and around high traffic areas like hatches, the dirt is stained with ground-in darker grime, and edges and hatch cushions are polished by regular contact. We can picture the crew without the model having a single figure, reading the story of regular contact. Stains, one dark and oily and one light, run from fuel and water filler caps and the drainage holes, telling us about refilling spills.

On top of the turret, we see spent shells and belt links from the .30 and .50cal MGs, suggesting not just a little use, but some quite heavy firing. But by contrast, a bucket of baseballs hangs from the MG clamps on the back of the turret, and a baseball bat, mitt, and ball rest on the rear deck. The baseball stuff adds arguably more to the story of this model than anything else. We can see beyond the warlike nature of the machine and its weapons, to a life the crew has outside of fighting, and we can picture them off-duty, playing catch and laying out a scratch diamond for a couple of innings.

Finally, the wear on the on-vehicle tools is a nice touch. Paint has worn off the wooden handles through wear and use and the metal components have dirt and grime and grease ground in, adding a picture of hard work to the image of the crew.

Overall, the story Spud is telling us, is of the men that crew this tank. Even before figures are placed on the model, the ‘shadow’ of the human is all over it and we get a detailed picture of their life through the weathering, and the items Spud has added to the model.

When Spud adds the figures, it completes the story, with the loader’s jacket…

2. Narrative Storytelling

Example A – “Men and Whales” by Per Olav Lund
Per Olav is a master of narrative storytelling, and this piece is no exception. In this piece, he uses our common cultural knowledge to bring to mind stories like Moby Dick, and sepia images of whale hunting from the end of the 19th century. This is an image of whaling in the age of sail, rather than the mechanised whaling of contemporary times that proves so deeply controversial. With their hand-held harpoons, and the immense size of the whale, it also recalls the cave paintings of men chasing mammoths from millennia ago.

We can instantly read the story. These men have set out to hunt a whale, and they have found a big one. Per Olav always does his research, the boat is a ship’s boat known as a whaleboat, which features point stem and stern, and a low freeboard and shallow draught. This design gave the boats optimum speed under sail or when rowed, which of course was essential for catching up to whales to allow them men to use their harpoons. Typically, these boats would be launched from a ship, the crews would harpoon the whale, then the whale would have to drag them and the boat, tethered to the harpoons in its flesh, until the whale tired too much to run, then it would be towed back to the ship. But of course, this was not so simple in practice.

In this case the whale has turned to attack the whalers and the boat is lifted by its tail, the crew spilling and falling. The whaler at the front of the boat hangs tight to the rope of the harpoon they have already lodged in their quarry. He braces his foot and leans hard back, knowing that letting go could be the end of their chase. Behind him, his shipmate readies another harpoon, hoping that two will slow the whale and say its strength. Two sailors tip into the water, from the violet thrust of the whale’s tail under their boat. At the back of the boat, a boy clings to the gunwhale, cowering in terror in the bottom of the boat. Another sailor reaches for him to hold onto him and stop the boy also being ejected from the boat. It was common practice for boys as young as 12 to apprentice on ships, even in navies, up to the 1940s.

Below them the sea is dark and deep, and the tail of the wheel flicks their boat with such energy, that the men, their boat, and everything they have is tossed into chaos.

The basic story is obvious, but in the details, the motion, the expressions of the men and the boy, it becomes so much deeper and richer. A masterpiece of storytelling.

Example B – “Fear” by Ivan Cocker

Ivan Cocker is another superb modeller at depicting emotion and telling a story. In this diorama, he gives us a story from Operation Barbarossa.

The scene shows three young Russian soldiers hiding in a shell hole under an upturned BT tank. The shell hole and the upturned tank tell us that they are in the middle of an artillery barrage. The telegraph pole with its severed lines is symbolic of them being cut off. (Visually it also creates a nice triangle to the composition, of course). The tree trunk resting on the tank has been torn up by titanic forces, and dropped there, and in the hole, the three men hold their helmets, their rifles and each other for dear life as the world around them explodes in sound, fury, and fire.

We can imagine them running into battle with their comrades, we can imagine them coming under the barrage, and we can imagine them emerging from the hole and into captivity as the unseen enemy advances. In a nutshell, it encapsulates the steamroller advance of the German forces in the opening of Operation Barbarossa, and the overwhelmed and shell-shocked Russians they overran. Great, simple, narrative storytelling.


You don’t have to tell a story in your model: like whether or not you weather, or choose one scale over another, or build OOB or superdetail, its just another choice in your modelling.

But if you choose to, it can really enrich your model, it can add a depth and context to a model or scene that you can’t get with a model of a prototypical machine. If you do elect to do it though, make sure you understand your story and make sure everything on the model serves the story you are telling. And please, try to make it an interesting story! Ground grew loading ammunition in the wing of a P-47 is a story, but does it say anything interesting? Or is it just “there were men who did this and this is how they did it?” Consider making them look tired to tell the story of round the clock operations, or maybe have them goofing off, to show young men conscripted to warlike activity reverting to their true selves. Try to make it a story that adds some emotion or character.

That’s it for this one. I hope you enjoyed reading this and I look forward to reading your comments as always


About Chris

I'm Chris Meddings, Modeller, Author, Publisher of Modelling Books, Podcaster, and armchair wannabe thinker
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One Response to Storytelling

  1. This is an excellent exposition on the art of story telling in modelling and I find it strange that nobody has left you a comment on it. Perhaps everyone agrees with you so they feel no need to comment.

    While I agree with you I have to point out that there are many forms of story telling and the one that I use comes from the fact that I didn’t go to art school, where what you have written about is probably part of the agenda, but to history school with a bit of museum studies on the side. This means that I understand the word ‘storytelling’ quite differently from how it is apparently used by most modellers. When in Washington, DC, we spent the morning at the National Air and Space Museum and the afternoon across the Mall at the National Gallery of Art. There was an awful lot of storytelling going on in both places, not all of it from a fine art perspective.

    From my perspective and experience I see story telling as the act of telling a story using words. In the case of my model making it is a combination of a model and words accompanying it in the way that anyone who has been to a museum will understand. For me a model is not complete until I have completed its placard in the same way that an aircraft or painting in a museum would be without context without a placard. I suppose this means that I don’t see a model as an artefact in itself but as a representation of something else. Thus, while we may assume that everyone knows all about Bf109s or T-34s, it would be foolish to think that even the most informed modeller knows what a Latecoere 631 is and so the viewer needs some help.

    Hmmm, that’s an interesting idea I must think on. Which reminds me to thank you for these pieces which have encouraged me to make sense of the thoughts sloshing around in my modelling brain that I had not thought to formalize before.

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