Narrative Analysis: Next Steps
The most important job for a writer is to keep the audience interested until the story is over. To accomplish this, writers must master the rhythm of narrative, also known as pacing. A well-paced story holds the audience’s attention by introducing a significant conflict at the start, then developing that conflict until it’s resolved in the finale. When a story deviates from the major conflict, the pace slows down; when a story returns to that conflict, the pace picks back up. If the pace is too slow, audiences may get bored, but a quick pace isn’t always ideal, either. A quick pace means characters, setting, and themes may not get adequate development. These stories can leave audiences just as bored as stories with too much development, as they don’t feel a need to get invested. The ideal pace varies from genre to genre, but striking the proper balance is always essential.
Writers have several devices they can use to change a story’s pace. They may have the characters disengage with the main conflict through subplots, or they may ask the audience to engage from a new vantage point through flashbacks, timeskips, or perspective switches. Each of these narrative devices comes with benefits and drawbacks, but they all have the potential to stop a story cold when over-used or used improperly. Ideally, every device that slows momentum should develop the world, elaborating the characters, the setting, or the themes. While these developments don’t push the narrative forward in the traditional sense, they add important context to the narrative’s events, thus justifying their impact on the pace.
Video game narratives have their own complicated relationship with pacing. The interactive nature allows players to disengage from the central conflict at their leisure, especially in genres that encourage exploration. Video games also tend to run much longer than novels or movies, which introduces another degree of difficulty in the pacing process. It’s one thing to keep an audience invested in a conflict for two hours; it’s another thing to keep them invested for a hundred hours. As a result, longer video games are more likely to step away from the central conflict, pulling either the characters or the players in a different direction. If implemented correctly, these pace-changing elements offer enough variety to ensure players stick with the game until the end, but overuse can drive players to put down the game and never pick it up again.
Changing the Pace
Subplots and Sidequests
Game Discussed: Chrono Trigger (Square-Enix)
The most common narrative device game developers use to slow the pace of a game is the subplot. Author and literary agent Donald Maass describes the role of the subplot as follows: “Narrative momentum resides in the main plot; subplots put on the brakes.”1 In video games, subplots often take the form of optional content known as sidequests. These sidequests can take players to new areas, develop background characters, or elaborate on the game’s themes. Sidequests also allow developers to play with the story’s tone, adding levity to dramatic stories or tension to comedic fare. These tonal changes work well in sidequests because they remind players that what they are experiencing is a temporary deviation from the main event. It’s important to emphasize the transient nature of these sidequests, as subplots that run too long can hurt the pace. If a sidequest takes too long, some players may forget where they were in the main storyline; others may decide they no longer care. Either case can result in players abandoning the game, leaving the story unfinished.
The popular Super Nintendo role-playing game Chrono Trigger (Square-Enix, 1995) uses periodic, well-placed sidequests to develop the world without harming the narrative’s pace. In Chrono Trigger, players take control of Crono, a teenager living in the year 1000 A.D who travels through time to defeat a monstrous alien that threatens humanity. When Crono’s story begins, the only sidequests available to players are short and simple, like minigames focused primarily on teaching the mechanics. This allows players to take the story at their own pace, but doesn’t give them too much room to get distracted. As the story advances and players become familiar with the central conflict, additional sidequests open to develop the characters and the world. By the time players reach the endgame, they have extended sidequests for almost every character in the party, adding depth to their individual stories. If these long sidequests had come earlier, they would have distracted too much from the main narrative. By putting them at the end, players can complete them to round out the story before it comes to a close, and the pace of the central conflict is maintained.
Game Discussed: What Remains of Edith Finch (Giant Sparrow)
Writers who wish to slow down a story’s pace while conveying important background information can use scenes that take place before the narrative present, commonly known as flashbacks. These temporally displaced scenes can provide essential insights into characters and setting, but they also require audiences to reorient themselves in a new place and time. In the Gotham Writers’ Workshop writing guide, author Caren Gussoff elaborates on the downsides of flashback, writing: “Flashbacks can also be quite confusing to a reader unless you clearly delineate them, remembering to anchor them to the story’s present. As with setting, you always want the readers to have a sense of where they are.”2 As a visual medium, video games can establish new settings more efficiently than prose, but changes in time are harder to establish. If the narrative has a basis in reality, the developers can use period signifiers like music or current events, while more fantastical settings have to rely on dialogue and narration. Whichever method the developer chooses to use, they must do it quickly, or else they risk slowing the pace beyond what the audience will tolerate.
The adventure game What Remains of Edith Finch (Giant Sparrow, 2017) effectively uses flashbacks to develop character backstories without distracting from the main storyline. In What Remains of Edith Finch, players control Edith, a seventeen-year-old girl searching for the truth behind the curse that has fated all of her extended family members to die horrible deaths. To solve the mystery, Edith returns to the dilapidated family mansion, where a maze of secret passages leads her to the diaries of her ancestors. These diaries act as the jumping-off points for the game’s many flashbacks, detailing the events that led to each family member’s death. By connecting each of these flashbacks to a specific individual and a corresponding journal entry, What Remains of Edith Finch quickly grounds the player in a new time and place without interrupting the flow of the story. The flashbacks also connect to the main conflict by touching on the curse that Edith is investigating, so players feel they are making progress even as they move back and forth through time.
Game Discussed: The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (Nintendo)
Like flashbacks, timeskips are a narrative device that changes the story’s pacing by altering the time and place. While flashbacks shift the story’s pace by going backward in time from the present, timeskips move forward in time, passing over events that aren’t relevant to the main conflict. Timeskips can be as short as a few minutes or as long as centuries. Both short and long skips can work in the right stories, but the longer the skip, the more time a writer must devote to reorienting the audience. Timeskips can also cause pacing problems if they pass over events relevant to the main conflict, as the writer will have to explain everything the audience missed. In most cases, using timeskips to pass over important scenes is discouraged, but writers can use this technique to their advantage if they wish to convey a sense of disorientation.
The genre-defining adventure game The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (Nintendo, 1998) uses the timeskip to great effect, harnessing its disorienting nature while keeping the narrative moving. In Ocarina of Time, players take on the role of Link, a young boy who must protect his kingdom from the evil wizard, Ganondorf. At the game’s halfway point, Link is placed into a coma-like state for seven years. When he wakes up, he learns that he has grown into adulthood, if only in body. Meanwhile, Ganondorf has been wreaking havoc in his absence. Now the kingdom is in shambles, and Link’s heroism is more critical than ever. This timeskip is unique because Link has missed out on everything the player has, so they are disoriented together. It also maintains narrative momentum by escalating central conflict in a logical fashion. Before Link fell asleep, players knew that Ganondorf was a threat to the kingdom, so it makes sense that he would make good on those threats if given the opportunity. If a different antagonist had come along and done the same thing, the timeskip would not have worked, just as it would not have worked if a different hero came along to defeat Ganondorf. Ultimately, the timeskip worked both because the narrative continued as expected and because it connected the disorienting effects of the skip to the protagonist’s emotional state.
Game Discussed: Final Fantasy VI (Square-Enix)
The last common tool writers can use to alter a story’s pacing is the perspective switch. Perspective switches occur when the narrative changes its focus to a different character, showing events from their point of view. These changes in viewpoint are most common in stories with multiple protagonists or ensemble casts, as changing perspectives provides unique opportunities for character development. The downside of these perspective switches is that they can be even more disorienting than flashbacks and timeskips, as they require the audience to reorient themselves in a different time, a different place, and a different perspective. Too many perspective switches can leave audiences feeling unmoored, especially when each switch leads to someone new. Confining all of the perspective characters to the same time and space can go a long way towards improving the pace, but doing so means sacrificing the potential for different characters to provide insight on parts of the world their castmates can’t access.
Final Fantasy VI (Square-Enix, 1994) is one of the most commonly cited examples of a video game narrative that employs perspective switches. With an ensemble cast of fourteen playable characters, Final Fantasy VI shows players a growing conflict between the Gestahlian Empire and a race of magical beings known as Espers. By utilizing perspective switches, Final Fantasy VI is able to show the conflict through multiple lenses, jumping from kings and knights to thieves and gamblers. The thread that ties these perspective switches together is the impending threat presented by the empire. Each of the characters has their own reason for opposing Emperor Gestahl and his magic-wielding army, but their united opposition keeps them working towards the same goal. If half the cast was focused on an unrelated antagonist, the perspective switches would disrupt the story’s rhythm, as players would have to shift their attention towards a different goal. As a result, momentum would grind to a halt with each switch, and players would lose interest in both conflicts. Final Fantasy VI avoids this problem by keeping everyone focused on the same goal, which keeps the story moving the whole way through.
Maintaining a steady narrative pace is no easy task. Writers must balance tension and release by progressing the main conflict while developing the characters, the setting, and the themes. To slow down a story’s pace and flesh out the details, writers have several tools at their disposal, including subplots, flashbacks, timeskips, and perspective switches. If misused, each of these tools has the potential to bring narrative momentum to a halt, but they also create unique opportunities to develop the cast and their world. Using these tools effectively, writers can create a well-paced story that keeps the central conflict moving without sacrificing the details that keep audiences interested.
1 Maass, Donald. Writing the Breakout Novel (p. 192). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
2 Publishing, Bloomsbury. Gotham Writers’ Workshop: Writing Fiction (p. 170). Bloomsbury Publishing. Kindle Edition.
* Reference Footage (Chrono Trigger): StoneMonkWisdom. Chrono Trigger [Part 30] – Desert and Forest, Fiona’s Sidequest. YouTube, 2014.
** Reference Footage (What Remains of Edith Finch):【XCV//】. What Remains of Edith Finch FULL MOVIE | PC 60fps (Complete Walkthrough). YouTube, 2017.
*** Reference Footage (The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time): ZorZelda. Zelda Ocarina of Time 3D 100% Walkthrough 1080p HD Part 14 – The Master Sword – Adult Link. YouTube, 2017.
**** Reference Footage (Final Fantasy VI): yoshiyukiblade. SNES Final Fantasy VI (III US) Full Gameplay 1080p. YouTube, 2013.