Definition and Examples of Narratives in Writing

A woman telling story to children around a fire
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The definition of narrative is a piece of writing that tells a story, and it is one of four classical rhetorical modes or ways that writers use to present information. The others include an exposition, which explains and analyzes an idea or set of ideas; an argument, which attempts to persuade the reader to a particular point of view; and a description, a written form of a visual experience.

Key Takeaways: Narrative Definition

  • A narrative is a form of writing that tells a story. 
  • Narratives can be essays, fairy tales, movies, and jokes. 
  • Narratives have five elements: plot, setting, character, conflict, and theme. 
  • Writers use narrator style, chronological order, a point of view, and other strategies to tell a story.

Telling stories is an ancient art that started long before humans invented writing. People tell stories when they gossip, tell jokes, or reminisce about the past. Written forms of narration include most forms of writing: personal essays, fairy tales, short stories, novels, plays, screenplays, autobiographies, histories, even news stories have a narrative. Narratives may be a sequence of events in chronological order or an imagined tale with flashbacks or multiple timelines.

Narrative Elements

Every narrative has five elements that define and shape the narrative: plot, setting, character, conflict, and theme. These elements are rarely stated in a story; they are revealed to the readers in the story in subtle or not-so-subtle ways, but the writer needs to understand the elements to assemble her story. Here's an example from "The Martian," a novel by Andy Weir that was made into a film:

  • The plot is the thread of events that occur in a story. Weir's plot is about a man who gets accidentally abandoned on the surface of Mars.
  • The setting is the location of the events in time and place. "The Martian" is set on Mars in the not-too-distant future.
  • The characters are the people in the story who drive the plot, are impacted by the plot, or may even be bystanders to the plot. The characters in "The Martian" include Mark Watney, his shipmates, the people at NASA resolving the issue, and even his parents who are only mentioned in the story but still are impacted by the situation and in turn impact Mark's decisions.
  • The conflict is the problem that is being resolved. Plots need a moment of tension, which involves some difficulty that requires resolution. The conflict in "The Martian" is that Watney needs to figure out how to survive and eventually leave the planet's surface.
  • Most important and least explicit is the theme. What is the moral of the story? What does the writer intend the reader to understand? There are arguably several themes in "The Martian": the ability of humans to overcome problems, the stodginess of bureaucrats, the willingness of scientists to overcome political differences, the dangers of space travel, and the power of flexibility as a scientific method.

Setting Tone and Mood

In addition to structural elements, narratives have several styles that help move the plot along or serve to involve the reader. Writers define space and time in a descriptive narrative, and how they choose to define those characteristics can convey a specific mood or tone.

For example, chronological choices can affect the reader's impressions. Past events always occur in strict chronological order, but writers can choose to mix that up, show events out of sequence, or the same event several times experienced by different characters or described by different narrators. In Gabriel García Márquez's novel "Chronicle of a Death Foretold," the same few hours are experienced in sequence from the viewpoint of several different characters. García Márquez uses that to illustrate the peculiar almost magical inability of the townspeople to stop a murder they know is going to happen.

The choice of a narrator is another way that writers set the tone of a piece. Is the narrator someone who experienced the events as a participant, or one who witnessed the events but wasn't an active participant? Is that narrator an omniscient undefined person who knows everything about the plot including its ending, or is he confused and uncertain about the events underway? Is the narrator a reliable witness or lying to themselves or the reader? In the novel "Gone Girl," by Gillian Flynn, the reader is forced to constantly revise her opinion as to the honesty and guilt of the husband Nick and his missing wife. In "Lolita" by Vladimir Nabokov, the narrator is Humbert Humbert, a pedophile who constantly justifies his actions despite the damage that Nabokov illustrates he's doing.

Point of View

Establishing a point of view for a narrator allows the writer to filter the events through a particular character. The most common point of view in fiction is the omniscient (all-knowing) narrator who has access to all the thoughts and experiences of each of her characters. Omniscient narrators are almost always written in the third person and do not usually have a role in the storyline. The Harry Potter novels, for example, are all written in third person; that narrator knows everything about everybody but is unknown to us.

The other extreme is a story with a first-person point of view in which the narrator is a character within that story, relating events as they see them and with no visibility into other character motivations. Charlotte Bronte's "Jane Eyre" is an example of this: Jane relates her experiences of the mysterious Mr. Rochester to us directly, not revealing the full explanation until "Reader, I married him."

Points of view can also be effectively shifted throughout a piece—in her novel "Keys to the Street," Ruth Rendell used limited third-person narratives from the point of view of five different characters, enabling the reader to assemble a coherent whole out of what first appears to be unrelated stories. 

Other Strategies

Writers also use the grammatical strategies of tense (past, present, future), person (first person, second person, third person), number (singular, plural) and voice (active, passive). Writing in the present tense is unsettling—the narrators have no idea what will happen next—while past tense can build in some foreshadowing. Many recent novels use the present tense, including "The Martian." A writer sometimes personalizes the narrator of a story as a specific person for a specific purpose: The narrator can only see and report on what happens to him or her. In "Moby Dick," the entire story is told by the narrator Ishmael, who relates the tragedy of the mad Captain Ahab, and is situated as the moral center.

E.B. White, writing columns in 1935's "New Yorker" magazine, often used the plural or "editorial we" to add a humorous universality and a slow pace to his writing.

"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, we 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 ourselves."—E.B. White "Sadness of Parting."

In contrast, sportswriter Roger Angell (White's stepson) epitomizes sports writing, with a quick, active voice, and straight chronological snap:

"In September 1986, during an unmomentous Giants-Braves game out at Candlestick Park, Bob Brenly, playing third base for San Francisco, 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."—Roger Angell. "La Vida."