Review: Dioramas F.A.Q. 1.3: Storytellying, Composition and Planning.

by David

Disclaimer: I bought the book myself, but received a small discount from the publisher. This will not predetermine my review, which will be a fair summary and assessment of the book's strengths and weaknesses as I perceive them.

Hey all,

this is David, back again with another review of a recent book.

This time I'll be looking at Volume 1.3 of AK Interactive's F.A.Q. Dioramas Series, which is titled Storytelling, Composition and Planning. It is written by the incredible Belgian modeller Marijn van Gils, and since I am not only a huge fan of Marijn's works, but also found that a dedicated book on how to plan dioramas and vignettes guided by storytelling and the principles of compostions was the biggest blind spot in the existing modeling literature, I was super-excited to get my hands on this volume. And, let me get this out of the way right away: this book is the bomb! Whoever you are and however much experience you've got under your belt, if you're interested in telling stories with miniatures or scale models, you will find some information, insight or inspiration in this book!

In the book, Marijn takes us on a 240 page-long, richly illustrated journey through the process of planning dioramas and vignettes. Underlying the whole book is a very simple yet powerful premise: that the goal of dioramas is to tell a story. And from this follows a coherent, systematic and well thought-out line of chapters in which Marijn tells the reader how to ensure that the diorama does just that - and does it as good as possible. Chapter 1 provides a brief introduction to the book's goals, a few core concepts, and few bits of practical advice on how to make most of the book.

In Chapter 2, Marijn develops the premise of dioramas as story-telling, and details the elements of "story" that one should consider in including into the diorama. He talks about emotions, interactions, plot, symbolism and the subject matter and how they interact, relate to each other and how to balance them in story-telling. He then discusses the development of ideas and where we, as modellers, can come up with, develop and evaluate them in the process. Here, as throughout the whole book, Marijn hammers home the idea of taking your time, thinking things through, repeatedly testing and reframing your ideas and modeling steps, and discussing ideas with friends, all to make sure that your diorama will be the best it can be.

Chapter 3 delves deep into the principles of composing a diorama to make it a tight and visually pleasing representation of your story. Marijn introduces a number of crucial concepts and ideas related to these goals, namely atmosphere, the way a viewer looks at and comprehends a diorama and how you can use this to your advantage in telling your story. We learn about the importance of multiple focal points and the various principles that make a diorama look coherent, dynamic and realistic. The chapter ends with a collection of a number of very practical tips on sketching, both on paper as well as using 3D mock-ups, which is a core element of Marijn's approach to diorama-building - if you do it his way, the actual diorama-building "merely" means to execute the plan that you have designed, sketched and revised during the planning stage.


Following the general principles and overall considerations of diorama-composition outlined in the two previous chapters, Chapter 4 addresses the core individual aspects of composition. Here, Marijn talks in detail about how to use color, figures, scenery, accessories and the design of the plinth to tell the story in the most convincing and impactful way. Chapter 5 is a brief excursus on how to use existing images as sources of inspiration without being limited in your artistic license by them.


While Chapters 2 to 4 constitute the main parts of the book, both in substance as well as in page numbers - with a total of almost 200 pages between them - the remaining chapters deal with a number of more specific topics. Chapter 6 discusses the general principles and more practical considerations to create a specific type of diorama: shadow-boxes, in which the modeller has full control over the view and lighting of the scene. Chapters 7 and 8 cursorily talk about telling stories with vignettes that include only single figures and single vehicles. The single page of Chapter 9 concludes the book with two brief paragraphs summarizing the core idea of diorama-building as story-telling, and a brief biography together with three pictures of the author.

As noted above, I think this is probably the most important book on diorama building published in the recent past. I have long missed a modern and more substantial version of Sheperd Paine's seminal volume or Ray Anderson's treatise on building box dioramas, that dives into the more conceptual aspects of diorama building: the principles of planning, design and composition, and how to use them to tell stories. Marijn's book deals with all aspects of these issues in a comprehensive and systematic way. Moreover, it is very well written, in a personal, engaging style and very well edited - which is not a given for many modeling books.

The book is lavishly illustrated with a total of over 500 pictures that Marijn uses to great effect to illustrate and drive home his messages. In this, he not only limits the presentation to pictures of his own work, but includes a great many examples by over 80 fellow giants of the modelling world, including Jean-Bernard André, Mike Blank, Bill Horan, Won-hui Lee, and Dirk Menningke, to name but a few of my personal favorite modellers. Each picture is dutifully credited with the diorama's artist, title, scale, and year of finalization. What I particularly liked is that the pictures are not only referenced in the main text as examples for the ideas and concepts developed there. Rather, Marijn makes sure to annotate each image, reiterating the points made in the main text and diving deeper into the idea he wants to transmit with each specific image.

In terms of specific highlights, I really struggle to settle on only one or a few. There are just so many lessons to be learned and pieces of insight and inspiration to be found throughout the book that it's hard to pick one out. The book is just an overall convincing, systematic and useful analysis of Marijn's approach. Moreover, for those who do not yet know Marijn's work in detail, this book is a great introduction into his work and creative mind. But even those who know his work well or even know him personally will find something new and useful, I am sure. For me it was the that literally everything that happens on Marijn's diorama scenes is meticulously planned, thought through and is there for a specific, story-related reason. I consider myself a great fan of his work, but learning about some of the thoughts and reasonings behind some of the smaller design decisions opened my eyes just how much thought, love and eye for detail is in each of these scenes.

With so much praise is there anything I was missing in the book? Not really. Reading through the first couple of pages, I was a bit irritated that the pictures that are referenced in the book's main text as examples for general points do not really depict the exact examples in the text, but are just that: additional examples for the same principle. Also, I think the three brief "chapters" on building dioramas based on pictures (Chapter 5) and vignettes including single figues (Chapter 7) and vehicles (Chapter 8) could have easily been integrated into the substantive chapters 2 to 4. But this is nitpicking, really.

In sum, I would say that, in my eyes,
this is the most important book on modeling I have read so far

While readers looking for concrete advice on techniques for realistic replications of some parts of the world (e.g., weathering or how to build a pine tree in scale) will have to look elsewhere (the existing literature on this is vast), this book fills a huge gap in the modeling literature by focussing on the thinking, planning and designing that goes on before and during diorama-building. I am convinced that virtually everyone building dioramas or vignettes will benefit from reading this book. This book is, hands down, most highly recommended. If you want to take your diorama/vignette-building to the next level and don't own the book already, you should think about getting it. The book is listed for 45,95 Euros and is available through all known retailers.
Let me know if you have questions or comments. All the best,



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