Visualization Story Structure

Recently, I have been working as a writer in a computer lab where visualization software is designed.

With the over-abundance of information, visualizations can make targeted pieces of information easier and clearer for the reader to instantly comprehend. This particular software mines a large database of information and displays what you tell it to find in a visual format.

For example:

Fig. 1 Scatterplot of Obesity vs Age

Fig. 1 Scatter plot of Obesity vs. Age

This is a scatter plot of obesity rates vs. age. Even without a lot of explanatory text, you can see that as people get older, the rate of obesity increases. This is not exactly earth shattering information until you compare this graph with graphs from earlier years and then you’ll see that with each successive year, obesity starts affecting a younger and younger demographic.

I’m fortunate, because I find this use of visualization fascinating and I love nothing more than “going to work.”

But it has me wondering about the role of visualization in storytelling. When people are crushed (and I mean absolutely *crushed*) for time, is there a place for condensing and presenting information in a visual format within the context of a story?

Last weekend I was out of town. My kids decided to surprise me by re-organizing the kitchen. Like any mom who spends a lot of time in the kitchen, I have to admit that although I said “thank you” through somewhat gritted teeth, what I was really thinking was “you did what?!!” My kitchen is my studio, it’s where I create nourishment and where I build our family structure. It’s where stories are birthed. I was a little worried at what I would find.

My son proudly showed me his contribution to the effort. We tend to have a large collection of coffee mugs and his job was to sort through and organize them.

After looking at all the mugs, my son, my little black or white thinker, decided to only keep a set of vintage white Pyrex matching mugs and he placed the rest of the mugs in a box that was headed to Goodwill as soon as I went through them. (Seriously after reading that do you blame me for our house rule – “Nothing goes to Goodwill until I okay it!”?)

My heart sank as I looked at the perfect row of matching mugs, all lined up with their handles facing to the right. If I were to visualize my son’s idea of what mugs in a kitchen should look like, I would use this graphic.

Fig. 2 - Logan's mugs

Fig. 2 – Logan’s mugs

Utilitarian. Nothing else is needed. Identical. In a row. Functional. Move along, there’s nothing more to see.

We’re done here.

But if I were to try to visualize my idea of what mugs in a kitchen should look like, it would look more like this.

6 cups

Fig 3. – Wendy’s mugs

See that large magenta flower? That’s my “World’s Best Mom” mug. The lighter rose one behind it is the mug I picked up at the King Arthur bakery when my son and I stopped for lunch after I had picked him up from college to bring him home for the holidays. The spiked purple flower is the “I’d Tap That” mug I got when the kids and I followed the maple syrup trail last year and we all tried a maple syrup injected hotdog.

Well you get the picture.

As we all get busier and busier, visualizations, whether they are used in journalistic articles to convey a great deal of information in an easy to understand format or in storytelling to emphasize a dramatic point, are the way of the future.

We are going to see more and more of this technique being used in writing.

Using visualizations within the context of storytelling (think adult picture books) is exciting, it’s a different way of designing stories and if done effectively, could add much to what we have to say. It will be, however, our ongoing challenge as storytellers to figure out how best to incorporate this information tool into our tales while still keeping to a defined story structure.

Something to definitely think about.

Oh, and just so you know, this is the handmade blueberry pottery mug Marc got for me on our honeymoon.

honeymoon mug

Fig. 4 – Wendy’s most favorite mug

Matching mugs be damned, this one is going back onto the shelf.

 

***

Wendy Thomas is an award winning journalist, columnist, and blogger who believes that taking challenges in life will always lead to goodness. She is the mother of 6 funny and creative kids and it is her goal to teach them through stories and lessons.

Wendy’s current project involves writing about her family’s experiences with chickens (yes, chickens). (www.simplethrift.wordpress.com) She writes about her chickens for GRIT, Backyard Poultry, Chicken Community, and Mother Earth News.

16 thoughts on “Visualization Story Structure

  1. Appreciate your thoughts here. And it’s perfect timing for me. I’m writing a book set in the mid 80s and early 90s when crack cocaine was first making it’s mark on society. This is also the time when semi-automatic weapons were becoming the enforcement tool of choice for drug dealers. This is important information to explain how the criminal organization my main character was involved with rose so quickly. Yet, the details bog down the narrative with an information dump. I discovered an excellent graphic last week and wondered if it would be “acceptable” to include it. Thanks for giving me permission to think outside the norm.

  2. I’m wondering how print media (paper books) would handle this? As I understand it, a book with just a few illustrations/photos/graphics tends to require more formatting and a different type of paper. My current project is inter-disciplinary and these factors are relevant to my approach in its completion…you’d think in the 21st century it’d be easier to cross-over…wrong!

    • I’ve actually already noticed a trend in including more visual content in printed material. My own personal theory is that print text is recognizing that screen readers need:
      – white space
      – headers and chunked information
      – and lots and lots of graphics.
      As we become more and more technologically dependent, I see printed material trying it’s hardest to be “user-friendly” to a new generation of screen readers.

      Wendy

  3. Take a look at my former writing student’s book, Party Like a President by Brian Adams. He teamed up with an illustrator to compose an amazing visual and verbal experience that is quite simply hilarious and brilliant. His book precisely illustrates what your article conveys.

  4. A wonderful reflection, thank you! Poignant and thought provoking. Metaphors and stories are part of my communication and your posting demonstrates the power of both.

  5. Wonderful example of your lesson. I’ve been a word, not a picture, person all my life. It wasn’t until I began blogging that I realized how transitionally visual our society is becoming. Now I’ve seen the many ways visual methods are entering our literary arena – graphic novels, adult book illustrations, etc. and that software you show is remarkable. Not with ease, but with an open mind, I’m trying to reformat me brain to accept and utilize what comes visually as well as in words.

  6. So wendy i am little confused you mean that we should use pictures to represent our ideas in writing? i never or barely see any visual aid in adult books, also won’t it be a bit confusing as used flowers to represent mugs ? i have heard for the first time of this idea.
    Lovely kitchen story, would not dare to do that to our mother. Kitchen is her place and it being messed up is inexcusable also the goodwill thing we did that and more than half stuff had to be put back.

    • I’m not saying that visualization will replace all text, I’m just noticing a trend of very heavy visual use in writing lately. More specifically, I’m seeing this trend in bloggers who then go on to write books. The books read as if they were on a screen – short paragraphs, use of “online voice”, lots of white space, liberally sprinkled with visuals and, for the most part, these are short pieces.

      I see a trend (and like all trends it may die out, but I don’t think so) of print adapting to the writing style of online writing.

      I see the increased use of information visuals in journalism (we have become an information thirsty culture) and in writing I am seeing the use of visuals (mostly photos) to enhance the message.

  7. I have been replacing some of the mugs I have lost over the years and it takes awhile to find the right ones. if I would take the advice of my wife, I would buy a set of tea cups with matching floral imprints and be done. I realize, I don’t drink my morning coffee without my favorite mug usually, but there are days I look around at the mugs and ask which mug best suits my mood today. Is it the writier, edior? Great post, I enjoyed your perspective, real creative..

  8. Oh, I agree with you absolutely (although I have markedly cut down on the number of mugs I have). I think it is very important to have “special” mugs. For one thing, when everybody in the house is wondering about with a cuppa, how do you know which one was yours if they all look the same?

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