Mastering the Art of Narrative Writing
Writing comes in various forms, each with a different purpose and intended for a different kind of audience. Whether you’re writing an essay, a medical journal, a research paper, or a Tolkien-inspired fantasy series, everything has a parent writing type that it stems out of. It may blow your mind to imagine this, but all the millions of books in the world, classics to contemporary works of literature, mostly fall under four such writing buckets! One such bucket, narrative writing, is what we’re about to explore in-depth in this blog.
I. The four most commonly used writing styles
Expository: As the name suggests, this kind of written piece exposes something, or brings facts and other related evidential information to the fore. It also explains the details that support these facts, helping the user better understand what the writing is about. This style aims to educate or inform its readers and often leaves no room for the subject being open to interpretation. News articles and journalistic writing are the best examples of this style.
Descriptive: Descriptive writing is all about the imagery, and painting a vivid picture in the reader’s mind. It’s most effective when authors involve the five senses while sharing their perspective on a particular subject, incident, person, or all of these at once. Because it’s heavy on sensory characterisation and tends to be shorter in length, descriptive writing finds its way into essays, poems, personal journals or diaries, and song lyrics.
Persuasive: A text that identifies itself as being persuasive needs to influence the reader to believe or agree with the author’s point of view. The written matter itself gives a strong sense of conviction and must provide compelling arguments and proof that supports the writer’s personal opinions. Examples of this form of writing are Opinion and Editorial or Op-Ed pieces in journalism, cover letters for job applications, and political speeches.
Narrative: Possibly the most celebrated and enjoyable style out of the four, narrative writing is all about telling a story, regardless of whether it’s factual or fictitious. Narratives are built around characters, their journeys, experiences, trials, and tribulations. Everything from a self-help book on meditation to Hamlet falls under this category!
We’ll soon discover that there are further classifications made within narrative writing, and demonstrated methods and tips on how you can navigate this vast ocean!
II. Genres that fall under the narrative writing bucket
Three main genres make up narrative literature:
- Fiction: Fictional writing is entirely a work of the author’s creativity, in that the narrative is imaginary, with made-up characters, incidents, and events. It comes in many forms, including novels, novellas, short stories, plays, fables, folk tales, etc.
- Non-fiction: Non-fictions are narratives based on actual incidents, facts, and real people. Some common categories of this genre are prescriptive non-fiction like self-help books and how-to guides, biographies, autobiographies, etc.
- Poetry: This form of narrative writing, which could be both fiction or non-fiction, is all about expressing thoughts or feelings through a unique, intense rhythmic writing style. The main difference between prose and poetry is the language and structure. While fiction and non-fiction narratives use ordinary language, sentences, and paragraphs, poems are known for their decorative language and have lines and stanzas. Poetry may be further distinguished as sonnets, epics, and limericks.
III. Narrative timelines and how you can artfully play with time
It’s common knowledge that plotlines and characters are the key elements of narratives. However, another component that makes a book great is the sequence in which details are revealed to the reader. What writers must know is that good storytelling is the focus here and that it’s perfectly okay to manipulate timelines to achieve the desired dramatic effect!
Let’s look at four of the most popular templates to structure your story and its elements in a compelling manner:
- Linear plot structure: Events are presented in chronological order in stories that adopt linear plot structures. While most books and screenplays go with this approach, the framework doesn’t rule out the possibility of looking back at past incidents. Current events often remain shrouded in mystery until one or more characters reflect on something from their pasts, revealing to readers the cause for everything happening now. This is what makes a case for flashbacks and backstories being used in narratives! Examples of classics that have used this technique: The Catcher in the Rye by J.D Salinger and Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë.
- Non-linear plot structure: As the name suggests, this storytelling technique is the opposite of linear narratives, in that it relays the events out of sequence. Sometimes the same events are told from different perspectives, swinging back and forth between them. The first scene of a non-linear book or movie may, in reality, be the last thing that happened chronologically. Interestingly, some portions of an otherwise non-linear narrative can be linear, just like linear stories rewinding to show historical events or happenings. Because it allows for a lot more creativity and experimentation, the non-linear structure is considered disruptive and proves the writer’s mastery over nuanced writing. Some of its notable usages are Homer’s Iliad, Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell, and Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn.
- Parallel plot structure: In this form of writing, multiple storylines unfold at once, and the stories are tied together either through characters, events or themes. Sometimes the numerous narratives intersect, like in Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities or F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Sometimes they have no logical meeting point, or at least not until the end of the novel, like in the tale If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller by Italo Calvino. One section of the chapters in this bizarre ‘meta’ style book is about the nature of reading, and the remaining chapters are the reader’s adventures in understanding the book itself! Another flavour of this writing style, closely related to the parallel model, is the framed structure, a story within a story like in Frankenstein.
- Circular plot structure: This structure, sometimes considered a slight variant of the non-linear format, recounts events in such a way that the character’s circumstances and the story setting end at the same point at which they begin. The story nodes themselves might be arranged chronologically, but the nodes illustrate transformation and a journey that eventually loops back to the story’s beginning. S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders and John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men are notable works following the circular narrative structure.
IV. Story Arc: The Cornerstone of Narrative Storytelling
If a plot is the composition of a story’s events and incidents, and the narrative timeline is the order in which they’re described, a narrative arc or a story arc somewhat combines the two. It is the overall story’s path and progression, not just in terms of chronology, but from the perspective of the narrative’s value or objective. A narrative arc binds together events and their timelines to create a story that conveys its purpose throughout the book. It determines the best possible way to highlight a tale’s peaks and valleys in a pattern that readers can recognise and revel in.
- Types of narrative arcs
To understand and construct an arc ourselves, we need to visualise what it looks like, and what kind of events or actions could represent the highs and lows in the story. Literary researchers, including the American writer and satirist Kurt Vonnegut, have gone over thousands of different story samples to formulate repeatable steps to follow while building a story arc. In doing this, common patterns were observed in most works, eventually leading to six primary arcs or story shapes being identified. These were formed based on the story’s overall emotional value, along with the highs and lows that define the narrative. For example, the “Boy meets Girl” emotional arc is where the protagonist finds something extraordinary, acquires it (high), loses it (low), and then wins it back forever (high again). Here’s a brief explanation of the six types of narrative arcs:
- Rags to Riches arc( rise): Stories that follow this shape have a steady upward climb towards good fortune, which is why the book only has a rising point. Popular examples include Matilda by Roald Dahl, The Ugly Duckling, Aladdin, and many other children’s tales.
- Riches to Rags (fall): This one is the inverse of the “rise” arc, and depicts a fall from good to bad, where the character’s life starts at a stable place, either in reality or fabricated by self-deception, and keeps on deteriorating. Fictionalised stories on billionaires going bankrupt, or books and screenplays on addiction and mental health often follow this approach. Examples are Animal Farm by George Orwell and Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger.
- Man in a Hole (fall and then rise): The most common arc of all, this narrative shape portrays the characters hitting rock bottom (fall) and then resurfacing stronger willed and ready to rise above their circumstances. Notable works of this form include The Lion King and The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien.
- Freytag’s Pyramid, aka Icarus (rise and then fall): Gustav Freytag, a German novelist, wanted to study recurring patterns in plots, and devise a strategy or formula derived from his learnings. Upon careful examination of a few such narratives, he concluded that every arc goes through five dramatic stages: exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution. Basically, a rise-and-fall narrative shape. This concept came to be known as Freytag’s Pyramid, an ubiquitous dramatic structure commonly used in classics and plays that end in tragedy and profound grief, such as Icarus or Titanic.
- Cinderella (rise then fall then rise): Another arc structure loved by readers and writers alike, Cinderella has created a template for many fairy tales and children’s fantasy novels, by perfecting the rise-fall-rise plot diagram. It shows an orphaned Cinderella’s life-changing for the better (rise) after she meets a stranger at a ball, then be made worse by her evil stepmother and step-sisters (fall), and eventually get a lot better again when she reunites with her prince once again (rise). Other examples of this narrative arc type are Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë, and Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen.
- Oedipus (fall then rise then fall): Oedipus is a challenging, yet widely appreciated story structure that mostly moves along a downward trajectory. An example of this is one of Shakespeare’s great tragedies, Hamlet. The first fall is when Hamlet’s father dies, the rise is when he feigns madness and plots revenge against the murderer, and the final fall is when Hamlet actually becomes a victim of mental derangement, eventually leading the play to end in a fateful duel that takes everyone’s lives. Another famous example is Frankenstein by Mary Shelley.
V. Five things to keep in mind for achieving a strong narrative
- Let your story’s genre inform its narrative arc – Different genres observe different conventions. Fantasy and romance based novels often follow the Cinderella arc, whereas literary novels and plays often use the Oedipus arc. Find out what works best for your book’s genre, and go with that technique.
- Fit your arc into a dramatic structure – Dramatic structures describe the elements of a story’s movement, and each story arc conforms to a specific dramatic structure. Most writers agree that there are chiefly five such elements:
- Exposition (calm setting, introducing the characters)
- Rising action (journey towards a happy ending)
- Dilemma/Complications (threats by antagonists and other obstacles; the central character must make critical choices or decisions)
- Climax (moment of highest conflict and action)
- Denouement/Resolution (all storylines converge, the plot is wrapped up)
Plug your story’s events and turning points into this structure once you have picked a suitable narrative arc for your volume.
3. Identify your narrative’s conflicts based on values that suit your story’s motive: The ups and downs typically represent progression and pauses in the journey towards good fortune and everlasting happiness. A better way of looking at it is by aligning your story, its conflicts, and turning points with a substantial emotional value. It could be physiological (life vs death), love and belonging, or the most sought-after one: good vs evil. It’s what makes readers vouch for your characters and keenly follow your narrative.
4. Create character arcs alongside your narrative arc: Character arcs are different from your story arc as they are centred around an individual’s journeys, experiences, inner and outer conflicts, and triumphs rather than the entire story. That being said, build your character arc such that the two are coherent and have synergy.
5. Don’t leave loose ends: Unless your book ends at a cliffhanger, do not leave your readers guessing! It would be best if you tied up all loose ends, ensure subplots reach logical conclusions and answer questions that have been raised through the story.
With that, we come to the end of this discussion (the denouement of this post, if you will) on narrative writing, an ever-evolving aspect of the literary world! While we hope you’ve gained some clarity on the subject, we wish to leave you with a parting note. Remember that there is a lot more to the art of sketching out narratives, and as you write, you will realise that nothing is written in stone – not the structures, arcs, or shapes that we highlighted above. Explore the nitty gritties, follow the steps above while experimenting with your own ideas and formats, and allow your book to remain rooted in its core values and storytelling goals!