The Teacher’s Practical and Inspiring Guide to What is Narrative in Writing?

Personal narratives are our students’ first exposure to narrative writing and in many cases writing.  After students learn to write their names and the ABCs they start writing sentences about their day and their life.  It’s meaningful to them to start writing this way because it’s all about them.  

The unfortunate part is that your students get used to writing these lists of sentences about themselves and it’s a challenge to help them grow into mature writers, but the 5 types of narrative writing could change that.  Imagine reading narratives and personal narratives that are interesting?

Teaching What is Narrative in Writing

When I was teaching in fourth grade we’d start every school year with a writing assessment about the kids’ summer break.  The reasoning for this assignment was that summer break was fresh in their minds, the kids wanted to tell us all about it, and it would give the teachers an idea of who each student was as a writer. 

 It was a great idea, but the results were always the same.  There was no descriptive language and the story read more like a list, full of spelling and grammar errors.  It didn’t count towards their grade and was just intended to help the teachers prepare for writing.

After their assessment, we would spend some class time talking about personal narratives and narrative writing.  We would teach students about a hook, and strong closing.  We started to encourage our students to use more descriptive writing.

What is Narrative in Writing That Will Bring Our Students to the Next Level?

These are all great building blocks for writing, but narrative writing is more complex than these building blocks.  There are several types of narratives, which can encourage our students to venture into more interesting writing.  If I had taught my students the types of narratives and encouraged them to explore different types in their writing I think we could have gotten away from the dreaded list of events in their writing.

What is Narrative in Writing?

Essentially, narrative writing is telling a story.  But you already knew that much.  After a lot of research from various sources and of differing opinions it seems there are three ways to explain narrative writing.  All of these are correct, but different people might relate to one more than another based on their background, location, and education.  I have created my own names that I think help summarize each of these definitions and help make them memorable.

  1. Connected Events

Narrative writing tells a good story through connected events that create patterns.  The events, connections, and patterns lead to specific ideas, themes, and concepts. Patterns help make the theme and ideas stand out and resonate with the reader. 

  1. The Art of a Story

Narrative writing is the practice and art of telling a story using a beginning middle and end.  The art of telling a story involves other literary elements such as characters, plots, settings, conflict, and theme.  Using these literary elements the writer can shape and tell the whole story. 

  1. Narrative Forms

Narrative writing can take many forms such as an epic or comedy.  The writer shapes events towards a specific goal or effect.  The writer may consciously or unconsciously be working towards a specific form to entertain the reader or take them on an adventure. The details, structure, and language help the writer determine which form of narrative writing they are practicing.

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Why Teachers Should Know What is Narrative in Writing: Types of Narrative Writing + a Bonus

I often feel like my students dreaded big writing assignments.  It was a lot of work for a big grade that was often lower than they wanted. Of course, they dreaded it.  Writing has been turned into a skill students are supposed to do perfectly so that they can score well on state tests.  There is no fun or joy in writing anymore.  

I think it’s time we change the way we grade narratives and give our students a lot more room to explore what they can do with their writing.  If they fall in love with writing and all the possibilities it brings they are going to invest more time and effort into the mechanics of it. 

Expanding how we teach narratives is a great way to help our students explore writing.  They can learn the five types of narrative writing and produce work that is much more interesting to read.  Exploring the 5 types of narrative writing can also help our students find their voice.  Once their imaginations start to try to write in a different type of narrative writing they might begin to feel like they have a way to share their thoughts.

What is Narrative in Writing? Linear Narrative

A linear narrative moves in a straight line.  The reader hears about each event in the order that it happens.  This is how our students usually write their narratives.  It can be written from different perspectives, but the reader sees everything in chronological order. It can also be told in past, present, or future tense, just in order.

The benefits of a linear narrative are that the reader knows why each event happened.  It is easy for the reader to see how events link together which creates patterns.  The reader sees what the characters are going through daily so it’s easy to see the cause and effect of each event.  The reader gains a true understanding of the main character’s life.

In the Classroom:

This is the default type of narrative our students write.  If you are having your students write this type of narrative warn them against boring writing.  Help them understand the benefits of a linear narrative and challenge them to step up to strong writing. Important events should be longer and more detailed, and insignificant events should be shorter.

What is Narrative in Writing? Non-Linear Narrative

A non-linear narrative is not a straight line.  The events of a story are told out of order on purpose.  As the various events are presented to the reader out of chronological order the narrator’s role may shift between characters also.  

The benefit of a non-linear narrative is that it emphasizes the emotional state and mindset of the narrator.  Through the jumps and gaps of time in a non-linear narrative, you get to see the most important parts of how the narrator feels and why he or she feels that way.  Non-linear narratives are likely going to use some literary techniques such as flashbacks.   It’s great to have our students practice literary techniques.  The non-linear narrative can also make it easier for the reader to pick up on and understand the themes in the story.  The thematic connections are clearer in a non-linear narrative. 


Uses of a Non-Linear Narrative:

A narrative being non-linear must be on purpose and it should be for a specific purpose.  If the narrative is non-linear by accident it will likely be confusing for the reader.  If you are having your students write non-linear narratives try having them pick a use first.

Purposes for Using Non-Linear Narratives

  1. Narrator’s Emotional State or Consciousness.

If the narrator is traumatized or has lost their memory then it can show the reader how the character feels as they are trying to understand, remember, or cope with what happened.  We might see the highlights of events and as their story continues gain more details and insight.

  1. Multiple Stories with Related Themes or Plots

If there are two main characters or narrators they might be going through similar trials and challenges at different times.  The reader can see how the characters relate to each other and might even route for them to help each other.  Maybe in the end the two characters will come together or maybe not.

  1. Build Suspense

Sometimes a writer can reveal scenes before or after the climax and then jump back to other parts of the story.  The reader is on the edge of their seat wondering how the characters got there.  

In the Classroom:

Students should experiment with non-linear narratives even if it’s only so we don’t have to read the boring line, “and then…” repeatedly.  It’s a great challenge for your students to take a finished linear narrative and have them transform it into a non-linear narrative.  It will make it easier for your students the first time they write a non-linear narrative if they can see the chronological version first.  Remember to have your students pick a use for their non-linear narrative.  It will give them a goal of what to emphasize.


What is Narrative in Writing? Historical Narrative

Historical narratives show how events link together through cause and effect.  It’s a clear sequence of past events that helps the reader see the cause-and-effect process that defines historical narratives.  You can think of it as a chain reaction.  The series of events lead to the outcome or resolution.  Word choice helps the reader follow a historical narrative by showing them the order of events.  There are usually transition words that tell the reader the order of events.  

In the Classroom:

This would be a great history assignment.  Have your students write a short story about a historical event rather than a research essay.  Students would have to consider how people felt about the event and the social impacts that could have occurred.

What is Narrative in Writing? Descriptive Narrative

Descriptive narratives do exactly what they say, describe.  Descriptive narratives have two main focuses: tone and mood, and setting.  If you read my blog 11 Creative Activities and a Practical Definition for Literary Elements you may recall what these are:

  1. Setting – is when and where a story takes place.  The reader needs an established time, location, and environment with detailed descriptions.  The setting impacts the plot and characters throughout the story.
  2. Mood – is how the writer wants to make the reader feel as they read the story.
  3. Tone – is the overall mood or message of a story.

When you combine these story elements the story is greatly impacted.  They can work together to create strong emotions for the reader to connected to or be gripped by.

As a reader, you may notice that in a descriptive narrative the writer lingers on specific settings, feelings, or images to help create the tone and mood of the story. As a writer, you can purposely linger on specific parts of your story to create these strong feelings for the reader, usually by adding purposeful descriptions.  This is what we can teach our students.

In the Classroom:

Every teacher I have ever known has wanted to get their students to use descriptive language in their writing.  Teaching students about descriptive narratives would be a great way to do that.  If it was the sole focus and sole grading criteria I think students would suddenly understand how to do it better.  It would also provide you opportunities for mini-lessons and conferences to help.

What is Narrative in Writing? Viewpoint Narrative

A viewpoint narrative is when the story is filtered through the main character or other characters’ point of view.  I know that sounds quite wordy, so let’s simplify it.  Every person or fully developed character has unique experiences and life events that shape what they think and feel about what’s currently happening in their lives.  This means that what the reader readers is not necessarily the full or accurate story.

The narrator’s feelings, moods, desires, beliefs, and values moods, impact how the sensory details, events, and other characters are described to the reader.  This can make the narrator unreliable, which could be on purpose or unintentionally.  It depends on who the narrator is.  Is the narrator a liar or trickster? Are inexperienced or too young to understand?

This can work for either first or third-person narratives.  It impacts how the reader interprets the story.  We can agree with this narrator because we don’t have all the information or something to compare the information against.  It could also be because the narrator is strong and convincing.  

In the Classroom:

A viewpoint narrative would be a challenging task for students, which means they can learn a lot.  Imagine if you picked an experience that most of them are familiar with. For my students, it would probably be going to the ocean, skiing, or sledding.  Next, you’d tell them there was going to be a visitor to your town who had never done or seen that experience.  Then the students would write about that experience from that character’s point of view.

What is Narrative in Writing? Quest Narrative

A quest narrative is when the protagonist works tirelessly towards their goal or all-consuming passion.  As the protagonist works towards their goal they will face many trials and obstacles online the way.  This protagonist is undeterred from their goal no matter how challenging the quest might be.  Often the quest is a geographical location that takes them on a long and hard journey.  A few examples of a quest narrative are The Hobbit and The Odyssey. 

In the Classroom:

Students would love to write a quest narrative.  I can imagine what characters they would create and the adventures those characters would go on.  A quest narrative would help students dive into their creativity and use their imaginations.  This would be a valuable lesson.

What are Narratives in Writing and How They Apply to the Classroom

Different types of narratives are an amazing way for students to explore writing and learn how to become more mature writers.  Students can use these types of narrative writing in several different genres or forms of narratives.  Here are some of the forms of narratives that you can expose your students to.  Consider introducing these types of narratives to your students through reading and writing assignments so they can see how many kinds of narratives there are.

  • Autobiography
  • Biography
  • Captivity Narrative
  • Epic
  • Epic Poem
  • Essay
  • Fable
  • Fantasy
  • Flash Fiction
  • Folk Tale
  • Historical Fiction
  • Legend
  • Memoir
  • Myth
  • News
  • Novel
  • Novella
  • Parable
  • Play
  • Poem
  • Realistic Fiction
  • Screenplay
  • Short Story
  • Tall Tale

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