Narrative Analysis: Advanced Topics
If you’ve ever tried to summarize a story in a conversation or a pitch, you know condensing an entire narrative into a few paragraphs is a deceptively difficult task. Unfortunately, the ability to write a solid summary is an essential skill for writers who want to sell their stories, regardless of the medium. Whether you’re working on a screenplay, a novel, or a video game, you should be able to distill your story down to its essential plot points and deliver them in a clear, concise fashion for prospective readers. In doing so, you’ll be practicing a valuable skill: the ability to separate the critical details from the ancillary ones.
Every industry has unique standards for how long a summary should be. For example, aspiring novels are usually given five-hundred words for a synopsis,1 while screenwriters may be asked for script treatments that run anywhere from a single page to dozens of pages.2 In video game development, the length of the story portion of the design document will depend heavily on how important the story is to the game.3 In a gameplay-driven title like Grand Theft Auto, the story section may only be a single line,4 while in a story-driven title like Silent Hill 2, the same section may span several pages.5 Regardless of what medium you’re working in, it’s vital to adhere to industry standards, as flaunting the rules is a good way to get rejected.
Once you know how long your summary needs to be, you can get down to the business of actually writing it. Whether you’re writing a one-page synopsis or a ten-page treatment, your best bet is to focus on the basic story beats and expand outward from there. (To learn how to write an even shorter pitch, head to our article on Pitches.) The most common story beats have a variety of names across structures, but they generally fall into a similar pattern: opening, inciting incident, first turning point, obstacles, midpoint, greater obstacles, crisis, second turning point, climax, and resolution. (To learn more about each of these beats individually, check out our essay on Three-Act Structure.) By devoting a few sentences to each of these beats, you can generate a summary that covers all the major points of tension in your story from beginning to end.
Writing a Summary
Game Discussed: The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds (Nintendo, 2013)
Assuming your story roughly follows a Three-Act Structure, it can be helpful to mentally divide your summary into beginning, middle, and end. The beginning, which contains the opening, inciting incident, and first turning point, should cover all the introductory information your potential reader needs to understand the story and its world. To use an example, let’s take The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds, the 2013 action-adventure game for the Nintendo 3DS. A summary for the First Act of A Link Between Worlds might look as follows:
In the distant kingdom of Hyrule, Princess Zelda presides over an era of peace thanks to the sacred relic known as the Triforce. Long ago, the Triforce was split into three pieces for safekeeping, but anyone who reassembles it will be granted the power to reshape the world with a single wish.
One of Hyrule’s residents, a blacksmith’s apprentice named Link, is often chided for being lazy, but he possesses outstanding courage and has a kind heart. When the blacksmith asks Link to deliver a sword to town, Link stumbles onto a kidnapping at the nearby sanctuary. An evil sorcerer, Yuga, has just sealed a woman inside a painting and is about to flee the scene. Link tries to fight him off, but he loses, and he wakes up in the custody of an oddball merchant named Ravio. At Ravio’s insistence, Link heads to Hyrule Castle to tell Princess Zelda about the sorcerer and the kidnapping. Although his story sounds unbelievable, Zelda puts her faith in him and entrusts him with one of the three charms that seals the Master Sword, a sacred blade with the power to repel evil.
There’s a lot going on in this section, so let’s break it down. The first paragraph, our introduction, covers the bare minimum amount of information needed to make sense of the story and its world. We’ve got a setting (Hyrule), a character (Princess Zelda), and a source of conflict (the Triforce). While there are plenty of other details about the world and its people that readers might find interesting, these details are the ones they have to know to understand everything that follows.
The next paragraph covers a lot of ground in a short amount of space. It introduces the protagonist, Link, and gives us just enough information about him so that we can guess how he’ll react to the events of the story. Those events begin with the inciting incident, the kidnapping at the sanctuary. Although this scene is heavy with detail in the game itself, we’re again reducing it to the broadest possible strokes to keep the summary moving. All our reader needs to know is that there’s a villain (Yuga the sorcerer), a threat (the kidnapping), and a reaction (Link’s attempt to fight). The fallout from this scene leads into the first turning point, where the protagonist must decide whether to accept the challenge life has thrown at them. In A Link Between Worlds, Link rises to the sorcerer’s challenge with the help of a new ally, Ravio, who rescues Link and sends him to meet with Princess Zelda. Once Link and Zelda meet, he has all the information he needs to begin his adventure, which takes us to the middle of the story: Act Two.
The middle section of a summary covers the second act of a Three-Act Structure: the obstacles, the midpoint, the crisis, and the second turning point. In a conventional novel or a screenplay, this section may be anywhere from a third to a half of the total storytime, but in a video game, it often represents an even greater portion of the whole. This is because the middle section is where the majority of the gameplay takes place, so players will be more focused on interacting with the world than engaging the story. That isn’t to say the story disappears entirely, however; it just takes a backseat to other elements of the game.
Returning to A Link Between Worlds, the middle portion of the summary covers the vast majority of the playtime, including every one of the game’s dungeons and the vast majority of its sidequests. The story elements that follow are woven into the game between those interactive sections, occurring at the player’s preferred pace.
To claim the Master Sword and repel the sorcerer, Link must travel across Hyrule to find the other two charms. With the help of Ravio’s unusual wares, Link ventures to the farthest corners of the kingdom, where he braves monster-filled temples and recovers the charms. Using their power, Link claims the sacred Master Sword, but he’s too late to save Princess Zelda from Yuga. The evil sorcerer turns her into a painting and takes her through a portal. Link follows the sorcerer to Lorule, a twisted shadow of Hyrule that’s been overrun by the forces of evil.
When Link arrives in Lorule, he’s greeted by its ruler, the dark-haired Princess Hilda. Hilda tells Link that the only way he can defeat Yuga and save Zelda is by reassembling Hyrule’s Triforce, which is protected by Seven Sages that Yuga sealed away in his paintings. Using more of Ravio’s tools, Link rescues the Sages from the sorcerer’s dungeons and reassembles the Triforce. When he returns to Lorule Castle to fight the sorcerer, Princess Hilda reveals that Lorule no longer has its Triforce, and she wants to use Hyrule’s Triforce to restore her kingdom. To that end, she conspired with the sorcerer to kidnap Princess Zelda and force Link to reassemble the relic. Everything Link worked for has been a lie, and all of Hyrule is in grave danger. As Hilda prepares to use the Triforce’s power, Yuga turns Hilda into a painting and seizes its power for himself. Link must fight him one more time, and this time, Yuga’s stronger than ever.
Just like in the beginning, we’re leaving out as much as we’re putting in. To keep the story moving, we’re glossing over the names and backstories of all seven Sages, as those details don’t play a substantial role in determining the story’s outcome. The things that really matter are Link’s quest to get the Master Sword (the first obstacle), the kidnapping of Princess Zelda (the midpoint), the quest to find the Sages (the second obstacle), Hilda’s reveal (the crisis), and Yuga’s betrayal (the second turning point). Each of these beats is important because it represents a change in the status quo for Link, one that’s obvious from the information laid out in the beginning section. Using Link’s goal of defeating Yuga as a guide, you can see how each beat brings Link closer or further away from that goal. Finding the Master Sword brings him closer; Yuga’s escape puts him further away; rescuing the Sages brings him closer again; Hilda and Yuga’s betrayals put him further away again. By the time we reach the end of the Second Act, Link is naturally at his lowest point, which comes through in the synopsis.
The last section of a synopsis is also our shortest, as it only covers two beats: the climax and the resolution. You should have set up all the elements you need to pay off by this point. Twists are fine—and sometimes expected, depending upon the genre—but this isn’t the place to introduce new characters or themes. Instead, it’s the place to put together the pre-existing pieces for an exciting, well-earned finale to satisfy your readers.
In A Link Between Worlds, the Third Act is far shorter than the previous two acts, as the player has already completed all of the dungeons, and there’s only one fight left: the final battle with the sorcerer, Yuga. Nevertheless, the ending has a few surprises up its sleeve, so we’ve got a little more ground to cover in the summary.
In a climactic final battle, Link triumphs over the all-powerful Yuga, but Hilda refuses to let Link and Zelda leave with their Triforce. Link doesn’t want to fight Hilda, but it seems he has no choice until Ravio appears and reveals himself to be Link’s counterpart, the Hero of Lorule. Ravio convinces Hilda to let Link and Zelda go, even though it will condemn Lorule to eternal misery, as destroying Hyrule for Lorule’s survival would make them no better than Yuga.
Link and Zelda return to Hyrule with the reassembled Triforce, where they’re given a single wish. Together, they wish for the restoration of Lorule’s Triforce, and the fallen kingdom is restored to its former glory. As Hilda and Ravio celebrate in their world, Link and Zelda return to their duties in Hyrule, knowing both realms are once again at peace. As a final step, Link returns the Master Sword to its pedestal, where it will rest until another hero has need of its power.
As promised, this final section doesn’t introduce any new concepts or characters. We only needed five characters to tell the story: Link, Zelda, Ravio, Hilda, and Yuga. By establishing these five characters early on in the first acts, we had them right where we needed them for the final acts. The same is true of the information about the Triforce, which plays an integral role in the ending. By establishing the function of the Triforce in the opening paragraph, we saved ourselves from having to explain it at the end, and the reader feels satisfied knowing that the early information had a purpose.
The final paragraph, the resolution, shows where everyone ends up after the story is finished. The major conflicts have been resolved; Zelda and Link have their Triforce back, Hilda and Ravio have their kingdom back. To close the story out, Link returns the Master Sword to its home: a familiar final scene to any fan of the Legend of Zelda series. Every loose thread has been tied off, and every major question has been answered. Ideally, the reader still has enough minor questions to show that their interest has been piqued, which proves that the summary has fulfilled its purpose: enticing the reader to experience the story in its proper form, whatever that form may be.
Summarizing something you’ve written can be a painful process, but it doesn’t have to be. The key is to distill your story down to the basic plot points, removing any unnecessary details along the way. By assembling the essential beats into a single, easy-to-read document, you’ll be in a great position to pitch your story to anyone interested in your work.
One of the earliest known structures, Three-Act Structure divides stories into beginning, middle, and ending.
Narrative Analysis: Pitches
A pitch is a brief summary that invites the audience into the world of a story.
Kingdom Hearts: Opening
Kingdom Hearts satisfies three separate audiences with an opening that emphasizes conflict and character development.
1 Dennard, Susan. “How to Write a 1-Page Synopsis.” Publishing Crawl, 2012.
2 DeTisch, A.J. “How to Write a Film Treatment.” Studio Binder, 2019.
3 Wirtz, Brian. “How To Pitch the Perfect Video Game Idea (with Sample Game Pitches That Defined Genres).” GameDesigning, 2021.
4 “Race’N’Chase Game Design: Version 1.05.” DMA Design Limited, 1995.
5 Cooke, Oliver James. “Silent Hill 2 Design Document.”
* Reference Footage (The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds): RikuuGaming. “The Legend Of Zelda : A Link Between Worlds – Longplay.” YouTube, 2017.