Have you ever written a story?
Congratulations, you’ve practiced narrative writing!
Narrative writing is essentially storytelling – it’s the art of building blocks of a plot together, weaving character development throughout your story, and keeping the reader hooked at the same time.
However, there is more to narrative writing than meets the eye. Today, we’ll unpack what constitutes great narratives and which types of narrative writing there are.
What Is Narrative Writing?
From grand fantasy series that span hundreds of years to a short story about a man walking home from work, any story is narrative as long as it involves some basic building blocks.
Luckily, most of us intuitively know how a story should go. If the plot drags or the character doesn’t change at all, for instance, we get bored and quickly lose interest.
Therefore, it’s not too difficult to abide by some essential rules that constitute narrative writing:
- Your story begins with the status quo
- An inciting incident happens
- Your character reacts to it and begins their journey
- Throughout the story, they have to overcome certain obstacles
- A crisis happens
- The crisis leads to a final climax
- The story ends with a resolution
- If the ending is impactful and satisfactory, it causes catharsis, which means the reader is content with how things have been wrapped up and continues to think about the story for days afterward
Of course, the contents of your story will probably be much more complex than a simple bullet-point breakdown.
For example, overcoming obstacles doesn’t have to mean fighting ancient monsters – if your character is struggling psychologically, it is still a challenge they need to face in order to get to the other side.
RELATED READ: How to start writing a book
3 Basic Characteristics of Narrative Writing
Here’s a quick rundown of the essentials:
Your story always needs a character – the protagonist. This is someone the readers will root for and create an emotional connection to. Your protagonist should always have a certain flaw at the beginning of the story (this can be anything from deep-rooted trust issues to an unexplainable fear of oranges). By the end, this flaw should be solved.
The plot is the major driving point behind each narrative. If nothing happens, nobody will read it.
The narrative structure is the overarching frame within which your plot functions.
Speaking of which…
3 Narrative Structures You Can Follow
Looking for a template? Narrative structures are exactly that – they show you what ought to happen at different points in the story.
The Hero’s Journey (or Campbell’s Monomyth) maps the linear progress of a character’s epic story, including specific plot points, such as:
- the call to adventure
- the refusal of the call
- the appearance of a mentor or a helper who guides the character to where they need to go
The Three Act Structure is a typical structure of theatre plays that easily applies to novels as well. Usually, the three parts are split thus:
- Act 1: Beginning, an inciting incident, and the decision to embark on a journey
- Act 2: Obstacles, a mid-point (this can also be described as a “false victory” or a “false defeat” because the character thinks they’ve reached the end only to have to change course and fight again), more obstacles
- Act 3: Pre-climax, climax, descending action, resolution
The Eight-Sequence Structure is inspired by screenwriting techniques. Back in the day, feature-length movies in cinemas had to be broken down into eight parts due to the frequent changing of the tape, which meant screenwriters wanted to keep the audience hooked and excited for the next 15-minute sequence.
This means the narrative can be transformed into 8 manageable chunks, each of which is a short story of its own:
- Status quo – the character and their world get introduced to the reader
- Inciting incident – the character receives a call to action and ponders whether they should accept or refuse
- Turning point – after accepting, the character faces their first challenge
- Mid-point – the character is changed as a result of the first challenge
- Obstacles – the character keeps fighting, overcoming challenges, bonding with others, and progressing in their development
- Crisis – things have gotten worse for the character and everything seems to be going wrong (sometimes, there is a “false surrender” where the character thinks they can’t go on anymore)
- Climax – the showdown where big fights take place
- Resolution – the character deals with the aftermath of the climax
And that’s some basic narrative structures done and dusted!
It’s time to explore…
RELATED READ: 6 Types of Writers: Discover Your Style
4 Major Types of Narrative Writing
The way you tell your story may differ from how things actually happen. For example, many writers start writing in medias res, which means “in the middle of things” – this technique gives you a lot of space for flashbacks, as well as linear development going forward.
What’s more, it introduces the narrative in a gripping, action-packed way that immediately immerses the reader.
In general, there are two major types of narrative writing:
- Linear: events are told in chronological order (this includes the Hero’s Journey, as well as many historical narratives)
- Non-linear: events are not told in chronological order (e.g., the order may be fragmented, or you might start at the end and journey toward the beginning)
An example of linear writing is the Harry Potter series – while there are occasional flashbacks, the story progresses chronologically as Harry grows older.
The Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk, on the other hand, offers a fragmented narrative where scenes do not necessarily come one after the other, which causes an effect of slight disorientation.
Another common type is a viewpoint narrative, which focuses on the protagonist’s emotional world and how they view external events (think The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins).
This stands in opposition to a third-person omniscient narrative where the narrator is a character of their own.
My Final Tip
When crafting your plot outline, remember that each impactful story contains an A story and a B story.
In Save the Cat! Writes a Novel, Jessica Broody explains that while the A story is the premise and plot of the book, the B story is the hidden message beneath.
More often than not, the reason books resonate with us is that they send out a universal message we can relate to, be it the power of love, the possibility of redemption, or the ability to overcome life’s obstacles.
This message is usually transferred through character development. If you want to remind your readers that love conquers all, make the protagonist a distrustful and broody person in the first chapter.
As the story progresses, watch them come alive, learn tenderness, and appreciate the value of human connection. A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman is an excellent example of this.
And if you’re struggling with outlining your novel, don’t forget that the actual act of writing is what often sparks the best ideas.
So get writing.