Jennifer Coffey

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Visual Storytelling in Book Covers

We are told to never judge a book by its cover. If you take that statement literally, then the book cover shouldn’t matter. For an avid reading, a book cover could be a huge part of the reading experience. A book cover could create a visual that the reader could never come up with. They could also show an important scene, or they could mean absolutely nothing.

Today I put together a few book covers that tell a story. I’ll explain the scene, point out visual clues, and give insight into key elements of visual storytelling.

Freedom is Space for the Spirit

Fantasy 2016

Right away, this cover invokes and answers several questions. Who are these people and what are they moving away from? We can see that these people might be from Russia, or a made-up kingdom meant to be similar to Russia. Next, we can also tell the season and that these people are going to face any problems based on the temperature alone. According to Seth Gitner, color palette makes a big impact on the mood of a photograph, or in this case, the book cover (Gitner, 2014, p. 13). The cool/ blueish tones further the idea of freezing cold temperatures. This furthers the idea that winter will be a main theme in the book. Lastly, we know that there is a major fantasy element due to the city placed on top of the bear’s back. All of these clues help to tell a story before the reader even opens the book.

Tess of the Road

YA Fantasy 2018

Who is Tess? Is it the person on the bottom of the screen? Is it the dragon? Does the dragon live in the city depicted on its wings, or does the main character live there? Is the dragon violent or worshiped? Another clue into the story is the size of the dragon vs. the character on the bottom. Since the dragon makes up the majority of the cover, to me, it indicates that the dragon is feared and holds power over everyone. This meeting of the two characters shows a rising conflict (Bergstorm, 2012, p. 19). The read can expect these two characters to meet at one point, which will be a huge moment in the story.

Fahrenheit 451

Fiction 1953

There are not that many visual clues in this one, but it still tells a small portion of a much larger story. Here we see a burning man made out of paper covering his face. The reader can see that there are books burning on the ground, but we can’t tell why. This image is seen as a set-up (Bergstorm, 2012, p. 18). It doesn’t tell the read much, but it propels them in to the story. Covers that create more questions than answer them invite the reader to find out what happens next.

The Other Side of the Sky

YA Fantasy 2020

Not only is the cover absolutely gorgeous, it also shows a moment between two characters. “A moment is exactly what it sounds like: a very short bit of time. But it is a very important bit. It is the instant when an event is crystallized, when its significance is packed into a fleeting incident, expression, or gesture” (Gitner, 2015, p. 7). The viewer will need to read the book to find out what they are talking about, but if it is on the cover of the book, it must be a very important moment. This cover also shows the reader the setting of the book. We have two world, one on a planet and one in the sky. Are these characters from two separate places? The colors in their clothing might answer that one. Are they enemies or lovers? Overall, the moment and setting must have a big impact on the plot of the book.


Fiction 1974

Just like the movie, this cover creates immediate suspense and questions. Is she going to survive? Will she escape? This one goes against one of the four principles of visual storytelling laid out by Jade Lien. The shark-to-women ratio may not be authentic, but the fear is very much real (Lien, 2020). The first impression of the cover invokes a very important question, what is going to stop with shark?

The Goldfinch

Fiction 2013

Without knowing the plot of the book, the reader is left asking several questions. What is the hidden painting? Why was it covered up? Who tore the paper? This is another example of a set-up (Bergstorm, 2012, p. 18). This cover doesn’t give us as many clues to world-building or characters, but it does show up a symbol. It shows us the goldfinch, and the whole reason for the title of the novel. For the reader to know more, they will have to read to find out why this little bird is so important.

A Darker Shade of Magic

Fantasy 2015

This cover uses multiple elements similar to photography to tell it’s story. The use of color, perspective, distance, and composition to establish what is going on in this moment (Gitner, 2015, p. 19). We can see that the man in the middle must be one of the main characters. He is wearing a bright red cloak, it must either symbolize something, or it is the true color of the coat. But what is he doing? It looks like he is jumping between two different maps. Could he be jumping into different worlds? If our assumptions are correct, this is a set-up moment to figure out how and why he has this ability (Bergstorm, 2012, p. 18). Overall, this cover suggests that it is going to be a book driven on world-building.



We have all seen the covers to cheesy romance novels, and they are all quite similar. Almost all the covers I found on the Internet were the same type of couple over and over again. The men had their shirts off and the women were in big flowing dresses with their necks sticking out at awkward angles. This suggests that these books are very dramatic and emphasize the romance over everything else (Bergstorm, 2012, p. 16). Despite giving us a quick laugh, these covers reveal a lot about the story.

This particular cover gives us clues into the setting, characters, and the relationship between them. This first impression of the characters helps us identify their archetypes (Lien, 2020). We can see that the man is strong, while the women is presented as weak. We can also see that the two might not get along. The man is staring intently at her as she looks away from him. This suggests that they might not get along for a majority of the novel. Lastly, the cover also shows the setting. It looks like the couple might be riding on a beach, which makes this romance even more of a fantasy.

The Institute

Fiction 2019

This cover is amazing because it could have been done in many different ways. “The brain finds it easier to process information if it is presented as an image rather than as words or numbers” (Losowsky, 2012, p. 7). The designers could have shown a train ticket with platform numbers and seating arrangements, but instead they chose to show a cut out of a single train car. This image shows the reader any things that are about to happen in the book. It shows a boy, alone in a plain train car. From the dark sides of the train tracks, it doesn’t appear to be moving very fast. But is begs the question, where is he going, and is he going there by his choice?

A Little Life

Fiction 2015

The first impressions from this cover show a very intimate and emotional moment from one of the main characters. This personal moment gives a hint of the emotional toll this book is going to inflict on the reader (Lien, 2020). So the reader is left asking themselves several questions. Who is this man? Why is he upset? Is he even upset? Overall, this cover shows more of a small moment than other components like setting or plot.


My favorite part about book cover is the fact that they can be simple or complex. Something as simple as The Goldfinch could show a glimpse of the painting that would change the main characters life forever, or the complex cover of The Other Side of the Sky shows the vast different worlds where the characters come from.


Bergström, B. (2012). Storytelling. In Essentials of visual communication (pp. 14-27). London: Laurence King.

Gitner, S. (2015). Multimedia storytelling for digital communicators in a multiplatform world. New York: Routledge.

Klanten, R., & Losowsky, A. (2012). Introduction. In Visual storytelling: Inspiring a new visual language (pp. 4-7). Berlin: Gestalten Verl.

Lien, J. (2020, March 04). Worth 1,000 Words: The 4 Principles of Visual Storytelling. Retrieved August 29, 2020, from

Book Cover Resources

The 30 Best Book Covers of 2016: Amazing book covers, Book cover art, Book cover design inspiration. (n.d.). Retrieved August 29, 2020, from

The best book covers of all time: 50 coolest book covers: Best book covers, Cool books, Book cover design. (n.d.). Retrieved August 29, 2020, from

Book covers. (n.d.). Retrieved August 29, 2020, from

A Darker Shade of Magic: A Novel (Shades of Magic Book 1) eBook: Schwab, V. E.: Kindle Store. (n.d.). Retrieved August 29, 2020, from

Fahrenheit 451. (2020, August 25). Retrieved August 29, 2020, from

The Goldfinch (novel). (2020, July 08). Retrieved August 29, 2020, from

King, S. (2020). The Institute. Retrieved August 29, 2020, from

The Other Side of the Sky by Amie Kaufman. (n.d.). Retrieved August 29, 2020, from

Telfer, T. (2015, June 03). 21 Super-Erotic Romance Novel Covers, Dissected In More Detail Than You Ever Actually Wanted. Retrieved August 29, 2020, from

Yanagihara, H. (2016, January 26). A Little Life: Paperback. Retrieved August 29, 2020, from

One response to “Visual Storytelling in Book Covers”

  1. Hey Jennifer,

    What a cool idea to incorporate your passion for books and reviewing literature into this post! I think this an excellent medium for assessing and learning more about visual storytelling. This is definitely something that I will be looking closer at in the future. Good job incorporating your sources. Maybe consider tying in some critiques of other diverse storytelling elements like proximity, background/foreground, etc. to dive further.

    Good job!


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