Plot & tension

Plot & tension

2014 • School of Information @ University of California, Berkeley

I don't remember what story started my love affair with nonlinear narratives — it might have been Slaughterhouse-Five, it might have been Memento — but I know I can't get enough of them. Some stories just refuse to contort themselves into a beginning, a middle, and an end. I wanted to develop some different ways of representing the "shape" of a story that doesn't follow a single line.

plot and tension - visual tools for writers

With a partner (he served as research lead, while I was design lead) I collaborated with a novelist to create and prototype Plot and Tension, a tool for writers to visualize, organize, and revise their multi-threaded narratives. (The demo linked above, implemented in D3, is fully functional, with the exception of saving your work, but the chapter summaries have been replaced with dummy text.)


The writer we worked with had a draft of a novel with at least seven separate narrators, each telling part of the story from their perspectives; she had written each character's story separately and was struggling with how to divide and merge them into a final manuscript. Our tool lets her see, at a glance, how the narrative flows from character to character (the timelines at left) and how each story increases and decreases in tension (the bulging shapes at center) — updating in real time as she rearranges the chapters to introduce and return to characters in a different order.

sketches of plot and tension design ideas

We drew inspiration from graph visualizations and anthropological theories about archetypal story forms, but ultimately none of the existing forms we studied were simple enough for an untrained user to learn quickly while capturing the subtleties of our qualitative data, so we invented "tension lines," which vary in thickness based on a narrative tension score assigned to each chapter.