Visualise the tension! -Using Excel to trace the structure of literary texts

Using Excel to trace tension and structure - screenshot

Using Excel to trace tension and structure

How can you help visual learners understand the intricacies of the structure of a text?  How can you help them see “a writer at work” let alone give them an opportunity to demonstrate “some detailed exploration of how structural choices support the writer’s theme or purpose,” (Reading AF 4, Level 6). What about helping them to “Analyse text structures” (ACELT1772 Year 9 Lit) so that they can then analyse and evaluate ( (ACELT1774) Year 10) what they see?

Have you thought about using Excel?  I know! Maths, graphs, numbers in an English lesson… but it works! The example you see on the left shows how the tension rises and falls in one of the scenes in the play version of Frankenstein.  Here we can clearly see how the author deliberately gets his audience to relax before scaring us half to death!  Most students think that tension is built in a steady, rising, crescendo like structure.  This visual way of presenting the information really helps them to see how the author is making choices to maximize the structure.  Just imagine what the end of “An Inspector Calls” looks like!

Great for:



AF4 –identify and comment on the structure and organisation of texts, including grammatical and presentational features at text level  

AF6 – identify and comment on writers’ purposes and viewpoints, and the overall effect of the text on the reader



Examining Literature: Analyse text structures and language features of literary texts, and make relevant comparisons with other texts (ACELT1772) 

Text structure and organisation: Understand that authors innovate with text structures and language for specific purposes and effects (ACELA1553)

So…. How does this all work?

First of all choose a short section of text in which an author has used structure to create an effect.  Let’s take an extract from A Christmas Carol for example… after all Scrooge is waiting for a ghost isn’t he?  There must be some tension there but how is Dickens creating it with structure?

Rating plot events

Rate each event from 1 -5

Read the extract together and then ask your students to summarize it in 10-20 short sentences.  These should be the key moments that occur.  Whilst they’re working on that get Excel open.  Ask one of the students to come up and be your scribe.  Their job is to input each of the events into a column.  Obviously, as this is a task being completed with the help of the whole class you might need to move events around to fit in bits we might have forgotten… copy and paste will let them do this with ease.

Once that’s done ask the students to rate each event in relation to the effect that is trying to be created.  In this instance, we were looking at tension so each event is being given a rating from 1-5 for its scariness.

Now for the really visual bit…

Using your left mouse button, click and drag over all of the statements and numbers to highlight them.  Head to the Insert Ribbon and choose “line” from the selection of graphs available.


Christmas Carol Tension Graph

Christmas Carol Tension Graph

Et Voila!  Excel has provided you with an instant, visual representation of the structure.   This can then be used to examine the way (in this case) tension rises and falls and can lead to conversations about why it does so.  You have enabled your students to see the structure clearly so that they are able to make judgement about the reasons why this technique has been used, what’s it’s purpose is and how it affects the reader.


Of course, it can also be cool to ask each student to create their own in isolation.  We can then compare how each individual reacted and have a conversation about how effective this technique has really been on a range of readers!

As usual let me know how you get on in the comments!  I love hearing how different students react to this and how teachers adapt it 🙂