What Is Narrative Writing? A Comprehensive Guide – Jericho Writers
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What Is Narrative Writing? A Comprehensive Guide

What Is Narrative Writing? A Comprehensive Guide

Fundamentally, narrative writing connects events in our stories using character, conflict, plot, setting and theme to create a narrative writing arc. 

Throughout this article, I will highlight different types of narrative writing. I will also explain the six key elements that make up narrative writing and why they are crucial.  

I will also offer some tips on how to use narrative structure in your own writing effectively.  

What Is Narrative Writing?

Narrative writing is, quite literally, exactly what it says on the tin. Narrative writing is a structure of storytelling told in a narrative manner. Only, nothing is really that simple when it comes to the world of writing, is it?  

There is so much more to learn about how the rules of narrative writing could help elevate your own work in progress.  

It doesn’t matter if you are writing fiction, non-fiction, short stories, descriptive essays or full-length novels, narrative writing utilises the six key elements of writing to convey a story to a reader, often using the age-old technique of writing a ‘beginning, middle and end’ (linear) structure. But not always… narrative writing can also be non-linear! 

I told you it wasn’t as simple as you may have first thought.  

Think back to your school days. We were taught the basics of storytelling from a young age, and we were taught at first to write in a narrative format. We were being taught how ‘tell a story’.  

Over the years we develop ways to make those stories more compelling, more complex, and sometimes more emotional, but at the heart of it, we were learning narrative structure.  

Linear Narrative Writing Vs Non-Linear Narrative Writing 

Before we talk about the key elements that all narrative writing relies on, it’s important to know the difference between linear and non-linear narrative writing. Overall, there are five different styles of narrative writing, but understanding the difference between linear and non-linear is crucial, as each of the others can be written in either of these sub-styles.  

Linear Narrative

What Is A Linear Narrative? 

Linear narrative describes a structure of narrative writing that follows a traditional pattern. It’s a narration that tells a story of events in the order in which they occur, in sequence.  

Linear narrative is the most common form of writing and is the most basic of structures, following a story in a continuous fashion from beginning to end, describing events as they happen. 

A writer will still use all six key elements of narrative writing to complete the structure, but they’ll stick to a flow that unfolds in a chronological manner.  

narrative-writing

What Is The Benefit Of Writing In A Linear Narrative Style? 

When writing in a linear style, character arcs and causation are easily identifiable on the page. As humans, we lead linear lives, so to see this replicated on the page can often create an instant sense of understanding with a reader.  

What Is An Example Of A Linear Narrative In Fiction? 

An obvious example of a linear narrative can be found in Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe. The entire novel is written in a linear fashion. Although Crusoe often remarks about memories of the past, we are propelled through the novel in chronological order. 

Non-Linear Narrative

What Is A Non-Linear Narrative? 

Non-linear narrative is the direct opposite of linear narrative. This structure of narrative writing presents a story with events unfolding out of order.  

The events in the narrative/story are not told chronologically and will often make use of devices such as flashbacks to transport the reader back (or indeed forward) in time. 

What Are The Benefits Of Writing In A Non-Linear Style? 

Non-linear writing can be trickier to pull off and the writer must be careful not to use ‘flashbacks’ to info-dump on the reader. However, if successfully used, a non-linear structure allows a writer to tell a story, slowly releasing information from the past to highlight issues in the present, or even hint at possible issues in the future.  

Non-linear writing can help to represent changes in your character’s emotional state, or even highlight reasons why your character is acting a certain way. For example, if past traumas resurface, highlighting these will give your characters depth and help create a strong character arc.  

Non-linear writing can also be used to create and build suspense. For example, Donna Tartt opens The Secret History by telling us about a murder, but then takes us back to events before the murder, making us wait for the story to unfold to find out what events lead up to the killing. 

What Is An Example Of A Non-Linear Narrative In Fiction? 

There are many examples I could use as fabulous examples of non-linear writing in contemporary novels, but one such novel that sticks out for me is The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern. In this novel, although the two magicians are battling a jealous rivalry, they move between different points in time to highlight the rivalry over the decades. A clever non-linear structure can move through weeks, months, years and sometimes even decades if done well.  

Key Elements Of Narrative Writing

Now that we understand the two main areas of narrative writing style, it is time to look into the elements of story writing that can be utilised to ensure you carry out this style of writing effectively.  

Irrespective of whether you are writing a linear or non-linear narrative structure, six key elements are used to create this style of writing. These same six elements remain the same, in both fiction and non-fiction writing.  

The six key narrative elements:  

  • Character 
  • Plot 
  • Setting 
  • Conflict 
  • Theme 
  • Narrative Arc 

Using these six elements accurately will help create both linear and non-linear narratives.  

It is important to know what each of these are and how they work together.  

Let’s take one of our previous examples and break them down. We’ll use the example of Donna Tartt’s A Secret History.

narrative-style

Character

Characters are the people in the story that propel it forward using the plot.  One of the most important aspects of narrative fiction is character development.  

In A Secret History – Richard Papen is the narrator and protagonist (main character).   

In this novel, we see Richard as a young graduate student in California. Over the course of the novel, we follow his story and character development as he pursues his ambitions.  

Although we are using an example of fiction here, character development through narrative writing in non-fiction is just as important. If you want your reader to follow your story, you have to create a reason for them to be invested. A strong sense of character does just that.  

It doesn’t matter if it’s fiction or non-fiction, the main point of narrative writing is to create an interesting story, and you can’t create a story without character.  

By the end of your narrative writing piece, your character should have been on a journey, told in story form, with the development of this character being the driving force for the narrative.  

Plot

The plot is the thread of events that create the story you are telling.  

Let’s go back to The Secret History. It is, at its heart, an inverted detective story narrated by Richard Papen, one of the six students involved in the murder of their friend Edmund ‘Bunny’ Corcoran. 

Whether you are writing a space opera fiction novel, or a biography on King Henry IIIV, narrative writing is at its core a ‘story’. To have a functioning story, be it in a linear or non-linear form, your characters need to have a plot to follow.  

Make sure you ask yourself ‘why is this story important?’ and ‘why am I using these characters to tell this story?’  

Setting

Setting is crucial in any written work. If you are writing historical non-fiction, making sure you describe the settings is crucial in narrative writing. After all, if all your readers want is ‘facts’, they can get them in an academic text. They are reading narrative non-fiction to feel more of a connection to the story.  

Let’s go back to Donna Tartt and The Secret of History again. Set against the backdrop of a liberal arts college in New England in the 1980’s, the setting of this novel reveals just as much about the characters themselves as the plot of the novel.  

Conflict

Conflict is the problem at the heart of your work that needs to be resolved.  

The conflict in The Secret History is clear, and centres around the death of ‘Bunny’.  

The conflict in your narrative writing will help clarify your themes.  

If you are hoping to create a sense of tension within your narrative writing, conflict is crucial. You can choose to create conflict between characters, or even use setting to show conflict between worlds, but making sure the conflict at the centre of your plot is strong will be what your narrative fiction lives or dies on. 

Theme 

Theme is arguably the most important of all narrative elements. You are telling a story, that much we know, but what is the moral of that story?  

What do you as a writer want the reader to be asking?  

In A Secret History, there are a few main themes working together. Tartt wants the reader to understand and examine the consequences of secrets, the superficiality of appearances, the dangers of isolation and reality versus illusion. Tartt uses character, plot and conflict to ensure these themes are strong on the page.  

Themes are essential in all styles of writing. It doesn’t matter if you are writing in a linear or non-linear fashion, your themes will be vital to telling the story. Remember, you are telling a story, ask yourself, what lessons do you hope to share?  

Narrative Arc

Narrative arc is how we describe the story structure.  

In almost all works of fiction, a narrative arc is a fundamental building block for what makes a good novel. To create a narrative arc, you need to consider who your character is, what it is they want in the story you are creating, what conflict they will encounter, how they will resolve that conflict and how those lessons will culminate in a satisfying ending. Essentially, you take all of the other elements of narrative writing to create an arc that leaves your reader satisfied.  

non-linear-narrative

Types Of Narrative Writing

Although we have already discussed the difference between linear and non-linear narrative writing, there are three other main areas of narrative writing.  

  • Historical narrative writing 
  • Viewpoint narrative writing 
  • Quest narrative writing 

Historical Narrative Writing

Historical narrative writing is how we describe the writing of historical events in a story-based format. 

Historical narrative writing is most commonly found in biographical and autobiographical historical writings, but can also be seen as fiction such as historical romance, and historical fiction novels. 

Historical narratives can often include ‘primary source material’ which will present first-hand accounts and knowledge, often in the form of diary entries, letters or personal memories in an autobiographical, biographical or memoir style. 

Historical writing is used to help tell a story about a past event, which can be told through the eyes of a fictional character, or through the eyes of an important historical figure.  

Historical narrative fiction is an interesting topic because despite many believing that historical events are factual, the way we view history can be clouded by our own perceptions, and opinions, and coloured by our own experiences.  

One aspect that most historical narratives have in common is the use of the structure to show a chain reaction of events that happen over a long and extended period of time. Many historical narrative writings will skip large chunks of time between events and refer to time periods often. 

Historical narrative fiction and historical non-fiction require a lot of research but can be some of the most interesting forms of writing. Only through the past can we learn about the future, so shaping these events on the page for readers can truly be rewarding.  

Viewpoint Narrative Writing

The main point of viewpoint narrative in writing, is to show and understand multiple view points of the same story. Each of the separate points of view will show each individual’s own opinions and can be written in a linear or non-linear fashion.  

This style of narrative is incredibly strong and is used often in fiction writing. With multiple POVs, we are able to experience the same issues and conflicts from multiple angles. 

Limiting the point of view in a scene to one character can make a reader feel closer to the action, but you can choose how much information you are giving your reader by limiting or expanding the points of view in your work.  

Similarly, if you are writing from one point of view only, you can create real empathy within your reader; a true and strong connection. But what if you want to create doubt within your reader, or include an unreliable character? Multiple viewpoints will allow you to explore more emotions in a much wider way.  

Viewpoint narrative can be incredibly effective, withholding information, creating suspense and even creating desire within your reader can all be achieved just by playing with a viewpoint narrative. 

Quest Narrative Writing

Quest narrative writing is a structure that follows a protagonist as they work towards achieving a goal. In many cases, this narrative will showcase characters tackling multiple obstacles that are placed in their way as they continue towards the end of their journey.  

More often than not, a quest narrative will see characters travel geographical distances while battling issues that threaten to throw them off course.  

A very obvious example of a quest narrative would be that of Bilbo Baggins in the popular novel The Hobbit by J R R Tolkien. We read along as Bilbo travels, in a fairly linear fashion, with his companions to reclaim lost gold. The quest takes them across vast expanses of land and across territories, facing many conflicts and crises along the way before they are able to complete their journey.   

In order for a quest narrative to be successful, the protagonist must have a place to go, a reason to go there, challenges they will face along the way and a realisation at the end of the story as to what the real reason for their quest was.  

linear-narrative

How To Craft A Strong Narrative

A strong narrative writing piece, no matter which style you chose, needs to capture the imagination and attention of your reader. After that, you need to consider that if your readers are searching out and reading narrative work, they are asking to be told a story. Don’t forget that. Always refer back to the good ole days, sat round a campfire telling stories with friends.

The stories you tell must be compelling and memorable and, most of all, they must be complete. You must have a beginning, a middle and an end– even if they don’t necessarily come in that order. A strong and well-written piece of narrative writing should profoundly impact your reader in some memorable way.  

Before you set to work on your narrative writing piece, consider these points. 

  • First, decide what the story is that you are telling. If you can’t nail that in a few sentences (at the very most) you won’t be able to convey that story to your reader. 
  • Decide which structure is going to work best for your work. Linear vs non-linear.  
  • Walk through the six elements of narrative fiction and make sure you are clear on each point.  
  • Identify the audience you hope to reach and make sure you are using the tone, mood and setting to create a piece of work that will grab the attention of your chosen audience. 
  • Determine the ‘arc’ of your narrative writing piece. Remember:
    • Exposition (the reader’s introduction to your story) 
    • Rising action (when the conflict will arise and show itself) 
    • Climax 
    • Falling action 
    • Resolution 

Remember, to create a sense of satisfaction in your reader, a completed arc is important. Fiction, or non-fiction, narrative writing always has a story at its heart – so make sure you can resolve the story. 

Narrative Writing Tips

I was given some amazing narrative writing tips by a fabulous creative writing teacher when I was younger, and I have never forgotten them. They apply to all kinds of narrative writing, whether you’re writing a novel, short story, or narrative essay. Today, I pass them on to you! 

  • Be mindful of your themes, always. Make sure they are clear in your mind throughout the entire writing process and reinforce them often. You can use setting, tone, language and imagery to do this, but always have your themes at the forefront of your mind .
  • Set the tone of your work at the beginning, and use keywords along the way to reinforce this. For example, narrative writing can be humorous but make sure that humour is peppered throughout. If your narrative work is dark and mournful, make sure you create areas of shade to let your reader breathe and take in the moments of darkness. 
  • Play with language. Always. As humans, we constantly look for different ways to explain the world around us. Imagine you are narrating the story yourself, don’t use the same words over and over again, and explore language in the same way we do in life. It will ensure your work feels more authentic.  
  • Always keep your eye on the prize. You know the ending before you even start the novel. You are narrating a full story, so keep the ending in mind as you write and create milestones along the way so your reader feels they are enjoying the journey with you.  
  • Write often, even if it’s only a little. And read even more than that.  
  • Talk to yourself– I am serious!  Talk to yourself. Embody one of your characters and spend a day narrating your life through their eyes. Hearing how you narrate your own life will help you find a flow in which to narrate the story in your head.  
  • Read your work out loud. Often. Narrative writing is meant to be narrated. So, narrate it. If it doesn’t feel or sound right to you, re-think things a little. Imagine what it would sound like if it was read back to you around a campfire.  
narrative-story

Frequently Asked Questions

What Is The Main Purpose Of Narrative Writing?

At its heart, the main purpose of narrative writing is to tell a story. It really is that simple. A beginning, a middle and an end – but not necessarily always in that order.  

What Makes Good Narrative Writing?

Narrative writing is most successful when writers utilise the 6 key elements of writing to tell a story that will affect the reader and leave a lasting impression. The very best works of narrative writing are deeply descriptive, include visual imagery, strong characters with believable arcs, and a plot and theme that evoke an emotional response in the reader.  

What Are The Six Elements Of Narrative Fiction?

The six key narrative elements are:

  • Character 
  • Plot 
  • Setting 
  • Conflict 
  • Theme 
  • Narrative Arc 

If a writer uses all six key elements together in the correct manner, they can create both linear and non-linear narratives. 

What Is The Difference Between Linear And Non-Linear Narrative Writing? 

A linear narrative describes a structure of narrative writing that tells a story of events in the order in which they occur, in sequence. A non-linear narrative is the direct opposite of a linear narrative. This structure of narrative fiction presents a story with events unfolding out of order. 

What Are The Five Main Types Of Narrative Writing? 

Narrative writing can be broken down into five key main areas:

  • Linear narrative writing 
  • Non-linear narrative writing 
  • Historical narrative writing 
  • Viewpoint narrative writing 
  • Quest narrative writing 

Writing Narratives

Narrative writing and narrative storytelling have been around for as long as time. It’s how we communicate as a species. It’s how we relate to the world outside and understand those living around us. To write narrative writing is to pass on the skills of our ancestors. That’s why teaching narrative writing and sharing its various techniques is so important.

If done properly, narrative writing will allow you to pass your own stories on to others, so they will live in history and be passed on. Narrative writing, in my opinion, is the purest form of storytelling we have at our disposal. Learning how to harness these skills will not only allow you to pass on your own stories, but those stories will, in turn, help the writers of future generations to follow in your footsteps.  


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