Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Visualization: Venn gone wrong

Reprinted from an AC/ER email exchange:

Yo Erik,

Attached is an attempt at a visualization of the text I'm working on in [REDACTED]. So here's the attempt:

The relative size of the circle is how many pages the character is on. The overlap indicates the number of pages hared and with who. So let's say Edward is on 80 pages. And Beto is on 30 pages. And most of Beto's pages are shared with Edward, except for that couple of scenes he has with Spencer. And character J only has a few pages, and all of them are with Edward.

So I think you get what I'm trying to do. The first question is, does it have the potential to open anything up?

And then, there are problems with the visualization:
If you look at it as it stands, it looks like Edward is on a whole bunch of pages alone. But he's not, in fact, he's never alone. In
point of fact, there are no solo scenes in this particular show, so everything should overlap everything else. Clearly, this was
originally a riff on a Venn diagram, but as I've tried it, the Venn idea maybe isn't so great - there aren't a lot of points that would
ONLY be in a "character set.

So I'm also thinking of a different way to visualize it. It'd be like a pie chart with overlapping slices or something. Nothing on the many-eyes site is quite right. I'm also just trying to figure out how to represent the idea on a chart so that someone smarter than me could write a piece of code that visualized it.

Thought you might get a kick out of it.


  1. Erik responded:

    Interesting. You would think this would tell me who the protagonist is, but it doesn't necessarily, does it? As far as action is concerned, stage time isn't always relevant, though it usually indicates who the writer thinks the play is about. (Sometimes it indicates who the play should be about, but the writer is fighting it.) Certainly time on stage and the ability to interact with every character is a major indicator of something, but I once wrote a character who was referred to as a "cigar store Indian" by some smart ass mentor: always standing there in the shop (i.e. on stage), apparently a part of every conversation, but never really saying or doing anything of dramatic value. (When I use the idea nowadays, I have since changed the term from "cigar store Indian" to "Sears panty-display manikin". You never know who will be insulted by a cigar store Indian, plus... they seldom have heads, which plays toward what I am usually getting at in this particular dramaturgical argument.)

    One simple thing I really like is seeing who talks to whom and who doesn't talk to whom. Simple, but could be very important. We sometimes skip the simple because we know too much... There could be great dramatic tension in how/why J never talks to Spencer or Beto. Or it could mean nothing since I don't know the plot. But visualizing simple things sometimes points out simple solutions and can create new avenues of attack. For example, how does the play change if J were to be able to talk to Beto without Edward in the room and thus learn what Beto knows?

    So without knowing the play at all, it still opens up the question of who is driving the play: if the driving force of the play isn't the biggest circle on the page, why not? And J is encompassed entirely within Edward without touching the others at all -- does this mean something? (Could mean many things to you as a 'turg, all the way from "Why is J in this play?" to "Is J a figment of Edward's imagination?" depending on how much one wants to over-read the diagram.) Another thing the diagram potentially tells me is that the moments where Spencer, Beto and Edward are on stage together should be the moments of greatest dramatic tension. Is this the case? (That reminds me: for the Wiki I need to go into detail defining the difference between dramatic tension and dramatic action -- both can capture an audience, but only one of the two actually moves plot. The other loads the bullets into the plot.)

    Does that help? I like the idea of the diagram a lot. I do wonder what the negative space means, too. Why isn't Edward ever on stage alone? Silly question since this is a problem of the chart design, not the play, but a question I'm lead to ask nonetheless.

  2. And Aaron responded:

    Ah! You've pointed out a mistake I made in my diagram. There aren't actually any scenes between Beto, Edward and Spencer. There are scenes between B&S, between E&S and between B&E, but not between all three.

    Fascinating. This has led to a possible technique for using these visualizations. Might it be a bit of a disarming move if I started by show a playwright a diagram of a play other than his or her own? And just as you did, open up a discussion based on what the diagram could imply not even knowing the text. And then show the playwright the same style diagram for their own play?

    Also interesting that you are led to ask why J is in the play. That's one of my structural questions and I wanted to open that up in a new way. And, interesting that I made the overlap error because it also begs the question what would happen if those three did have a scene together?