Principles of Narrative Design

Today, we are here to talk about what I believe are the core principles and values that make great narrative design. This is whether you’re working on movies, books, video games or more. A lot of these principles cross over through all platforms of narrative design, and I believe you will find value in them and you may recognize these principles yourself in the media you absorb.

These principles are taken from a ludicrous amount of video games, movies and books I’ve soaked in during my lifetime. It’s the consistent principles that stick out when I think of narrative design and stick out when I mentally break down the narrative process that my current entertainment at that time provided me. It’s also a consistent formula with my favorite video games, book, stories and movies of all time.

As someone who is involved with narrative design professionally with publishing stories whether it’s fiction or from data, here are the core principles to narrative design.

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All the stories you love value a narrative design formula that centers around these values

1: Overall Theme Before Characters

Overall I believe this is the most effective way to begin narrative design for your story.

When you think of most of the iconic stories you love, the overall theme is much more effective in creating the groundwork for your characters, rather than vice versa.

Let’s take A Goofy Movie for example. Stellar movie, right? I know. Although the characters were already in existence, the overall plot of the movie is thought of before how Max and Goofy are going to interact the entire movie. Disney wanted it to be a movie about a father and son who both realize they aren’t giving the necessary respect needed for each other, and learn along the way through their camping trip that they both need to understand the other better.

It would be less effective to go “Hey, let’s make a movie where Max and Goofy go camping. What should the theme surrounding it be about? Should they be excited about camping? Should they be facing personal growth from a father and son perspective? Should it just be a movie with its focus resembling a non-serious cartoon tv show and they do random things for an hour?” You want to develop your theme and then create and integrate your characters into that theme.

Maybe in some of your minds as a creator you do both at the same time, but it’s most effective to build your theme and then build your characters to fit the theme.

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Shamelessly showing a picture of myself holding A Goofy Movie while diving way deeper into the movie than anyone else has

Another example is Lord of the Rings. One of the most popular fantasy novels of all time, and is widely considered the pinnacle of fantasy lore. You don’t reach that status without having stellar narrative design.

Do you think they created Frodo first and then thought of a theme, or do you think they thought of an overall theme and then created the characters to integrate with the theme?

A rough draft theme of Lord of the Rings as a narrative designer would look like the following:

“Someone not intended for an adventure goes on the adventure of a lifetime. All this person has known is their small little sheltered home. Through heritage and an evil power, they were placed on a journey that at times they will truly regret, and one that will ultimately end their life. Along the way, I want this main character to appreciate life outside his home, I want them to be faced with difficult life or death decisions, and when faced with the chance to run away and give up, I want them to choose to continue forward with their journey. This main character needs someone who acts as a best friend and pillar of strength for them, one them pulls them out of the darkness back into the light. Their journey is ruled by the almighty power of temptation from ‘the ring’ that sent them on this adventure.”

This is what I would consider to be the rough narrative sketch of Lord of the Rings. You don’t create Frodo, Samwise, Gandalf, Sauron, Gollum, etc and then decide how they integrate together before having your overall theme. You start with the overall theme, and then you create the characters and decide on how to fill in the gaps with your overall theme. The ring is the biggest influence not expanded upon in this rough sketch. However, Tolkien already knows he wants the ring to be an evil vessel that Frodo “loses” to. The ring could have been interchangeable with a necklace, a piece of clothing, you name it. They landed on a ring, but they knew they wanted something that acted as an evil vessel of power.

You already know Frodo is going to die in this example because you outlined how you want your main characters journey to go in your narrative design rough sketch, which I’m sure Tolkien knew too. Now it’s about what are you filling in between that, and how are you surrounding the main character and the world with all the pieces needed for you to make it as enriching and emotional as you are planning it to be.

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The theme for Frodo’s journey was made in response to the theme Tolkien wanted to use

Another example I’ll use before moving on is one of my favorite games of all time, Kingdom Hearts 1. The rough narrative design sketch for Kingdom Hearts 1 would be the following:

Three teenagers are on an island together living a perfectly normal life. They develop a desire to see other worlds, as they are curious what lies beyond their home. They prepare materials to take a sail boat to see other worlds. One night, a mysterious evil force invades their home and swallows their island. The three teenagers are now separated from each other, and each will face their own difficulties on this journey as they try to reunite and figure out what’s going on. These teenagers will travel across Disney worlds fighting off the bad guys and try to restore peace to all the worlds, as these bad guys will swallow other worlds too. One teenager in particular stands out above the rest of his friends and all other characters as a truly special entity with a pure heart in this world, and will be bestowed with a special weapon that will be used as he goes on his journey. The power of friendship is going to be a prominent theme, especially amongst the unique teenager and will be a guiding light. Another teenager is more of a rebel and will be tempted by the evil forces and face inner confliction like the other two teenagers won’t experience, while the third teenager will be kidnapped and be a plot point for the other two teenagers to rescue. On this journey, their goal is for the teenagers to reunite. They will learn, however, that things will never be the same.”

If you notice, I didn’t use any characters names and didn’t use the bad guys names in this rough sketch. There is also a lot of expanding that could be done where you try to further expand on the depth that you want of the heroes and the evil forces. This is what your rough narrative design sketch would look like though. You then create Sora, Riku, Kairi, Ansem, The Heartless, and more to fit that vision. You create the vessels to make this story happen. Riku’s character design is designed as someone who is more of a rebel. Sora is developed as someone who has a pure heart and as the hero. Kairi is developed as someone who plays the kidnapped princess role. Ansem is designed as the clear villain.

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Sora, Riku and Kairi’s relationship are drafted into the theme, and then they are created into the story

2: How To Pick Your Theme

I realize that while there is argument this could go number one, the reason I’m leaving it as number two is because I do feel the first point is more important before the narrative design is started. Your theme is what you should be thinking about first and noticing first, and then creating the characters and world into the response of that, as elaborated above.

A lot of what goes into this decision should be your target age group and demographic. If you are aiming for very young children, like a children’s book, then there are clearly certain themes and tones that are not going to be considered at all. The audience that you perceive this to be for should be on your mind. That doesn’t mean that teenagers can’t face serious tones or that older people no longer want happy-go-lucky-rainbow tones. This is simply something you should consider or something that you also notice when you think about a narrative in any story, regardless the media it comes from.

The type of emotions you are trying to elicit from your target media should be on your mind too as you plot out your theme. You can’t challenge a 6 year old’s thoughts on the meaning of life and you can’t get them to quietly respect when a villain has good motives but goes about it in an evil way. That isn’t a theme that resonates with them. However, someone who feels different compared to their close peers or gets bullied or makes an unexpected friend? That is something that is more easily relatable for a 6 year old. An example of that theme is Frosty the Snowman or Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer.

There are some common themes that are pretty typical to start with that are commonly built around and can have sub-plots to them as well. Here is the most popular theme:

A flawed hero that goes on a journey of self discovery in a battle of good vs bad.

This is the one that is used the most. My opinion is that while this one is the most used by a landslide, it’s overused for a reason. Consumers relate to someone who wants to do good, but at times faces tough decisions and may not always make the “right” decision. We all do that in life, right? It’s hard to see someone be perfect and relate to them. It’s hard to feel empathy for them when they have nothing go wrong for them. Think of the tears you had shed for characters that don’t even exist. You likely were brought to tears from a story, movie or video game from a character that involved a flaw hero. Our whole life as a human has been about self discovery, right? It hits deep. This is why despite how much you see this theme, you can still indulge yourself into yet another story or experience with this theme and be blown away by it.

As mentioned above, your theme and the emotions or experience you are trying to elicit from your audience is key. You build your theme, then get started on creating the characters to fit that theme.

Build your theme around the audience you are targeting

3: World Building Should Be Interactive

After you’ve worked on your theme and your characters, the world this all happens in should be a focus for you. Depending on your career path, this may be part of a team members primary responsibility, while maybe you are more focused on character creation and story writing. However, this should be talked about still.

When I say that world building should be interactive, what I mean is that the whole world should tie into itself. The forest should have life. The water should have life. The fire should have life. The mountains should have life. The non-primary characters should have roles and a life that show me they are apart of the world that you are creating for me, and not just there in a world that someone else is telling me about. Part of the lore you are creating for me should at times be told by characters I won’t spend all that much time with. I want to know what that NPC farmer has to say, I want to know what the local scholar thinks of the world around us, I want to hear some nugget of history from this world from the local scholar.

You know how a child’s imagination works? How it feels like they are in a different world than you are in despite you being in the same room? I don’t want to feel that when I take in media or play a video game. I want to feel like I am truly invested and absorbed into what’s going on. I want to be that kid in this world. Don’t make me feel like the adult in this world. The world needs to have layers to it, they all need to be telling me the same story and embodying that story or else I’ll fall back into reality. Spend delicate care on your world.

The time, era, and building style plays a huge part in your world too, as it can look drastically different depending on the era and style you choose. Sci-fi looks completely different from fantasy and so forth. Whichever way you go there, make your world interactive.

Make your world feel alive

4: Move Forward In Your Narrative

This is a habit that is easy to fall guilty to. We want to spend all the time in the world nailing down the intro or one specific part of a story. We’ve got 14,000 ideas on how to make the intro long enough to where you are invested in the characters, but not too long to where you are getting bored with the story. Now wait, do I even know where I want these characters to end up yet? Can I design their biggest arcs without knowing where I want them to finish?

The best narrative design needs to keep moving forward. You can fill in the gaps later and expand as needed. That’s why generally in narrative design, you will have a basic outline for intro, middle, end. That’s how we see all the media we consume right? We can tell when we’re at the intro, we can tell when we’re at the middle and we can tell when we’re getting to the end.

Quite simply, if we never move past the intro or middle, we will never get to the end. Not knowing the idea for the end could make some inconsistencies arise or result in awkward story telling if you are never working towards the end of your story and sticking to one part. This is where narrative design projects go to die, whether as an author, game developer, script writer, or more.

You should build it into your habit if you’re creating a story to not spend too much time sitting at the same spot. It can also create a problem where you expanded so long on one section, that now the others need to match it. You can’t have a 70 minute intro in a movie, followed by a 30 minute middle and a 20 minute end. You may unintentionally bloat the rest of your story if you don’t move forward.

It’s a hard habit to keep in place, but it’s one that serves your story the best. You can go back and add parts, but you’ll never move forward in your story if you just keep focusing in on one part and refusing to move forward.

I hope this helps anyone that on any level is creating a story or narrative design. This should help put into the focus what I believe to be the principles of strong narrative design. If you think about the media you consume in all forms, I think you will see a lot of what I described in your favorite shows, books, movies, and video games.

Written by

I’m a Writer, I’m a runner, I’m a gamer.

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