Authors: Aleksandra Djurica, Felix Oech, Horia Radu
To understand how to measure and visualize narrative complexity, let’s have a look at it’s meaning. Growing complexity in TV involves multiple threading, social networks and flashing arrows. Multiple threads in TV haven’t existed since ever, they first appeared in 1981 in ”Hill Street Blues”, an American serial police drama. In comparison to an episode from an earlier decade, i.e. ”Starsky and Hutch” the structural transformation becomes obvious. Until then, there were always one to two major roles with a linear story and a resolution in the end. In Starsky and Hutch, the scheme is always the same, as the structure of an episode doesn’t change over the whole series. In Hill Street Blues however, the amount of threads within one episode suddenly increased, introducing several stories that were not solved by the end of the episode and referring to events from past episodes. This series marks the introduction of narrative complexity in TV series history. When it first was broadcasted, viewers perceived the show as too complicated and confusing.
Another interesting fact is the development of so called flashing arrows. While in the earlier stages every action was obviously indicated helping the viewer to understand every taken action, nowadays the film producer gives the viewer only small hints to understand the story.
Narrative complexity in TV series and TV in general is not new topic to researchers. Many people were exploring how television storytelling has changed and how does it influence viewers. That “new mode” of television storytelling is very well described in one of Jason Mittell’s books, “Complex TV: The Poetics of Contemporary Television Storytelling”. Here author explains how traditional episodic and serial forms of television turned into more complex narrative forms, changing our TV perception. As he states, many TV series have taken “novelistic” form, keeping us more engaged and addicted to a TV show. Narrative complexity increased to that level that new complex mode of TV narration can go unnoticed. The author also mentions many factors that impacted increase in narrative complexity. Some of them are writer’s role and media technology. Using many TV series as examples, Jason Mittell present change of TV show beginnings and endings over time, complexity of characters and genre mixing in contemporary TV shows, viewer’s comprehension of new mode of television storytelling and many more things that explain how and why narrative complexity in TV shows increased.
Another great book related to increasing complexity of all kind of media (and TV’s complexity among others) is “Everything Bad is Good for You: How Today’s Popular Culture is Actually Making Us Smarter” by Steven Johnson. Video games, movies, TV shows etc. get more complex over time, posing us new cognitive challenges and making our minds sharper that way. More about this is described in Steven Johnson’s book. Similar to Janson Mittell’s approach, Steven uses many movies, games and TV series as examples to explain and present how that increasing complexity influences viewer’s perception.
There are also many blogs on this topic. The author of “Narrative Complexity and Condensation” blog discusses narrative complexity and duration of TV shows’ episodes. He also discusses Steven Johnson’s book, the one which is mentioned before in this text. Another interesting blog is “How TV Met Narrative Sophistication”. Craig Jacobsen, the author of this blog, describes increasing narrative complexity through analysis of “Reunion”, “The Nine”, “24”, “The Office”, “Arrested development”, and “How I met you mother” TV shows. Many blogs present analysis of “Lost”, as an example of complex contemporary and narrative innovator TV show. Some of them are: “Lost in an Alternate Reality”, “Speculation on Spoilers: Lost Fandom, Narrative Consumption and Rethinking Textuality”, “Lost and Long-Term Television Narrative”, and “The Loss of Value (or the Value of Lost)”.
How to visualize narrative complexity?
For a viewer, an assessment on whether an episode or a TV series in general, has a complex narrative is fairly easy. He could look at the plot, how many ramifications it has, does it continue from one episode to the other or even if various plot ramifications are concurrent. What if they intertwine? The reasoning is simple. However, what if someone who is new to the series wants to make an assessment on the narrative? Does he have to start watching the show?
One way for a new guy to do this would be to read the summary. This is not sufficient though, mainly because summaries are based on a whole season and not per episode. But even if they were episode based, this wouldn’t be a very appealing mechanism. People are generally responsive to graphics, charts and other various visualizations of data. A specialist in data visualization, Santiago Ortiz, has created a very interesting project called Lostalgic. He is analyzing the popular series: “Lost” and he has created a very powerful way of visualizing the data.
At first, the user sees a lot of small rows, almost indistinguishable, however, he can navigate by season and then zoom in on a particular season, and later, on a particular episode. Each episode is split into acts and each act has one or more scenes (consisting of a couple of characters having a dialog). Each scene is represented as a sequence of character pictures and when the user hovers over the picture, he sees the line the character is saying. By ignoring the lines and looking only at the pictures, one can see what characters interact and how many scenes are in that particular episode. This view is great for seeing character interactions. One can see how many times two or more characters interact together and other interesting facts like this, facts that would be impossible to obtain by reading/watching the episodes.
Another really good visualization is found on Moviegalaxies website. Here, we visualize movies as graphs, each character in a movie being represented by a node. If two characters interact, then they are connected by a line. The main focus is on density and clustering. A node is as big as its degree and we see in how many clusters it appears. For example, a romance movie might have a small diameter and a high clustering coefficient, while a movie such as Babel (with a couple of separate stories) can have many small clusters that interact very rarely. In this way you can see what roles various characters play in the plot, you can derive that maybe a cluster is connected to a plot or various other things. Another very interesting analysis the two guys behind the project did was to investigate if there is a pattern for different movie directors (see graph below).
From this we see how the density evolves in time (it grows because some characters are killed and it decreases because new side stories are introduced to the viewer).
To conclude, narrative complexity has become more and more interesting to research and different approaches have been developed to measure and visualize it.