Infographic: Dissecting The Opening Lines Of 25 Famous Novels

Pop Chart Lab gets literary for its latest infographic masterpiece: a schoolhouse-friendly poster of old-school sentence diagramming.

Infographics, when done well, can organize otherwise tangled bits of data for the purpose of illuminating a larger insight. So it makes sense that the busy infographic-makers at Pop Chart Lab would be beguiled by sentence diagramming, which does the same thing but for grammar. “We’re drawn to the idea that breaking down a sequence of sentence constituents into tiny pieces can reveal something larger and infinite about a sequence of words,” says Creative Director Ben Gibson.


Sentence diagramming is pretty old school: It became popular in classrooms sometime after 1877, when Alonzo Reed and Brainerd Kellogg published their book, Higher Lessons in English. The technique turns sentences into graphic structures, also called parse trees, to better understand grammar and literature. For “A Diagrammatical Dissertation on Opening Lines of Notable Novels,” the Pop Chart Lab team decided to dissect the first lines from 25 literary classics. “We like to think that there’s some overlap between opening lines and good design: At a glance, you can often tell if you want to spend time with a piece of art,” Gibson tells Co.Design. “It’s probably just as important for an author to make their first lines engaging.”

So what can you extract from all the lines and branches of sentence diagramming? For visual learners especially, it can serve as a profound tool for analysis. Take, for instance, the introductory line from Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude: “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.” It’s one of the longer lines featured on the poster, yet a simple diagram reveals the core meaning: Aureliano Buendia, was to remember, afternoon. This opening line (and the whole novel, really) is built around memories.

Gertrude Stein once said, “I really do not know that anything has ever been more exciting than diagramming sentences.” Gibson and his team must feel the same way. Get the full poster for $23, here.

About the author

Margaret Rhodes is a former associate editor for Fast Company magazine.