Today, today we’re going to do something different. We’re not going to talk about writing, or storytelling theories. No, we’re going to get practical.
Practical in this case, is in how to sell your story to your team. Cause until telepathy becomes a thing you’ll just have to interact with others to get them interested in your writing. So why not have some props to help.
And if all else fails you can always rely on interpretive dance…
“Humanity’s legacy of stories and storytelling is the most precious we have. All wisdom is in our stories and songs. A story is how we construct our experiences. At the very simplest, it can be: ‘He/she was born, lived, died.’ Probably that is the template of our stories—a beginning, middle, and end. This structure is in our minds.”—Doris Lessing
So, you’ve got to sell your story be it to a publisher, your lead, your team, or an investor and you’re not quite sure that they’re going to understand your brilliance. Or they may want something a little more “traditional” in structure, form or character. Which is another way of saying a 3-Act structure, the hero’s journey, and a straight white dude.
By the by, I’m disappointed that Star Wars: Jedi Fallen Order is about another young, straight white dude. They could have done so much more with any other character, and had more themes, stories and motivations available to them. That doesn’t mean I won’t play it, cause I do like me some Star Wars.
That aside, there are a number of tools you can use when conveying your story to the intended audience. Each has their strengths and weaknesses, and as with anything you’ll have to figure out what will work best with those you’re speaking to.
For this episode we’ll go through each of those tools, which include: the elevator pitch, an outline, a synopsis, a story breakdown, storyboards, and references.
The Elevator Pitch
You’ve heard the term and you’re probably thinking it’s saying something like “Our game is X meets Y.” That’s not an elevator pitch. At best it’s an attempt to give your audience references for what you’re making, but in fact tells them nothing. I hazard to call it dangerous, since no one’s in any actual danger, yet the trouble with saying “X meets Y” is that you don’t know what aspects of either X or Y your audience has grasped.
I’m currently working on a game, A Giant Problem. Yes that’s really the name. If I were to describe it as Breath of the Wild meets Tower Defense. What are your immediate thoughts? Is it the art style? Or the focus on a single character? Breaking weapons perhaps? The world of Hyrule? Do you even know what tower defense is?
A good elevator pitch, especially when it comes to talking about a story, sums it up in as few words as possible. Something like, and I made this one up based on a real game—“Descend into an alien hell and fight your way out as a lone super soldier in a bid to save your crew, the universe and yourself.”
Care to hazard a guess as to what game I’m talking? If you said—Halo: Combat Evolved, you’re right. If you said anything else… You could also be right. Ultimately some of these story arcs are going to repeat or be so similar it’s hard to tell them apart. Was I talking about Doom, or Duke Nukem, or Wolfenstein, or any number of other series? Probably.
I say the elevator pitch needs to be a single sentence. Other people say it can be as many as needed, as long as you can say it all within 20 to 30 seconds, or an elevator ride. Personally, I prefer the constraints of talking about something in a single sentence. It requires you to really analyze what the focus is and hone the story.
This holds true whether you’re talking about a character, a quest-line, a story arc, a piece of lore, or an entire game. Or a YouTube and podcast series. In this case the elevator pitch is—“The Writing Game is a series about analyzing the theory and providing practical advice about designing stories.” Hence why I use the tagline, Designing Stories.
Here’s one final example of a great elevator pitch: “Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.”—Inigo Montoya
In those four lines you learn everything you need to know. Who the characters are, what their relationship is, what their motivations are, and what’s going to happen. And even with Mandy Patinkin stretching those lines out for dramatic effect, it all happens in 11 seconds. Perfect in a manner deserving of a chef’s kiss.
So you may find yourself needing to provide more detail than an elevator pitch to get your team onboard with your story. That’s why we have Outlines.
And I know what you’re saying, “but I don’t outline. I write as it flows, from the heart, from the seat of my pants, as inspiration strikes!”
You know what else comes from the seat of your pants—farts. And no one wants those. Well, no one else wants those. Not outlining is fine for the solo work of a novelist. But in game development you’re working as part of a team. And that means your team cannot wait for wit, whimsy, fancy or flashes of inspiration to strike.
They need to be working as you work. Which is why you need an outline. So asides from the additional information about your story an outline provides, it also allows others to plan and make suggestions or provide feedback.
An outline can be as simple as a list of the chapters or levels, similar to what we see in Super Mario Bros 3. The world map lays out the chapters we’re going to encounter. Or at least it provides a list for the player of how many stages they’ll have to go through.
For stories though an outline is often different, and there’s no set form. Personally I tend to write outlines as a location and/or scene because I know the story beats I want to hit during that section. But of course anyone I’m working with can’t. Though giving them an outline does provide the bones of of the story they’ll be working with.
Outlines as with everything else about a game can change during development. Hell these days a game can even change once it’s been published. So don’t feel like you’re committing yourself to something that you can never veer from. If the story takes you elsewhere, then it does and you can update the outline to reflect that.
Part of the beauty of this ability to change is you’re not beholden to any particular story beat as the outline is really just the major points in a story, no matter how big. The downside to this is it allows others the space to imagine something else entirely filling those gaps between the milestones.
If the outline is the bones of a story, then the synopsis includes the connective tissue. It builds on the outline to include the major details, such as the characters, what they do, how they interact, and how the story develops.
The most disappointing thing for many writers in creating a synopsis is that you have to give away the twists and the ending. You have to reveal that Darth Vader is really Luke’s father, that Spider-Man dies, and that Bruce Willis was dead the entire time.
What you’re not doing in the synopsis is actually writing all of those bits out. Instead you’re simply stating what happens. With book outlines it’s often in the present tense, and given the fact that games are interactive I cannot think of a good reason to change this format.
Writing it in the present tense helps you as a writer or game designer to get a better idea of what the player “should be” doing, and what their focus is.
If we turn to Firewatch and the raccoon attack then the synopsis would be something like—Henry enters the burned down cottage. He goes to the old stove and opens it. A raccoon jumps out and Henry falls over. The raccoon then makes for the window and escapes while Henry recovers.
There’s no emotion, no gilding, no great detail there. And of course that’s just a synopsis for a single scene. In the context of the wider game it may have just been reduced to a single sentence—Henry goes to a dilapidated cabin, opens a stove only for a raccoon to jump out and surprise Henry.
If we compare that synopsis to the actual scene it includes nothing of the detail that makes it a unique story or encounter. The synopsis doesn’t list mechanics, not sound effects, art assets or even dialogue. It states simply what is to occur. Leaving all of the nitty gritty writing, and further design work, for later.
The obvious downside to a synopsis is the amount of time it takes to produce. And even with an outline your team may not understand or get what you’re trying to do.
A Quick Detour To Your Team
So let’s take a quick detour and talk about your team or those you’re trying to sell your story to. The fact is you’re not going to convince everyone, nor are you going to convince anyone all the time. People have different, competing concepts and differing abilities to imagine scenarios, scenes or ideas. You can’t account for all those possibilities. What you can do is use these tools to simplify and clarify for yourself. Then you’ll be able to better present your case and argue it.
Storyboards are essentially comics strips that are quickly drawn and have minimal details that help tell and visualize a story. If you’ve watched a making of documentary for most movies you’ll probably see some storyboards.
Some works, like Mad Max Fury Road, started as storyboards. It’s only later that an actual script was written based upon them. That’s not always the way to go as was the case with Aliens 3. But it is an excellent way to convey the action of a story or scene. And for games it’s no different especially when you’re talking mechanics.
But a storyboard takes an artist, or at least some level of skill so readily convey your intent. I’ve found storyboards to be quite useful and to make sure I and any artist I’m working with are on the same page I recommend “Professional Storyboarding: Rules of Thumb: by Sergio Paez and Anson Jew. It provides a lot of great examples of how to draw different scenes and the language used for talking about them. And if you have that shared terminology it makes creating storyboards that much easier.
There’s an additional level you can take the storyboard to if you are so inclined.
Popularized by Pixar, it’s essentially taking the storyboard and adding a color palette to it. All in order to demonstrate how the color changes over the course of a scene or story and thus affects and reflects the mood or themes. It’s also a great way of ensuring that things aren’t being repeated too often and thus become boring.
Of course if you don’t have an artist, the skill, or the time to create a storyboard or color script you can simply provide references. Though I wouldn’t recommend just putting all of your images on single poster if you’re trying to present a story. Rather tell that story with those images by putting them in an order that makes sense, so you can present it to someone and not have to talk them through it.
The Story Map
Or as I sometimes call it the story breakdown tool. I don’t have a good name for it and I keep forgetting what others have called it. But it’s a combination of all of the previous tools in an easy to reference manner. It’s been used by the likes of thatgamecompany to make Journey. The photo of which is courtesy of @iamleyeti.
Even Cory Barlog, the creative director of God of War, uses a similar tool for mapping out the game. And I know Gregory Louden from Convict Games does something similar. Even Brooke Mags when working on The Gardens Between developed such a thing.
All of these maps or breakdown tools have a number of things in common. They include the major areas visited in the game, the characters, the events of each area, the mood or themes for each section, and more. The amount of detail you provide in the breakdown is up to you and your role.
As you can see from my own work on A Giant Problem, as writer and game designer I’ve picked and chosen what elements to use from other’s own tools. Like most of them I’ve laid it out in a linear format representing the campaign as played, the areas the player traverses, what new mechanics or skills they gain in those areas, and of course the story beats.
My expanded version includes reference photos, color scripts and even elevation of the environments all in an attempt to tie together the story, it’s arc and the general game as well as level design.
And if you’ve listened to an episode before then you’ve heard me mention The Story Grid. The actual grid, as defined in the book of the same name, does this very thing for novels. It gets you to plan out what happens and how it relates to everything else happening in your story. So it’s readily transferrable to other storytelling mediums like games.
If none of these tools are to your liking or you don’t find them helpful with your team, you can always prototype your story or game.
I recommend using either Twine or Ink for game story prototyping as both are relatively easy to learn and could even be implemented as part of the real game. If that doesn’t work then you can always just write the story and ask others to read it.
But hopefully an elevator pitch, outline, synopsis, storyboard, colorscript, references or story map will be of use.