What Is Narrative Writing? A Guide to Writing Creative Stories

A story is not only about the content it contains, but also how it is told. Narrative writing is a field of creative writing that explores the human experience through the use of stories. It’s rooted in ancient oral storytelling traditions and has evolved to include new forms of expression. Let’s find out what is narrative writing and its contribution to the story.

Narrative writing is one of the four main types of writing. Narrative writing stands apart from the other styles of writing because it tells a story. There are, however, four main types of narrative writing.

The Four Types of Narrative Writing

When teaching narrative writing, professors and teachers not only define the subtypes of this writing style but point out the distinct examples in literature, as well as explain the writing process that is a part of writing each of these types of narrative writing: quest narrative, linear narrative, non-linear narrative, and viewpoint narrative.

Quest Narrative

In a quest narrative, the protagonist, or main character, is on a quest or journey. He or she has a goal in mind, and the obsession is extreme with this goal that the entire story revolves around the main character and the journey they take to reach their goal.

There are loads of examples for quest narrative story writing. In fact, most “epic” novels involve a quest of some kind. Bilbo Baggins from The Hobbit, as well as Frodo Baggins from The Lord of the Rings, both embark on very long quests. 

what is narrative writing

Roland Deschain, the protagonist of the seven-book series The Dark Tower, is on a quest to get to the Tower. Captain Ahab is on a quest across the ocean to finally successfully hunt the great white whale.

Fiction is full of novels full of the suspense involved in quest narrative stories. The main character will gladly use every single one of his or her resources to reach his or her goal, and the novel, when written well, usually gives us as a reader, feelings of hope that the protagonist will reach his or her goal by the end of the book.

Setting Is Important

It probably comes as no surprise that a quest would rely fairly heavily on not just character but also setting. To go on a quest, one must leave the comfort of home and go after something that you are passionate about.

In the same fashion, we see both Bilbo and Frodo leave The Shire to complete important missions. We see Roland literally transverse entire worlds, deserts, forests, and paths to get to a Tower he knows almost nothing about. We see Captain Ahab risk everything on angry seas he can’t control to get an albino whale he’s got a grudge against.

The setting that the writer puts the character in on a quest story is very important. We can’t simply set a character loose in his attic and get him to the basement. That would hardly be a quest, and what reader would care?

Linear Narrative

Linear narrative writing has to do with the way in which the story is told and the order in which it is told. Linear narrative writing tells the story from beginning to end, in chronological order. You see the character’s life unfold in the order in which it happens. There are no flashbacks, jumps ahead, or gaps in time to account for.

The story can be told in first person, second person, or third-person point of view. In this sort of narrative story, the thing that matters most is that the reader watches the events unfold in the story simultaneously as the characters. We aren’t privy to any extra foreshadowing as to what is going to happen. A story is just told, from start to finish, in real-time, just like real life.

There are many examples in which narrative writing of this type is used, and it can be done in every genre of fiction storytelling. Poetry, short stories, and novels can all be written as a linear narrative.

Non-Linear Narrative

The non-linear narrative is the opposite of the linear narrative. In this type of writing, events are told out of order to build suspense and interest. We may, as readers, know the climax of the story at the very beginning and be left to wonder how the characters got there or how the plot moved to get to the climax.

Telling a story out of order means raising different points throughout the plot that bait the reader into a continued reading of the story so that they can find out not the “what” but the “how.” Word choice is one way that authors go about it.

Think about times you’ve read a novel or short story, and just as you’re starting to connect to a character, you read that suspenseful sentence, “And that was the last time anyone ever saw her alive.” Great…the reader thinks…now I know that this character isn’t going to live. But that sparks the imagination of the reader further. The spoiler of the upcoming death catches the reader’s attention and makes them want to keep reading.

In this type of writing, you may read the falling action first, or the main event, or even the ending. It is our job as the reader to decipher from that point how the characters get there. This sort of narrative makes us come up with ideas in an attempt to stay ahead of the author so that we can guess at how things happened to the characters after their fate has been leaked or spoiled to us early.

narrative writing

The reader has been told the outcome, but not necessarily the main event. We don’t know how the character dies or what occurs that leads up to the death. As readers, we have been baited, and now we focus on not just the plot but on picking up clues as we read to try to figure things out before the author tells us.

Viewpoint Narrative

In viewpoint narrative writing, the author’s purpose is to put you in the mind of the narrator. A first-person narration, this narrative piece exposes us to the psychological and emotional mindset of an unreliable narrator. It isn’t the author we’re supposed to believe is telling stories in this sort of narrative. It’s the character.

The character telling the story is almost always unhinged in some way, and we know it. Either their emotional state is off-kilter, or their physical state is. Sometimes, both are out of whack. 

Dolores Claiborne is the first person telling of a woman sitting in an interrogation room telling the story of how she went about killing her husband during an eclipse. We are given her feelings as she feels them, her thoughts as she thinks them, and her motivations, no matter how skewed we know they are.

When teaching narrative writing of this type, a good example is the Tell-Tale Heart by Poe. In this story, we are led from beginning to end by the narrator, hearing his private thoughts and feelings as he quickly descends into madness and then gets the idea that he is being mocked and tortured by the sound of a heart.

Most students are given this story when teaching viewpoint narrative. The way Poe was able to create a tension fraught and maddening telling of the events by moving the story forward as the narrator sees it was not only a fun way for the reader to experience the story, but the personal narrative leaves the reader feeling as though they experienced the madness themselves.

How Descriptive Writing Contributes

Descriptive narrative aids in the writing and very definition when answering the question: What is narrative writing? Without description of things like characters, settings, conflict, and plot, the reader tends to care less and connect less to the story. Description is deeply intertwined within most forms of writing, and every good story has good description, whether the type is narrative or not.

When writing a descriptive essay, there can still be a story told, and often, there should be. We are just going about writing that narrative with a lot of description. When writing personal essays, the more description we add, the more the reader cares about what we write because we have described it well enough for them to see it in their minds. If a writer can make something like a setting or characters real enough, the stories are more successful, regardless of the point of view, the story is told in.