Narrative (Composition)

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

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.

James Jasinski has observed that "narratives are a way through which people make sense of their lives, a vehicle for ordering and organizing experiences, and a mechanism for both comprehending and constituting the social world. Narratives, in short, fulfill a range of basic human needs" (Sourcebook on Rhetoric, 2001).

In classical rhetoric, narrative is one of the exercises known as the progymnasmata.

See Examples and Observations below. Also see:

Examples of Narrative Paragraphs and Essays


From the Latin, "knowing"

Examples and Observations

  • "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. 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."
    (L. Spencer, A Step-by-Step Guide to Narrative Writing. Rosen, 2005)
  • A Short Narrative by E.B. White
    "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."
    (E.B. White, "Sadness of Parting." The New Yorker, May 4, 1935)
  • Narratives in College Writing Assignments
    "Why is narrative writing important in a class devoted to learning to write for college? The narrative offers several important benefits:
    - It can help you 'loosen up' and write naturally. Telling or listening to stories is so enjoyable that learning to write them down is a good way to gain a sense of comfort as a writer.
    - You can use narrative as a brainstorming technique to generate ideas for future essays, regardless of the type of essay you are writing.
    - You can employ narrative writing, even in expository and argumentative contexts, to introduce your essays and to provide supporting evidence for your body paragraphs.
    - Because stories happen in time, you can begin to learn how to pace your writing and provide transitions to enhance the way it 'flows.' Furthermore, the natural pauses in the flow of most narratives give you the chance to practice describing people, scenery, and emotions."
    (Luis Nazario, Deborah Borchers, and William Lewis, Bridges to Better Writing. Wadsworth, 2010)
  • Narratives in Creative Nonfition
    - "Narrative tension or narrative 'pull' is just as important in creative nonfiction as it is in fiction. . . . [Y]ou need to think about when to withhold information and when to reveal it."
    (K. Iversen, Shadow Boxing. Pearson, 2004)

    - "Whenever you incorporate narrative into your writing, remember that good narrators use concrete, vivid language to show their readers what is happening. They strive for visual elements to add presence to their writing."
    (Maxine C. Hairston, Successful Writing, 3rd ed. W.W. Norton, 1992)
  • Narratives in Sports Writing
    "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)
  • Beginning in the Middle
    - "The classical narrative technique in medias res—beginning in the middle of things—has stood the test of centuries. The narrator sidesteps the natural beginning of the story in favor of some middle spot in the narrative. . . .

    "Beginning in the middle gives reader and writer two great advantages: (1) immediate action and a forward thrust into the narrative; (2) the ability to flash back, recovering missing history or context."
    (Roy Peter Clark, Help! for Writers: 210 Solutions to the Problems Every Writer Faces. Little, Brown and Company, 2011)

    - "'Your narrative style,' said Parker, 'though racy, is a little elliptical. Could you not begin at the beginning and go on until you come to the end, and then, if you are able to, stop?'"
    (Dorothy L. Sayers, Murder Must Advertise, 1933)
  • The Lighter Side of Narratives
    "Here's a true story: I was staying at Ridley's house, and we went to the market for groceries. I was grinding up a bag of coffee when Ridley wandered over. After watching me for a moment, he said: 'A murderer could put poison into the grinding machine, so the next person to use it would grind poison into the bottom of his coffee bag. It could be weeks before the poison got into the coffee. There'd be no way to trace it.' Then, smiling contentedly, he wandered off to buy cold cuts. My host."
    (Dave Barry, "Up a Tree." Dave Barry Is From Mars and Venus. Crown, 1997)

Pronunciation: NAR-a-tiv