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What is narrative writing?
To paraphrase an old definition of stories from writer Edward Morgan Forster, let’s put it this way. “The king died and then the queen died” is a statement. “The king died, and then the queen died of grief” is narrative writing.
But what is it about narrative writing that makes it such a unique skill set—and how do you learn that skill set? This narrative writing guide will help steer you through the art of storytelling.
Narrative Writing: What Is It?
Narrative writing is all about providing story structure to any form of writing. To learn about narrative writing is to learn about the art of storytelling. That’s true no matter what you’re writing: a novel, a biography, an article, or an essay. If you’ve had an introduction to narrative writing, you can structure any tale to hold people spellbound.
We’ve tackled some examples of narrative writing before, especially personal narrative essays. But anything that tells a story becomes a narrative. Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Raven” is a narrative poem with a specific story. Citizen Kane is a biographical film of a fictional character.
What is our bottom line narrative writing definition? Narrative writing is the use of every writing tool at your disposal to create a cogent story.
The Basic Elements of Narrative Writing
Your plot is the basic narrative writing structure that drives the events of the story. Consider our opening example of the death of a queen and a king.
A king dying, followed by the queen? That’s a chronology. A king dying, and then the queen dying of grief? That becomes a plot.
To get more specific, plot is made up of these essential narrative writing techniques:
- Exposition: The background world and context for the characters. In Cinderella, a classic narrative, our first-act exposition is that Cinderella finds herself downtrodden by her evil step-sisters.
- Rising action: Something happens to disturb the context we’ve established. This should set our character on a new journey. Even in a character-driven work like The Catcher in the Rye, there is an element of this when Holden Caufield learns he won’t be allowed back at boarding school.
- Climax: The highest point of drama, wherein the fates of the characters are decided. In the classic film Jaws, the climax is the confrontation between three men on a boat and the destructive shark plaguing Amity Island.
If you’re writing an essay, your theme might rise from your narrative writing prompt. This is essentially the point of your story. What are you trying to say? What should your readers take away from the experience?
Done well, you won’t have to explain your theme; you can simply let the events of the plot point in its direction.
Think of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and the “green light at the end of Daisy’s dock.” To Gatsby, that light represents a future that always seems to elude him. “It eluded us then, but that’s no matter,” says narrator Nick Carraway.
These last few paragraphs don’t just wrap up the story’s events—they reveal the theme. Fitzgerald elevates Gatsby’s green light into a metaphor for the unrealized American dream of the 1920s.
Human beings are social creatures. We’ll only connect with a narrative if we can see it through someone’s eyes. That’s why vividly developed characters drive some of the best narrative writing.
Great fiction is made up of all sorts of memorable characters. Captain Ahab, Emma Woodhouse, Atticus Finch—we remember the people just as much as we do the stories.
But you don’t have to be writing a novel to make character important, either. Look at how Malcolm X, in his autobiography, vividly paints the character of his father:
“He had only one eye. How he lost the other one I have never known.”
In two sentences, we know that Malcolm X’s father isn’t an ordinary preacher. He’s a unique individual with a background painted in vivid detail.
No matter what you’re writing—poetry, screenplays, novels, essays—we need a sense of the unique personalities to whom the narrative is happening. If you can describe your characters in vivid detail, and they feel real, even the smallest disturbance in events will have us on the edge of our seats.
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Narrative Writing Styles
So far, you have a list of ingredients, but you don’t have a recipe. Let’s explore some of the most common narrative writing styles so you can figure out how to proceed with the story that’s been in your head:
Narrative Writing Style #1: The Quest
The most straightforward narrative style is to take a character, give them a purpose, and then watch events unfold as the character struggles for that purpose.
You can find examples of quests all over classic literature, from Odysseus’ perilous voyage to his home of Ithaca to Dante’s sojourn through the afterlife.
This narrative style is timeless because we can all relate to wanting something. The story can be compelling, even if that something is simply for a character to get back home to the life they knew.
Narrative Writing Style #2: The Non-Linear Form
Of all the narrative writing types, this can be the trickiest.
It might seem like a new style, but even The Odyssey starts in the middle of its story. The non-linear form can be engaging because it introduces a problem right off the bat.
In The Odyssey, the story doesn’t begin with the end of the Trojan War, but it should from a strictly linear narrative. Instead, it opens at Odysseus’ home: 10 years have gone, and Odysseus has yet to return.
What’s gone wrong? We have to read on to find out—as we do, through flashbacks.
Narrative Writing Style #3: Viewpoint Shifts
In George R.R. Martin’s fantasy epic A Song of Ice and Fire, the chronology is relatively straightforward. It starts at the beginning and events unfold in a mostly linear fashion.
However, every chapter opens with a unique viewpoint character—and it’s not always obvious who it is.
Shifting the viewpoint in the narrative can take a straightforward narrative writing outline and inject some tension into it. In A Clash of Kings, Martin uses this to great effect when there are rumors that one of the main characters has died. We don’t read a point-of-view chapter from that character, only enhancing the tension . . .
. . . until that character’s name pops up again as the title of the last chapter. Martin held us in suspense the entire book, then used the narrative structure itself to reveal the twist.
Citizen Kane also explores viewpoint shifts to great effect. It employs the device of an investigative journalist to tell the story of Charles Kane from different angles. We meet his business partner, his friend, his mistress—and these viewpoints add layers of complexity to a narrative that otherwise would be a straightforward biopic.
Narrative Style #4: The Narrator (Reliable or Not)
The Great Gatsby might focus on Gatsby. But it’s Nick Carraway, essentially a side character, who tells the story. Why? Through Carraway’s limited point of view, we see two sides of Gatsby: the successful self-made man who eventually becomes a ruined con artist. As Carraway peels back the layers of Gatsby’s onion, so do the readers.
In Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl (warning: spoilers ahead!), we hear from Amy’s perspective through entries in her diary. She seems sweet and innocent—and possibly murdered by her husband, Nick.
Until it turns out her diaries were fakes all along.
Flynn masterfully lulled her readers into suspecting Nick was the unreliable narrator. Then the second half of the book flips that on its head and creates a whole new depth of context.
Narrative Writing Strategies for Getting Started
Select Your Narrative Writing Topic First
It may seem like a schooltime chore to begin your writing with a selection of “narrative writing topics.” But choosing your theme will invigorate your story with a sense of purpose. Think of it as laying the foundation before you can build the skyscraper.
Choosing a topic gives your narrative the structure it needs. In David Foster Wallace’s essay “Ticket to the Fair,” he chooses a day at the fair as the structure. Sections begin with simple denotations of time: what happened at 9:00, 9:50, and so on. It’s an ideal choice for what becomes a kaleidoscope of experiences.
Identify the Most Compelling Starting Point
One of Kurt Vonnegut’s edicts for good writing was simple: Start as close to the end as possible.
What is the most compelling starting point you can use? What starts the story with a bang?
You can do this in all different types of narrative writing. In The Divine Comedy, the epic poem picks up right as the problem begins: Dante gets lost in the woods and needs to find the way back.
It works just as well in nonfiction. In The Autobiography of Malcolm X, the book opens with a gripping narrative of Malcolm X’s childhood home as his mother protects the family from the Ku Klux Klan. Everything else in the autobiography then springs out of this harrowing context.
Narrative Writing Tips You Can Use Today
Tip #1: Don’t Spell It Out; Demonstrate Your Points With Stories
The old writing advice of “show, don’t tell” certainly applies here. If the theme of your college essay is how hard your father worked to provide for your family, don’t just tell us that.
Respect the judgment of your audience. Show us the stories of that father arriving home from work at 10 p.m. at night and falling asleep in front of the TV from exhaustion. Consider this an essential box on any decent narrative writing checklist.
Tip #2: Limit Your Use of “I”
Whether writing fiction or nonfiction, writing “I” too much can be a telltale sign that you’re losing your grip on the narrative writing format. You’re too close to your own thoughts rather than focusing on the story as it unfolds.
For example, let’s take a section of mediocre writing:
I grew up poor, you could say. I remember how I was always thinking about food. I really wanted a cherry pie at the local diner, but I had no money, so there was nothing I could do. I walked down the street, feeling hungry. I didn’t know how to work for it just yet. I was jealous of the people who could just walk into a diner and buy that cherry pie. I wanted to ask one of them to buy some for me.
That’s 10 uses of the word “I.”
But let’s start with the exact same sentence and rewrite the rest. How would limit the use of “I” to, say, three instances?
I grew up poor, you could say. Some days, I’d walk by Ma’s Diner just to get a whiff of their cherry pies on the street. They’d put a pie in the window and people in suits and Sunday dresses would come in with big smiles, ordering slices without even looking at the price. I would rub the lint in my pockets and walk home, still thinking of cherries.
The reader still gets the point, and with more vivid detail. If we don’t rely on the crutch of “I,” we’re forced to select key details that tell the same story through narrative writing techniques.
Tip #3: Remember There Isn’t a Narrative Without a Goal
Even compelling writing without a story should still have a goal. Consider Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous speech, “I Have a Dream.”
You wouldn’t call it a speech about a story, yet it’s compelling nonetheless.
“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
The speech is uplifting because of the universal nature of its goals. It’s not a mythical quest out of classic literature, but the central struggle is no less inspiring. The only difference is that the setting and the characters are real.
Whether you’re telling a fictional story or rousing a crowd to the realities of today’s challenge, it’s only once you know the narrative of what you want to say that people will connect to it.
What Is Narrative Writing Style?
Whether you’re writing an essay or an epic poem, narrative writing style always comes down to the story choices you make. What do your themes say about the world? What are the key events that draw us into the message you want to send?
Without a narrative writing outline forming the bare bones of your message, you may find it hard to connect with an audience. But if you master the forms of narrative writing, you’ll be able to tell any story you want—and people will listen.
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