HERMAN MELVILLE KEPT his opening sentences short. Ernest Hemingway preferred his declarative. Jane Austen was known, on occasion, to open her novels with an entire paragraph. There’s no precise formula for an iconic opening sentence—but for a new project called Literary Constellations, data artist Nick Rougeux used unusual-looking diagrams to visualise what some of them look like.
Like many sentence diagrams, Rougeux’s are organised by their grammatical structure. The twist: He connected the words in each sentence with lines, the length and direction of which he based on the length of the words and their parts of speech, respectively.
It’s less complicated than it sounds. First, Rougeux mapped each part of speech to a point on a compass. A line that connects to an adjective, for example, points due north, while one that extends toward prepositions does so in a southwesterly direction. Then he classified words from the opening lines of classic novels. Jane Austen opened Pride and Prejudice with a 23-word sentence comprised of a pronoun (It), verb (is), an (article), noun (truth), adverb (universally), verb (acknowledged), and so on. Next, he plotted the words in order, according to his system. The lines extending from “It” and “is” are of equal length and much shorter than the line extending from the word “universally”. But they point in different directions because the words toward which they extend are different parts of speech (a verb and an article, respectively). When he connected all the dots, he got something that looks like this:
Rougeux’s early experiments diagramming sentences like Austen’s gave him an idea. “I didn’t intend to create constellations,” he says. “I just wanted an interesting visual way of looking at the text, but quickly found that what I was creating resembled constellation maps.”
He decided to apply the technique to short stories and to map the opening lines of individual chapters, rather than the first sentences of entire novels. He labelled the first word of each diagram with a starburst, the rest with circles equal in proportion to the length of its corresponding word. When he arranged the constellations from each book in a clockwise configuration, the result was a circular map resembling a star chart.
Decoding them takes a little patience and some creative interpretation. Like some of Rougeux’s other visualisation, Literary Constellations isn’t so much about deep analysis as it is an exploration of how to present data in beautiful, clever ways.