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10. Modeling Narrative Complexity and Collective Intelligence with Twin Peaks

10. Modeling Narrative Complexity and Collective Intelligence with Twin Peaks

After a few weeks in a row of pretty easy watching (The Office, Roseanne, Easy A), I have my students watch the opening two episodes of Twin Peaks in my introductory level popular culture course (English Textual Studies 145: Reading Popular Culture).  To say they were perplexed is to put it lightly. I screen the 94 minute pilot (“Northwest Passage”) and the 45 minute second episode (“Traces to Nowhere”).  The screening ended to a blanket of silence and then an almost collective “What the…?”

We watchTwin Peaks in order to talk about excess and complex narratives and to pave the way for the following week in which we discuss fan response, collective intelligence and LOST. For the week on narrative complexity and Twin Peaks, I teach Jason Mittell’s fantastic piece “Narrative Complexity in Contemporary American Television”.  For the week on fan response and LOST, I teach Mittell’s “Sites of Participation: Wiki Fandom and the Case of Lostpedia”—these two tend to work really well when taught together.

For this post, I want to briefly outline an in-class exercise I did with Twin Peaks which could be easily adapted to other complex narratives (film, television, or novels) in a way that makes quite dense texts accessible while fleshing out understandings of narrative complexity, producerliness and collective intelligence.

I print out pictures of all of the characters we meet (26!) and all of the places we visit in the first two episodes. I tape the places to the board, pass out a character picture to each student and provide them with the following prompt:

You will receive a picture of a character from Twin Peaks. Spend 5 minutes talking with classmates and collectively gather as much information as possible about your character. Consider family and romantic associations, occupations, and relationship to the crime. We will reconvene and you will be asked to place your character on the Twin Peaks world map on the board and we will compile all of the data you have collected.

When all was said and done, we produced a fantastic map of collectively gathered information.  We used this map to further explore plot developments, the difference between serial and episodic narratives and self-reflexive approaches to storytelling. While they walked into class thinking they knew or remembered very little from this show, they left with not only a firmer grasp of the narrative world, but also an excitement to learn more about it and keep watching.  This activity helped them to solidify and recall the information they knew about Twin Peaks as well as further established some of the concepts we were playing with that week.  I think this type of exercise would work really well with other dense story worlds such as, for example, Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom!

Plus, at the end, you get an awesome board like this:



(Feel free to borrow and adapt this exercise as it fits your class.)





Hi Staci,
I really like this exercise! As you say, it’s perfect for helping students visually plot narrative development and to use a “self-reflexive approach to storytelling.” I look forward to using this exercise in my classrooms.
Lori Beth

I'm glad it could be of use to you! It works really well in introductory courses and could be adapted to be a bit more in-depth for upper level courses. 


What an awesome way to extend the magnificently crafted "art television" that is Twin Peaks to your classroom. I'm actually interested in seeing a larger photo of that board to see what your students came up with!


Thanks for your interest Teresa! If you just right click (or ctrl+click if you're a mac user) and select "open image in new tab" you can see the larger version of it. Some of the "clues" they collected are cut off on the left hand side though and it's still kind of hard to discern character names due to photo quality- sorry about that!   


This is such a nice approach! I can imagine the show gelling with Faulkner in some really interesting ways.

I thought folks interested in this lesson plan might also be interested in a project a colleague of mine did a few years back: It's a game called Rhetorical Peaks that was designed for use in first-year writing courses. The game is five years old; this Computers & Composition Online article about it has some stuff that's still potentially relevant:


Great! Thanks for sharing a related project--it looks useful and interesting! 


This is an incredible lesson plan. Your critical pairings and basic approach to student engagement are truly inspiring. Having just tried to explain Twin Peaks to a friend I made watch it, I can see, quite clearly, a visual narrative of that day in class after finishing the second episode (hopefully with the Log Lady feature turned on, if using the DVD). I can also see, however, how immensely helpful this exercise would be, not only in terms of disentangling (to the extent that is possible with anything Lynchian) the narrative, but also in terms of concrete reading skills. This could also be adapted to teach research and rhetorical analysis. Thanks for posting such an exciting lesson plan! My students are watching Battlestar Galactica in a couple of weeks ("Flesh and Bone," read alongside Brian Ott's "Re-Framing Fear: Equipment for Living in a Post-9/11 World") and I think I might try to adapt this plan for that week. 


Great! Glad it could be useful. I might also add that, after that exercise, the students felt more invested in a narrative that they originally said they hated and a few even finished the series on Netflix- hopefully you'll have a similar experience w/ Battlestar Galactica! Feel free to check back in and let me know how the adapted lesson plan works.