What Is a Narrative in Composition?

Tips on Writing a Narrative and Examples

woman telling story to children around a fire
"The human is a storytelling creature," says Brian Alleyne. "The passage of time shapes and is shaped by narrative" (Narrative Networks, 2014). Gideon Mendel/Getty Images

A narrative is an account of a sequence of events usually presented in chronological order. A narrative may be real or imagined, nonfictional or fictional. Another word for narrative is story. The structure of a narrative is called the plot.

Narrative writing can take various forms, including personal essays, biographical sketches (or profiles), and autobiographies in addition to novels, short stories, and plays.

"In narrative writing, an author has a chance to make his or her mark on the world by relating a story that only he or she can tell," says author Lauren Spencer in "A Step-by-Step Guide to Narrative Writing." "Whether it comes from a personal experience or is one that the writer has imagined, the point of a narrative is to bring one's subject to life. By using sensory details, the five Ws and H (who, what, where, when, why, and how), and basic story structure, any subject can be made exciting" (Rosen, 2005).

Choosing Your Narrator

When you choose how you narrate the event, you're in essence choosing how the story will be told, how the details will unfold. If you use a first-person narration style, your work will have in-your-face immediacy and be able to include all your thoughts on the happenings but will be limited to your own point of view. For an example of a first-person narrative, see "Quality" by John Galsworthy.

If you choose to tell the story with a third-person point of view (POV), the story will unfold as if the reader is an observer of whatever is happening and can be third-person omniscient or third-person limited. With an omniscient (all-knowing) POV, the narrator tells what's happening overall. Every character or person's thoughts can be included in the telling.

In nonfiction this will be accomplished through direct quotes from the sources themselves.

A limited POV is just that, one that's following the thoughts and impressions of events of just one character or person. 

The same occurrence can have very different presentations depending on whom you choose as your narrator for it. If you find yourself stuck in your drafting, try writing the piece from another point of view.

Where to Start Your Narrative

Whether you're writing fiction or nonfiction (as in articles and essays), starting in the middle of the action, or in medias res, is where to be for longer pieces. It might sound counterintuitive to not start at the beginning, but it makes for better reading. The audience gets thrown in the middle of the action, so there's the effect of immediacy. You sprinkle in background details as they're needed for context so you don't bog down your reader with the whole backstory up front. The less explaining and the more showing that you do makes for better writing. You've heard the adage "show, don't tell"? It's the way to go. It's more descriptive. Let the reader see the scene, smell the air, and feel the textures for a vivid, enthralling experience with your tale.

"Narrative tension or narrative 'pull' is just as important in creative nonfiction as it is in fiction," notes author Kristen Iverson in "Shadow Boxing." "[Y]ou need to think about when to withhold information and when to reveal it" (Pearson, 2004).

Starting in medias res also provides you the opportunity to turn to flashback scenes to break up the straight chronological flow of events. You control the pace at which your overall story unfolds through how you structure its telling.

Examples of Narrative Paragraphs and Essays

In this narrative example, "Sadness of Parting," by E.B. White, you'll notice how odd it feels to have a first-person plural narrator for the point of view of just one person. It would be difficult to maintain this convention for a long piece, so it's best used sparingly to show pomposity, self-mockery, melodrama, or the like:

"The barber was cutting our hair, and our eyes were closed—as they are so likely to be....Deep in a world of our own, he heard, from far away, a voice saying goodbye. It was a customer of the shop, leaving. 'Goodbye,' he said to the barbers. 'Goodbye,' echoed the barbers. And without ever returning to consciousness, or opening our eyes, or thinking, we joined in. 'Goodbye,' we said, before we could catch ourself. Then, all at once, the sadness of the occasion struck us, the awful dolor of bidding farewell to someone we had never seen. We have since wondered what he looked like, and whether it was really goodbye." (The New Yorker, May 4, 1935)

Here is an example of a narrative in sports writing. Notice the use of straight chronological order to give the piece a play-by-play feel. As you're reading, pay attention to the pacing and how that's accomplished through multiple phrases set in series and separated by commas. Through this convention, the writer enables a faster, more exciting flow to the text:

"Events on the field qualify in the life, as well; they only have to be a little special. In September 1986, during an unmomentous Giants-Braves game out at Candlestick Park, Bob Brenly, playing third base for the San Franciscos, made an error on a routine ground ball in the top of the fourth inning. Four batters later, he kicked away another chance and then, scrambling after the ball, threw wildly past home in an attempt to nail a runner there: two errors on the same play. A few moments after that, he managed another boot, thus becoming only the fourth player since the turn of the century to rack up four errors in one inning. In the bottom of the fifth, Brenly hit a solo home run. In the seventh, he rapped out a bases-loaded single, driving in two runs and tying the game at 6–6. The score stayed that way until the bottom of the ninth, when our man came up to bat again, with two out, ran the count to 3–2, and then sailed a massive home run deep into the left-field stands. Brenly's accountbook for the day came to three hits in five at-bats, two home runs, four errors, four Atlanta runs allowed, and four Giant runs driven in, including the game winner. A neater summary was delivered by his manager, Roger Craig, who said, 'This man deserves the Comeback Player of the Year Award for this game alone.' I wasn't at Candlestick that day, but I don't care; I have this one by heart."(Roger Angell, "La Vida." "Season Ticket: A Baseball Companion." Houghton Mifflin, 1988)

In classical rhetoric, narrative is one of the exercises known as the progymnasmata. If you're looking for ideas on what to write, here are 50 essay topics. You can also find advice on drafting your composition, and a checklist to use during your revising and editing rounds.