What is Narrative Writing?

Written by Haley Boyce

what is creative writing

You’re sitting in front of your computer, the blinking cursor a silent tease on a blank page. You stare at your fingers hovering motionless above the keys, asking them to please, please tell the story you’ve imagined a thousand times. The characters are developed and the world you’ve built for them is detailed. You’ve got it all worked out, from the houses they live in to the scent of the air. You know this material has the potential to inform, to entertain, to change readers’ lives. 

So why won’t it flow onto the page? 

Your shoulders slump and your heart sinks just a little. You lean back into your chair, away from the taunting emptiness of the screen and into the realization that you don’t know where to start.  

Fact is that storytelling is hard work. Sometimes the difficulty is enough to make a person settle for a different daydream. But not you. Your story starts now. It’s happening – your novel is bound for the top of best sellers lists and to-be-read piles. Book tours, a Netflix deal, and a lucrative contract with your publisher? If could be all yours. But first, you’ve got to put your words to paper. 

Whether it’s a case of writer’s block or a realization that you don’t know the first place to begin, enrolling in a college or university creative writing program could be your pathway toward a fulfilling career as a writer. 

So, what is narrative writing? Narrative writing tells a story. This story can be totally true and based on your own experience. Are you a mountain climber? Cool. Tell the harrowing story about the time you reached the top of Mount Everest. Or do you have an imaginary world in your head? One with characters who have a problem and a way to solve it? If the answer is yes, then you’ve got a narrative on your hands. 

In short, narrative = story.

What Are Some Well-Known Examples of Narrative Writing?

hunger games booksThe following titles show how vastly style and tone can vary. The stories here range in genre and purpose (which we will explore below), but all exemplify narrative. 

Examples of notable narrative fiction are:


  • “The Great Gatsby” by F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • “To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee
  • The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton
  • The Catcher in the Rye” by J.D. Salinger
  • The Hunger Games series” by Suzanne Collins

Examples of notable narrative nonfiction are: 


  • The Glass Castle” by Jeanette Wells
  • The Year of Magical Thinking” by Joan Didion
  • Unbroken” Laura Hillenbrand
  • Between the World and Me” by Ta-Nehisi Coates
  • A Moveable Feast” by Ernest Hemingway

What is the Narrative Writing Process?

tree brain

The first unofficial step is to be prepared to repeat a few of the following steps as needed to improve each draft (of which there will be several). Keep in mind that the process is sequential but can be moved around to fit your personal creative process.

How Many Drafts Should I Write?

That’s a question every writer asks no matter how long they’ve been working on their craft. The difference, though, is the struggle some of us have gone through to accept that no story is perfect or complete with the first draft. The more years you spend as a writer the more accepting you become of the need for another draft. Even when you turn in the final draft to your editor, there will still be room for improvement.

The goal with each draft that you write is to work out the kinks by intensifying the rising action, breathing life into the characters or setting (or both), tidying up messy or unclear details, etc. Sometimes that can be accomplished in three drafts, other times it takes several more than that.

You’ll know you have a final draft on your hands when it’s as tight as it can be. 

How do you know if you’ve written a tight final draft? Your peer group of writers will tell you! If you’ve been waiting for a sign to join a group of fellow writers who share a common goal of perfecting their craft, this is it. A solid group of writerly friends will be active readers of your material. Pen in hand, they will ask questions in the margins, point out errors in grammar and sentence structure, and present this information to you in a way that is productive to the revision of your story, and you will do the same for them. If you find yourself in a writers group that only gives you praise, find a new one. 

How Do I Find a Writers Group?

writers groupOne of the best ways to find a group of writers like yourself is to sign up for a creative writing program with a college or university. Even if you’ve been at it for years, you’ll reap the benefit of being challenged to write to a specified prompt by an instructor who expects you to offer up your best work possible, then be open to other writers giving their honest critique of what works and what doesn’t. 

Writers of all genres and styles, from all ages and walks of life benefit from creative writing courses. Enrolling in a creative writing program means you will be included in workshops designed to strengthen your craft. Trust us, gathering feedback from other writers hits differently than a friend or family member who doesn’t necessarily know how to give constructive feedback. It’s also critical to avoid thinking that your own opinion of your story is enough. You’ll find that the structured setting of a workshop opens you up to perspectives you might not have considered, thus stretching your own perspectives to new lengths and inevitably strengthening your craft in the process. 

How Will I Get Published?

That largely depends on what you want published. Short stories, op-eds, and informational articles can be submitted by yourself to literary journals, newspapers, and online magazines when their submission windows are open. Search for literary journals that have open submissions and take note of their deadlines. Be mindful of their requirements for submission, or risk not getting read at all. 

It’s advised to work toward publishing in journals and magazines to establish a resume before attempting to have a novel published. And if you haven’t already, cannonball into the social media pool in order to establish a following. That way, when you’re pitching to agents (and they pitch your work to publishers), you’ll be seen as a marketable writer whose work people are eager to read. 

What Kind of Writing Jobs Are There?

Where would any company be without words and someone who knows what to do with them? You’ll need to pay the bills while writing your novel. You can find work as a:

If you’re just starting out as a writer, it’s a good idea to lend some credibility to your resume by enrolling in a writing program.

Doing so will build and diversify your body of work, making you more marketable. Networking is also a huge benefit of being in a writing program. If you’re interested in making money with your words, knowing people in the field will get you where you need to be. The right creative writing program will do that.

Do I Have to Be Published to Be Called a Writer?

Absolutely not! If you’re writing and you feel fulfilled by it, you’re a writer. Do you know how many unpublished writers are out there working on their craft, perfectly content keeping their stories to themselves? Plenty. If you identify with that, you’re a writer. If you find yourself pitching your stories to agents and submitting to journals and magazines all the while sharpening your skills in a creative writing program – guess what? You’re a writer. Being a writer is very much a behind the scenes form of art. For every published author out there, there’s an unpublished one right behind them, about to get their big break (probably you).

How Do I Write a Narrative?

With your imagination!

Formulaic writing tends to be dry and takes the artistry out of writing as a craft.

However, there are some essential elements to storytelling that you’ll need to sustain your piece. Every story, regardless of genre or length, has some sort of plot. The five elements of plot are: 


This is usually the very beginning of the story, where you will set the tone and grab your reader by the collar and pull them into your world. Here, you will establish the setting, the main characters, and the basic gist of the story. As you’re writing, imagine you’re watching your story unfold on a movie screen. Your job is to write what you want the audience to see. 

Rising Action

This is usually the very beginning of the story, where you will set the tone and grab your reader by the collar and pull them into your world. Here, you will establish the setting, the main characters, and the basic gist of the story. As you’re writing, imagine you’re watching your story unfold on a movie screen. Your job is to write what you want the audience to see. 


This is where the conflict starts to change. Possibly, your protagonist has a near-death experience that enlightens them and shows them how to solve the conflict presented in the rising action. No matter the actions surrounding the climax – may it be a helicopter crash or an intense conversation between lovers – emotion drives the scene here. 

Falling Action

Stories don’t end after the climax. Read any narrative and you’ll find that just when the protagonist thinks they’ve got the conflict figured out, smaller issues arise to keep them from reaching the resolution. 


The most deceiving part of the narrative writing process. By definition, it seems simple: Resolution is how the conflict gets solved. The trick is to be mindful of confusing how the conflict gets solved with how the entire narrative ends. The resolution is designated for solving the rising action, the end of the book includes wrapping up subplots and any other details that need to be addressed for the story to feel complete. A conflict’s resolution can certainly be at the very end of the piece, too, if that’s what feels right. Just make sure the rising action is solved in some way. 

What is Theme?

Here’s the simple truth: Theme is a lesson a story teaches the reader about life. In any narrative, there has to be something in it for the reader. Theme accomplishes that. 

A story is not confined to just one theme. Because we all have different personalities and come from different walks of life, we – as readers – will see events in a story from different perspectives. In the fable “The Three Little Pigs” (as a basic example), one person might say the lesson learned (the theme) is to take care of your family. Another person will read the exact same story and say the theme is to work hard today in order to have an easier tomorrow. Both answers are correct. In fact, any theme is possible if a reader can cite examples in the story that prove it to be true. 

It’s crucial to know the difference between theme and topic. While the theme is the message a story sends, the topic describes what happens in the story. Unlike the theme where there is no wrong answer, the topic has one correct response. Back to the pigs for an example: 

What is Close Reading?

To strengthen your writing, you’ve got to dissect your reading. While you’re reading a work of literature it’s helpful to look at how the author gets the job done. Struggling with writing the exposition?  Read and reread a beginning written by an author you respect. How do they begin their story – description of character or setting? Or with a shocking line of prose? The more closely you pay attention to not just what the author says but how they say it, the more habits you will acquire for your own prose. 

It’s also critical to diversify the literature you read to improve your craft. If you typically read nonfiction, pick up a quest novel. If you’re a science fiction reader (or writer) challenge yourself with a memoir. Writers must be readers. Creative writing programs are an excellent and surefire way to gain access to short stories, novels of all genres, poetry, and nonfiction narratives that will be given a close read within a structured, enlightening setting. Your own narratives will strengthen as you close-read someone else’s. 

What is Linear Narrative?

Linear narrative tells a story in sequential order. One purpose of a narrative is to tell a story of connected events. One way to tell that story is in the order in which the events happen. Many stories are written in a linear fashion. 

What is Nonlinear Narrative?

Like linear narrative, nonlinear narratives tell a story of connected events. However, a nonlinear technique tells the events out of order. This often appears in storytelling as a flashback. A nonlinear technique is typically by a writer to add an element of mystery or drama to the story. For some expert examples of nonlinear narrative, check out Stephen King’s “It” (if you dare), “Slaughterhouse-Five” by Kurt Vonneghut, “The Time Traveler’s Wife” by Audrey Niffenegger, “The Handmaid’s Tale” by Margaret Atwood, and “All the Light We Cannot See” by Anthony Doerr. 

Narrative Writing By Any Other Name Still Tells a Story

Let’s say you’re into reading fantasy fiction. So much so that the novel you intend to write is based on the fantasy world you’ve created in your head, the very same one you’re struggling to get onto the page. It’s great to have a wheelhouse, to know what you’re comfortable with and feel is your area of expertise. But what would happen if you challenged yourself to read beyond your comfort zone? Sometimes our problems as writers stem from the rut we are stuck in. Pick up some science fiction by Ray Bradbury or historical fiction by James Michener. Spend some time in someone else’s world, and see how it alters your approach to storytelling.

The same is true when we read and workshop one another’s work in a college or university setting. Creative writing programs are designed to meet you where you are, take you by the hand, and launch you into your best writer-self.

The classes you take are set up to explore the many genres of storytelling in a way that is accessible and meaningful for everyone.You’ll find classes that will introduce you to and improve your technique in:

  • Short story
  • Fiction writing (courses will often be genre-specific)
  • Creative nonfiction
  • Screenplay writing
  • Crafting the novel
  • Writing the memoir
  • Poetry
  • Character development
  • The art of the pitch

What is a Novel?

People tend to look at a book with a lot of pages and assume by its length that it’s a novel. But a novel is much more than meets the eye.

Specifically, a novel is a fiction narrative with a minimum page count of two hundred (any less and we enter a different genre called the novella). A novel can be any genre (or span several genres), provided it has the elements of plot and meets the two aforementioned requirements of fiction and minimum page count. 

What is a Short Story?

These are another genre of narrative that live up to their name: Stories that are short. All elements of the plot are present, but the whole shebang is complete in ten to twenty-five pages. These can crossover with any of the other genres mentioned on this page. 

The beauty of writing a short story is that it can become the foundation of a novel. If that’s your goal and don’t know how to begin, make the short story your starting point. Because short stories require a detailed beginning, middle, and end, it’s a great opportunity to develop each element of the plot and work out any kinks through the process of several drafts before embarking on several hundred pages of a novel. 

Exemplars of short story include:

What is a Narrative Essay?

This one is personal. Literally. A narrative essay is one in which you tell a story about an experience you had. It focuses on the event in your life that brought about some sort of change in your life. It should also have a universal truth (some sort of lesson that can apply to anyone reading it). This not only brings substance to your story (gives it the ‘so what’) but also provokes your reader to consider how the truth you discover applies to their own life. What you reveal could very well be what helps a reader discover truths about their own life. Pretty cool what words can do.

Whereas an academic or informational essay tends to be more about delivering facts with formal language, a narrative essay benefits from setting a tone that reflects personality and heart. If you’re writing a narrative essay, you’ve likely chosen a topic that means something special to you. If you have, you’re on the right track. If you have a difficult time choosing a topic for a narrative essay, push yourself to be vulnerable. Tell the story that makes you just a tiny bit uncomfortable to explore. By doing so, you will find yourself writing a compelling story straight from your heart and into that of your readers’. 

Some of the great essayists of our time are Joan Didion, Rebecca Solnit, Haruki Murakami, James Baldwin, and Valeria Luiselli.  

What is Quest Narrative?

You ever want something so much you’ll stop at nothing to get it? Yeah, us too. The journey to attaining that goal is called a quest, and a quest narrative is – you guessed it – a story about a protagonist working toward a goal.

A quest narrative isn’t so much about the goal that’s being worked toward, but how passionate the protagonist is about reaching it.

In short, there’s got to be an important reason the protagonist is on a quest to reach the goal. In a quest narrative, the protagonist tends to find themselves facing villains and overcoming some intense physical, emotional, or psychological obstacles. Examples of quest narratives are “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” (and the rest of the Harry Potter series) by J.K. Rowling, “Neverwhere” by Neil Gaiman, “The Lord of the Rings” by J.R.R. Tolkein, “Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore” by Robin Sloane, and “The Book Thief” by Markus Zusak.

What is the Difference Between Autobiography and Memoir?

An autobiography is intended to inform. Its message is factual and, though it may have entertaining components, it doesn’t read like a story with a clear beginning, middle, or end. While still considered a narrative, it’s a pretty clear cut one without elements of plot. The parts of plot are essentially absent so the timeline of the writer’s life can take the lead. Autobiographies can be comical and touching like Tina Fey’s “Bossypants”, poignant and pivotal like “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou, or informal and quippy as in James Patterson’s “James Patterson by James Patterson: The Story of My Life”. Celebrities drop autobiographies all the time. Sometimes more than once. These are well-liked because the subject is already a topic of interest to the reader. It can feel like this genre is dominated by people who already have an audience, but if your goal is to write the story of your life, be encouraged in knowing that there is no limit to who can write an autobiography. Perhaps even consider writing a memoir.

Memoir tells a story of a specific time in a person’s life. Think of a memoir as similar to a narrative essay. Its lens homes in on that one experience, that one era in the writer’s life that is so unusual, so compelling (or harrowing, funny, heartbreaking – insert your favorite adjective here) that it deserves the readers complete attention. Though your story is nonfiction, it should contain the elements of plot. 

Recent memoirs on the New York Times Best Sellers List are “Crying in H Mart” by Michelle Zauner, “Educated: A Memoir” by Tara Westover, and “When Breath Becomes Air” by Paul Kalanithi. Each of these stories is about a very specific and unique experience in the writer’s life, their purpose is to equally inform, engage, and share an overarching lesson or message that can apply to a vast audience. 

What is Historical Fiction?

Historical fiction is a genre that tells a story from a time or event in history. Within this genre, authors take artistic liberties to fill in the unseen parts of a historical event. Usually, you’ll find that the events are completely true but most of the characters are made up. For a historical fiction narrative to work, the author must be careful about how far they push the envelope. The trick is to write in a way that is so believable the reader pauses their reading to ask, “this is true?” If you’ve ever found yourself researching if something is true about orphan trains, a leper colony in Hawaii, the events of September eleventh, or Laotong relationships in nineteenth century China, the author has done an excellent job of combining truth and fiction. Some examples of historical fiction about these unique topics are “Orphan Train” by Christina Baker Kline (also a good example of nonlinear narrative), “Moloka’i” by Alan Brennert, “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” by Jonathan Safran Foer, and “Snowflower and the Secret Fan” by Lisa See, respectively.  

What is Science Fiction?

The easiest way to describe science fiction (sometimes called speculative fiction) is to understand that it is a made-up story about science. This genre has all the elements of plot and its major conflict is centered on something scientific. This can include communicable diseases (“The Plague” by Albert Camus), dystopian society (“A Planet for Rent” by Yoss), or attempts at human creation (“Frankenstein” by Mary Shelley). 

There are also subgenres of science fiction. This list is expansive, but a few examples of subgenres include space opera, space western, steampunk, apocalyptic, post-apocalyptic or dystopian, zombies, hard science fiction, soft science fiction. 

An equation to nail this narrative: science + characters + plot → science fiction. 

What is Fantasy?

To be considered fantasy fiction, a story’s plot typically involves magical, supernatural, or mystical elements that do not exist in the real world. The author does all of the world building to create a setting in which these fantastical elements can occur. Here, the characters can be talking trees and animals, they can bounce from the tops of mushrooms as their main mode of transportation, their clothing can be fashioned from the clouds and sewn together with licorice. Whatever you decide should happen, will happen without the confines that some other genres face (historical and science fiction for example, where facts matter). Though many fantasy narratives do include magic or some other form of the supernatural, it is not necessary for a narrative to fit within this category.

As writers, what we want more than anything is for a reader to become engaged, to feel so invested in the story that they feel a kindred connection to us, the authors.

Achieving this requires the author to tell their story in such a way that the reader will experience a suspension of belief. In fantasy narrative, this means creating a fictitious world so believable that your reader is able to abandon knowledge of reality while reading your story.