Defining Narrative Design | The Narrative Design Explorer™

Defining Narrative Design

    αβ³δ¹A¹B¹C↑H¹-I¹K4↓w° “(1) 

    The formula shown above is for a Russian Folktale as described by Vladimir Propp in his book Morphology of the Folktale, the formula reads “A tsar, three daughters (α). The daughters go walking (β³), overstay in the garden (δ¹). A dragon kidnaps them (A¹). A call for aid (B¹). Quest of three heroes (C↑). Three battles with the dragon (H¹-I¹), rescue of the maidens (K4). Return (↓), reward (w°).” (1) While Proop’s semiotics may seem too formulaic for free souls, in practical application his truth stands firm as Aristotle’s Poetics. His structuralist approach to classical literary design easily adapts to interactive experiences, and clearly points to the exponential narratological complexity associated with non-linear experiences. In order to maintain narrative integrity throughout an interactive experience a rigid structure must be adhered to, narrative design was born into the world to bring classical structure back into modern storytelling.

    Narrative design is a narratological craft which focuses on the structuralist, or literary semiotic creation of stories. Narremes, or story elements, are formulated into a cohesive narrative structure in such a way as to create a metanarrative or archnarrative for the reader/viewer/user/player. The term “narrative design” was described by Madison Smartt Bell as “[the] form or structure of…final importance to any work of fiction…”Bell (2) Believable narrative structures are created from well designed narremes. These elements rest within a greater narrative structure, think of the mushroom in Mario or the sword in the stone. Narrative design is the structuralist architecture of literary semiotics that together form a work of fiction. Creative adherence to a well designed narrative structure will result in greater entertainment value and thematic communication.

    Entertainment is an umbrella of a term which has grown even wider in today’s web 2.0 world; our span of fiction’s have begun to take on many forms. “After the novel, and subsequently cinema privileged narrative as the key form of cultural expression of the modern age, the computer age introduces its correlate – database.”Manovich (3) Design of the story related elements, or narremes, of this database and their causal relationship as a metanarrative within said database is narrative design. Digital games are interactive database narratives. Database narrative refers to narratives whose structure exposes the dual processes of selection and combination that lie at the heart of all stories, particular data – characters, images, sounds, events – are selected from a series of databases or paradigms, which are then combined by the player, through action and thought, to generate specific stories.(4)

    Game mechanics give a player navigational functionality within the ‘data-space’ of multimedia narrative (game). “Choices about the design and organization of game spaces have narratological consequences”Jenkins (5). Media theorist Henry Jenkins, continues to describe the crafting of fiction within games as narrative architecture. Crafting more believable interactive fiction requires coherent narrative design to ensure maximum entertainment value. When executed with skill, a narrative design strategy innately provides the reader/viewer/user/player/ with a wider cognitive palette from which they can self-author more emotive and visceral interactive fiction experiences. 

    1. Vladimir Propp. Morphology of the Folktale. via Wikipedia 1928
    2. Madison Smartt Bell. Narrative Design: A Writer’s Guide to Structure. W. W. Norton & Company.1997
    3. Lev Manovich. Database as symbolic Form. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2001.
    4. Stephen Erin Dinehart. RTS as Database Narrative. Narrative Design Explorer. 2007
    5. Henry Jenkins. Game Design as Narrative Architecture. MIT Press. 200?