What Is Narrative Writing? (Common Types and Writing Tips)

By Indeed Editorial Team

Published 25 July 2022

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

A narrative is a sequence of related events or experiences that's either fictional or non-fictional. Professionals in many fields may use narrative writing to describe real events or convey a unique experience or idea. If you're studying writing or pursuing a career in a creative industry, you could benefit from a more detailed understanding of narrative texts. In this article, we define narrative writing, share some common narrative forms, types and key characteristics and provide tips you can use.

What is narrative writing?

Narrative writing is a series of connected events or experiences that a writer makes into a cohesive story. A story may be fictional, as in a novel, or non-fictional, like a memoir. Narratives are one of the four main rhetorical modes of language-based communication, along with description, exposition and argumentation.

In a narrative text, the writer arranges each event in a particular order to form the story's plot. A plot's complexity might vary depending on the author's purpose. For example, a crime novel may have a very complex plot, while an introspective novel might rely on one or two main events. Narrative writers often rely on key elements, such as character, setting, conflict and theme, to create a convincing story and engage the reader's attention.

Related: 4 Common Writing Styles: When and How to Use Them

Narrative writing forms

Many forms of writing use a narrative style. Some of these are:

Novel

A novel is a fictional book-length prose narrative in which an author explores the human experience imaginatively. Novelists construct a sustained and complex story by developing character, action, plot, setting and conflict. You may write a novel in a specific genre, such as crime, romance or science fiction. These narratives typically follow certain plots and stylistic conventions. For instance, a crime novel might begin with an unresolved murder case. Literary novels often centre on character and theme rather than action. Novelists may experiment with writing styles and often explore the psychology of characters.

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Screenplay

A screenplay can be a fictional or non-fictional story that an author writes for film, TV or other moving media. It provides the movement, action and dialogue for actors and directors to follow. Screenwriters format these works as a set of instructions rather than in paragraphs like novels. They rely on dialogue and each character's movements and expressions to tell their story. These professionals may also specify changes in setting, point of view and camera shots or angles.

Related: How to Write a Screenwriter's Resume (Steps and Example)

Biography

A biography is a detailed retelling of a person's life. While the content is usually non-fiction, biography writers may use literary devices to develop a theme or highlight various aspects of the subject's life. Biographies can be linear or nonlinear. In them, authors might relate a life from beginning to end or move back and forth between key events. Biographers may analyse the subject's personality and comment on their experiences.

Narrative journalism

Narrative journalism combines facts and true stories with a literary writing style. A narrative journalist may research an interesting person, real situation or current event. Using their insight and creativity, they present their findings by arranging events and utilising a particular point of view. They can use this style to emphasise certain themes and engage the reader emotionally.

Related: How to Become a Journalist

Common narrative types

The narrative type you use may depend on what you're trying to communicate. A writer might also use several types in one story. Here are some common narrative types:

Linear narrative

Writers use a linear narrative to tell a story chronologically. This means each scene follows the action of a previous one, presenting events and experiences as they would occur. For example, a linear novel may follow a character's life from childhood to adulthood. This narrative type might cover only a few days or an entire lifetime. It can increase the story's pace and build to an exciting climax.

Nonlinear narrative

Nonlinear narratives present events in non-chronological order. This format lets a writer emphasise a character's emotional state or make thematic connections between events. For nonlinear structures, a writer may use flashbacks or start at the end of the story. A flashback can add details and give depth to a character's current experience. By starting a narrative at the end of the story, you can create suspense by slowly revealing how the character's journey began.

Quest narrative

A quest narrative has a clearly defined conclusion. The protagonist typically seeks an end state or goal, such as safety or a valuable treasure, and tirelessly works towards it. The destination is often geographically remote, meaning that characters journey to it physically. While travelling, they may face dangerous terrains or obstacles to overcome.

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Viewpoint narrative

Viewpoint narrative authors focus on a character's subjective experience. The writer filters the exterior world through the character's mood, prejudices, feelings and sensations. For viewpoint narratives, authors commonly use a first-person perspective. This allows readers to experience events as if they were the protagonist. Writers might also use a third-person omniscient perspective, allowing them access to the private thoughts of multiple characters. This writing style often involves unreliable narration. The story's narrator may be deliberately deceptive or may have a different understanding of the world.

Descriptive narrative

In descriptive narratives, authors focus on how a story's setting, characters and objects look and feel. By creating a complete sensory experience, they try to immerse the reader in the story's world. They might employ techniques such as metaphor, simile and personification. This narrative type often progresses more slowly because it centres on evoking sensory details, including smell, taste, touch, sight and sound. It may focus on a character's inner conflict or interaction with their surroundings rather than a complex plot.

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Key narrative characteristics

There are several key narrative components. These include:

  • Theme: The theme is the broad idea or tension a writer explores in a narrative piece. For example, they might analyse several themes in a family saga, such as greed, loyalty and forgiveness.

  • Characters: Most narrative writers use characters to develop an engaging story and build to a climax. A character could be almost anything, including a person, animal or inanimate object.

  • Setting: The setting is where the narrative takes place. A detailed setting is important because it provides a convincing backdrop for the action and context.

  • Plot: The plot refers to the sequence of events and experiences in a narrative. You might create a complex and action-focused plot or describe a series of minor events.

  • Conflict: Conflict can be anything that causes tension in the story. It may occur because of other characters, the physical environment or internal states.

  • Descriptive language: Most writers use descriptive language techniques in narratives to evoke character, place or emotion. Doing so can create a vivid world that immerses the reader in the story.

  • Narrative structure: This is how a writer organises their narrative. It involves deciding where the story begins and ends, how it builds and whether it's linear or nonlinear.

Related: What Is Figurative Language? Definition, Types and Examples

Tips for strong narrative writing

You can follow these tips to write an engaging and powerful narrative piece:

Listen to oral storytelling

Listening to how people tell stories might help you write your own. You can note when their story diverges and whether it goes back and forth through time. In addition, notice how the speaker's language and tone change when they reach different parts of the story. They might summarise sections and increase their speed and volume as they reach the story's climax. Think about how these tangents or changes in tone affect the story. When you write, consider how your own narrative may benefit from deliberate word choice, varied pacing and detailed description.

Related: Creative Thinking: How to Start Thinking Creatively

Read widely and regularly

A great way to improve your creative writing is by reading widely and regularly. Doing so can expose you to many writing techniques that you could experiment with. You might also discover how other writers accomplish important narrative elements, such as character development or world-building. In addition, you could incorporate techniques from other narrative types into your own. For example, a novel may include chapters that have a layout similar to a screenplay or poem.

Related: How to Become a Script Writer in 8 Steps

Create a story plan

Planning before you write can give your narrative focus and direction. This plan might be simple, outlining the story's basic plot, character arcs and settings. It might also identify key themes you hope to explore in your story. While not always necessary, a plan could ensure your story builds to a meaningful conclusion. You can also refer to it if you're unsure about the story's next step or how to develop a character.

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