Visualizing Plot

This week I was especially drawn to Matthew Jockers’ blog post, “A Novel Method for Detecting Plot” (Jockers). In the post, Jockers discusses how his project of tracing sentiment in 19th century fiction using sentiment analysis also lead him to visualizing the plot structures of the novels he looked at. Basically, he found that the shifting emotional valences in a novel (measured through certain words and sentiment markers) are also a proxy for the rising and falling action of the plot. Presumably the moments of positive sentiment are also the high points of the plot, and the moments of negative sentiment are the low points in the plot. There are still some questions and potential problems there––for example, aren’t the low moments also the ones with the most conflict and action?––but it’s an interesting way of visualizing how the narrative moves and varies throughout a work of fiction.

I’m very interested in the possibilities of visualizing narrative forms and structures because it allows us to see how narrative develops and grows: in other words, how it is a living process. This is one of the central goals of my ImagePlot study of narrative variation in games. If we can see how much narrative changes even within a single text (like a game), then we can get a better handle on how narrative operates and the potentials of what we can do with it. The idea that narrative has a shape is interesting as well: what does it mean that the abstract and affective qualities of narrative have specific forms? Is the shape of a narrative ever anything more than an abstraction or a metaphor? Or if it is just that, what meaning does it have? It seems like common or repeated shapes could act as a key of sorts: not in a determistic sense as unlocking every story in a particular form or archetype, but in terms of establishing a set of common meanings that relate to each other across stories.

One of the issues I see with this approach (one that I’ve encountered with my own ImagePlots) is that while these visualizations allow us to see change over time, they’re not great at capturing the fluid, variable, active elements of the experience. In other words, these visualizations present the plot, whether it be represented in rising or falling action or in images, as something static––the graph itself does not move, nor does it capture all the possibilities present in each moment of the text. It is an arresting of motion that is itself quite dead. That might be a necessary evil in order to do this type of work and analysis, but I still wonder if the tools themselves could get better at demonstrating some of the same action that they represent.


Jockers, Matthew. “A Novel Method for Detecting Plot,”, June 5, 2014.


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