Narrative Analysis: Advanced Topics
From four-panel comics to four-hundred-page novels, stories come in all shapes and sizes. Yet regardless of scope or scale, explaining stories to a third party always requires some level of summarization. Such summaries are essential in the selling and marketing of stories. Both the writers who court investors and the investors who court audiences must be able to introduce their work with a brief, exciting description that sets their story apart from the competition. These succinct descriptions are commonly known as pitches, and they’re seen in one form or another in almost every creative industry. That means whether you’re in fiction, journalism, film, television, theater, or gaming, if you have a story to tell, you’ll need a pitch to sell it.
Anyone who has ever tried to pitch a story can tell you that pitching is a discipline unto itself, one that takes both study and practice to master. Thankfully, most successful pitches have shared attributes you can borrow to simplify the process. Like an invitation to a party, your pitch is your way of inviting someone to join the world of your story. Too much information can be as much of a turn-off as too little, so the key is to tell them just enough to pique their interest: the who, what, when, where, why, and how. With these elements in place, your pitch stands the best chance of enticing the right audience, whether it’s a financial backer or an encouraging friend.
Writing Your Invite - The Elements of Story
Game Discussed: Super Mario Galaxy (Nintendo, 2017), Silent Hill 2 (Konami, 2001), Spec Ops: The Line (2k Games, 2012)
'Who' - The Characters
Most modern stories feature a central character whose desires drive the progression of the narrative. This central character, also known as the protagonist, should feature prominently in your story’s pitch. Pitches can’t be too long, however, especially if you’re pitching to someone who hears story ideas for a living. To keep things brief, you want to summarize your protagonist the same way you would your story: by introducing the key elements that define them. Depending upon your story, your protagonist’s defining characteristics may be from any number of categories (age, appearance, profession, nationality, personality), but they should always at least hint at their wants and/or needs. Since wants and needs are what drive characters to make the decisions that shape the story, centering them in the pitch helps the audience see the story’s potential.
Not all video games feature complex, award-winning stories, but most games feature a central character for the player to control. When explaining the story behind a game, that protagonist should play a prominent role in the explanation. Here are three examples from three wildly different games, each with a player-controlled protagonist:
- Super Mario Odyssey: Mario is a courageous plumber who’s dedicated his life to protecting the leader of the Mushroom Kingdom, Princess Peach.
- Silent Hill 2: James Sunderland is a quiet, mild-mannered trying to cope with the loss of his wife, Mary.
- Spec Ops: The Line: Captain Martin Walker is a decisive Delta Force leader who wants to be a hero like his mentor, Colonel John Konrad.
Each of these three examples tells you who the protagonist is and what they care about. Mario is courageous and wants to protect his princess; James Sunderland is quiet and needs to grieve his wife’s passing; Captain Walker is decisive and wants his mentor’s approval. Already, these details are enough to pique the audience’s interest in the story, as they have the potential for conflict. This brings us to the second step: the plot.
'What' - The Plot
A little word for a big concept, plot encompasses all the events of a story from start to finish. Since this is far too much information for a pitch, the plot portion needs to focus on the events that kick off the story: the inciting incident. Just as a pitch invites the audience into the world of the story, the inciting incident invites the protagonist into that same world. As discussed above, the character portion of a pitch should have already laid out the protagonist’s status quo, so introducing the plot through the inciting incident is the natural next step. If you have time in your pitch, you can also include the character’s reaction to the inciting incident, but adding that additional layer of depth isn’t always possible. In those cases, the character description needs to be strong enough to suggest the reaction, so that the audience has an idea of how the story will progress.
Most video game stories follow some variation on the Three-Act Structure, so they’re likely to have an inciting incident to anchor their pitch. Using the three previous games, here are the inciting incidents that set off the action:
- Super Mario Odyssey: Mario’s arch-rival, Bowser, kidnaps Princess Peach so he can marry her against her will.
- Silent Hill 2: James receives a letter from Mary, who’s supposed to have been dead for three years.
- Spec Ops: The Line: Colonel Konrad has betrayed the United States government, and Captain Walker has been tasked with tracking him down.
While these descriptions barely scratch the surface of what their respective games are about, they all build on the character introductions to hint at the future of the story. In Super Mario Odyssey, we know Mario is courageous and cares about Peach, so we can predict that his reaction will be to rescue her. Likewise, we know that James Sunderland misses his late wife in Silent Hill 2, so we know he’s going to want to learn more about her mysterious letter. The relationship between Walker and Konrad in Spec Ops: The Line also promises conflict, as Walker’s respect for Konrad is at odds with the mission. Although these pitches are for different stories, they all have their own momentum. This momentum carries us to the next step: the setting.
'When' and 'Where' - The Setting
An invitation to an event isn’t useful if it doesn’t list a time and a place. Pitches work the same way. Since a story’s characters, plots, and themes should be influenced by the setting (and influence it in turn), the setting is a crucial component of a pitch. Keeping things brief is still paramount, however, so a pitch isn’t the place for extensive world-building and backstory. Ideally, the only setting information you should include is the information that directly shapes the story, either by creating obstacles for the plot or informing the character’s growth.
Video games specialize in showing off expansive, immersive worlds, which makes it very tempting to over-describe them during a pitch. It’s also tempting to use the clever names you’ve developed for all the unique aspects of your setting. Unfortunately, a long-winded description full of proper names that make no sense out of context is likely to lose people, which defies the point of a pitch. To keep things brief and relatable, focus on information that’s already available or easily understandable, like so:
- Super Mario Odyssey: To find Princess Peach, Mario must explore a variety of colorful kingdoms that range from prehistoric jungles to the dark side of the moon.
- Silent Hill 2: To follow Mary’s letter, James must return to the site of their honeymoon: Silent Hill, an eerie mountain town covered in an impenetrable layer of fog.
- Spec Ops: The Line: To find Colonel Konrad, Captain Walker must venture into the ruins of Dubai, which was buried beneath a sandstorm and overtaken by insurgents.
These single-sentence overviews of the setting leave out massive amounts of detail (especially in the case of Super Mario Odyssey, which spans over a dozen unique locations). Still, they all connect the settings to the conflicts at the heart of the story. In Mario Odyssey, the sheer number of locations will make it harder for Mario to track Princess Peach down. In Silent Hill 2, James will have to traverse uncomfortable territory, both physically and emotionally. Captain Walker will struggle with a similarly hostile landscape in Spec Ops: The Line, where the elements and the locals will be working against him. With these elements in place in the pitch, the plot, characters, and setting are all working in concert, which brings us to step four: theme.
'Why' - The Theme
As the oft-forgotten sibling of plot, character, and setting, theme is sometimes left on the cutting room floor when it comes to pitching. This is especially common in one-sentence pitches, where attention spans are limited and every word is priceless. While more straightforward stories can get away without addressing their themes, more complex stories benefit from having an underlying idea that ties them together. Since pitches have limited room, however, the best way to bring in theme is to imply it through the descriptions of the characters, setting, and plot. If done properly, your audience should be able to extrapolate the theme without being told, saving you valuable space in your pitch.
The importance of theme can vary from one game story to the next, but even the most basic games have some kind of message behind them. To integrate your game’s message into your pitch, the first thing you have to do is isolate what that message is, like so:
- Super Mario Odyssey: Mario can only find Princess Peach by being open to new experiences and exploration.
- Silent Hill 2: James can only grieve his wife by facing the darkness in his past.
- Spec Ops: The Line: Captain Walker can only survive the desert and locate Konrad by redefining his views on heroism.
These three sentences each tell us something essential about the games they represent. Mario must explore the world; James must confront his own psyche; Walker must compromise his beliefs. In Super Mario Odyssey, the theme connects with the plot, while in Silent Hill 2 and Spec Ops: The Line, the theme connects to the character arcs. This difference between pitch techniques for Mario and Silent Hill/Spec Ops is due to the focus of the games, which brings us to the final question: how you tell the story.
'How' - The Resources
Every artistic medium has its own set of standards, as does every creative industry. No matter what form your story takes, you’ll need time, money, and manpower to tell it to the world. Part of convincing someone to enter the world of your story is explaining how your story is told. If you’re pitching producers or publishers, you’ll have to explain what resources your project requires, so they can determine if they a) have the resources and b) have the desire to spend them. Likewise, if you’re pitching a finished product, you’ll need to tell the person you’re pitching where they can find it, what it costs, and how much time they can expect to spend on it. There’s a big difference between asking someone to watch a twenty-two-minute show on a network they’re already subscribed to versus asking them to watch a ten-hour series on a network they don’t have, after all. Whether you’re pitching a movie, a play, a book, or a video game, the rule is the same: you need to be upfront about the resources your story requires. Otherwise, the person you’re pitching doesn’t have all the information they need to decide if they’re interested, and they’re going to walk away.
Video games are a unique medium with specific conventions for pitching. While the gameplay is typically more important than the story, even the most plot-driven games require resources outside of narrative design. The best way to articulate what these resources will be in a pitch is to place the game in a recognizable category, one with established production values and marketing strategies. Using the same three games as before, here’s how the ‘how’ would look:
- Super Mario Odyssey: A 3-D platformer for children of all ages, featuring over a dozen unique locations, fifty-plus transformations, and a fully-orchestrated soundtrack.
- Silent Hill 2: A third-person survival horror game filled with item-based puzzles and slow-moving enemies, with a fully-voiced script containing a half-dozen major characters.
- Spec Ops: The Line: A third-person military shooter with fully-voiced single-player and multiplayer campaigns, each featuring a variety of guns, melee fighting, explosives, and environmental hazards.
Like the rest of the above pitch segments, these production descriptions leave out more details than they keep in, but the details that remain are the ones that count. They say what the games might cost to create, how publishers might sell them, and who might buy them. They’re also the last facts you need to assemble your summary, taking us to the final step: the completed pitch.
The Finished Invite - Putting it All Together
It’s not enough to know your story’s ‘who, what, when, where, why, and how’; you also have to be able to put them together to form a single pitch. In a single-sentence pitch, the answers to some of these questions may fall by the wayside, but the pitch will still work so long as it entices the audience to enter the world of your story.
To show you how it’s done, let’s go back to the three games from earlier and assemble their pitches from the facts established above:
- Super Mario Odyssey: In Super Mario Odyssey, Nintendo’s latest 3-D platformer, the courageous plumber Mario must rescue his beloved Princess Peach from the evil Bowser by exploring colorful new worlds and mastering exciting abilities.
- Silent Hill 2: Silent Hill 2 is a survival horror game where players explore an eerie mountain town as James Sunderland, a grieving widower who must confront his past after receiving mysterious letter from his dead wife.
- Spec Ops: The Line: In the third-person shooter Spec Ops: The Line, players control Captain Martin Walker, a soldier whose ideas about heroism are challenged when he’s tasked with hunting his old mentor, the traitorous Colonel Konrad, through the sand-covered ruins of Dubai.
None of these are perfect pitches. They’re on the long side for single sentences, especially the pitch for Spec Ops: The Line, yet they also leave out details that were previously established as important. This paradox is what makes pitching so hard. There’s never enough space, and every word counts. The pitches above still do their job because they encapsulate what the stories are about and what resources they require. If someone who knew nothing about the above games read each of those pitches, they would likely come away with enough of an understanding to know if the game interested them or not. And at the end of the day, that’s the pitch’s job: to invite someone into the story’s world.
Closing - Putting it All Together
Pitching is not an easy process. You have to know the story you want to tell inside and out, and you have to know your story’s audience. Whether you’re trying to sell a movie script to a producer or trying to convince a friend to read a novella you like, your best chance at convincing them comes from explaing the who, what, when, where, why, and how as succinctly as possible. Once you know how to do that, you can pitch just about anything.
Narrative Analysis: Characters
Protagonists, antagonists, and foils are just some of the roles to fill in fictional worlds.
Narrative Analysis: Five-Act Structure
Frequently used in theater, Five-Act Structure marks the midpoint as the height of tension, rather than the closing.
StoryScan: Spec Ops: The Line and Theme
Spec Ops: The Line leaves a lasting impression on players by reinforcing its theme at key plot points.
* Reference Footage (Super Mario Odyssey): ProsafiaGaming. Super Mario Odyssey – Full Game Walkthrough. YouTube, 2020.
** Reference Footage (Silent Hill 2): SHN Survival Horror Network. Silent Hill 2 Enhanced Edition | 4K 60fps | Longplay Walkthrough Gameplay No Commentary. Youtube, 2019.
*** Reference Footage (Spec Ops: The Line): Movie Edition Games. “Spec Ops: The Line – Movie Edition (1080p 60 FPS).” YouTube, 2015.