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Essential Writing Types 101: Narrative Writing

Foreword:


Writing entertains, informs, persuades, explains, clarifies, and gives the author an avenue for creative and intelligent expression. Writers always have a purpose or goal, which dictates the style a writer must use when approaching composition. Essential Writing Types 101 aims to educate readers on six types one will encounter throughout their academic and professional writing careers. Each chapter will outline textual examples associated with the style and describe the characteristics that make these writing styles distinct. Due to the diversity of rhetorical contexts and audiences, understanding each writing style and the relationship between the purpose and its communicative function will facilitate more effective writers and communicators.


The following is divided into six main chapters:

  1. Descriptive Writing

  2. Narrative Writing

  3. Expository Writing

  4. Persuasive Writing

  5. Expressive & Poetic Writing

  6. Technical & Scientific Writing

Essential Writing Types 101: Narrative Writing

The previous chapter of the Essential Writing Styles 101 series defined descriptive writing, and narrative writing was briefly mentioned to explain the differences between descriptive and narrative as they are sometimes confused. Descriptive writing focuses on a single scene, person, or thing, but narrative writing follows a sequence of events. Merriam Webster defines narrative as “a way of presenting or understanding a situation or series of events that reflects and promotes a particular point of view or set of values” (2022). The following definition highlights the fact that ‘narrative’ does not only reference novels, so the key term ‘series of events' is what establishes narrative writing as a distinct style of writing. This second part of the Essential Writing Types 101 series will show when narrative writing is appropriate, textual examples, strategies, approaches, and why narrative writing is such a vital writing type.


To begin, it must be reiterated that narrative and ‘story’ is often misconstrued as only referring to the composition of a novel. In reality, novels are just one aspect of narrative writing and only one of the many mediums of narrating a series of events and telling a story effectively, and more corporate businesses, political agents, and other organizations are enlightened to the fact that successful ‘storytelling’ also leads to effective brand identity. Storytelling existed long before the existence of writing and mass literacy in the form of visual narratives such as stained glass iconography of the medieval period of Europe and the hieroglyphics of the Egyptians. Anne F. Harris (2012), an art history professor at DePauw University specializing in Medieval Art, makes the following observation that medieval art is a visual narrative that performs "[The] relationship to spoken word literature" (p. 47) rather than modeled on written texts. Moreover, minstrels routinely passed along spoken religious and philosophical narratives from town to town. Truly, narratives have long had a massive impact on societal discourse.

Figure 1: The creation myth depicting the maker gods Shu, on the bottom, and Tefnut, on the top. Egyptian Mythology Creation Story. Egypt Tours Portal. n.d.

Additionally, narratives have had the tradition of following a specific structure that aligns with the cognitive processing of the audience. Aristotle's (384–322 BC) The Poetics described the constructive components of epic poetry, a long-form narrative poem. Epic poetry must contain the beginning, middle, and end, all of which should not end or begin "haphazardly", and makes the following conclusion:

"Whatever is beautiful ... must necessarily not only have its properly ordered, but also of an appropriate size, for beauty is bound in size and order" (as cited in Goodson & Gill, 2011, p. 55).

Compositional patterns are essential when retelling sequences of events to bridge understanding to the reader about how and why something happens. Thus, critical thought must be put forth in the organization of a narrative. Peter Elbow (1990), a Professor of English Emeritus at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, provides the following criticism of narrative writing that contradicts the previous statement: “We must get students to move past this soft writing to the hard critical thinking required for analysis and argument” (as cited in Nicolini, p. 57). The notion that narrative is considered a ‘soft writing’ from the following quotation remains incredibly ambiguous, but one could imply that writing which embraces some form of creativity and expression is an undesirable form of writing.

Figure 2: An Author’s Words. Lockamy, M. 2018)

Yet, the composition and form behind narrative writing are anything but ‘soft’. Ivor F. Goodson, a researcher and professor of curriculum studies at Tallinn University, and Scherto R. Gill (2011), a Director of Global Humanity for Peace Institute at the University of Wales, cite the following six structures of narrative categories identified by the linguist scholar William Labov (1972):


(1) Abstract is a brief summary of the gist of the event/story. It draws the audience’s attention to the story that the narrator is about to tell.

(2) Orientation is a further explanation to set the scene: when and where the event/story took place and who or what were involved and so on.

(3) Complication is the core of the event/story giving details of ‘what happened’ and is sequentially ordered in time.

(4) Resolution recapitulates the key moment of the event/story.

(5) Evaluation is to make the point of the story clearer to the audience.

(6) Coda is a generalised statement to signal the end of the story and stress the point that the narrator is making (as cited Goodson & Gill, p.56).


Clearly, narrative writing requires significant compositional planning. Conveying a sequence of events that can capture the audience's attention, disseminate information, and in some cases, persuades an audience, seems to require quite a bit of reflective analysis and applied critical thinking. Mary B. Nicolini (1994), a writing coordinator and co-director of the Hoosier Writing Project, a National Writing Project site, wrote an article in defense of narrative writing as a teaching method in the classroom. She specifically highlights how important it is to learn first through ‘personal narrative’:

Students must write the stories of their lives, for if they don’t, it is unlikely they will see the difference between writing as desk work and as life work … They interpret, reflect upon, and evaluate where they’ve been, and where they’ve come from. In writing their own stories, they become aware of and begin to trust their own thinking process (p. 60).
Figure 3: Writing You. Baciu, D. 2022.

Besides empowering an individual and encouraging introspection, mastering some level of narrative writing skills also have other practical uses. One of the most common questions for career and scholarship applications is a personal essay or cover letter to express personal goals, achievements, and motivations. These narratives are quite compelling, humanize applicants, and demonstrate one's ability to reflect on the past, observe the present, and project future possibilities. Descriptive writing elements will be used in tandem with a narrative, but narratives establish and describe a timeline rather than a paused snapshot of one moment or subject the way pure descriptive writing does.


To put it another way, narrative writing is actually just another mode of expressing analysis of interconnecting events in a captivating way. Personal narratives are a way to give voice and power to writers, especially to those from marginalized backgrounds. Robert J. Nash, a professor in the College of Education and Social Services, and Sydnee Viray (2013), a professor in leadership and development sciences at the University of Vermont, defend the use of ‘Scholarly Personal Narration’:

Some of us are dominant in our constructivism; some of us are more dominant in our objectivism. But none of us is ever completely free of the opposite, dormant perspective on the world, nor should we be ... At times we are both storyteller and story verifier; narrator and analyzer; values seeker and fact finder; inside the text and outside the text; humanist and social scientist (p. 6).

Personal narratives have been used as examples of literary analysis across many cultural and literary theory courses within English departments. After all, slave narratives are also personal narratives that function as both literature and historical artifacts for historians, which will be explained further in this essay.

Figure 4: The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano: or, Gustavus Vassa, the African (Modern Library Classics). 2004.

In fact, narrative writing is routinely used in other written materials and research outside of novels and other creative writing publications. In scientific fields, some advocates encourage more use of narrative writing when presenting crucial research that needs to be released to the public. An example can be represented by ecological scientists, whose research networks in twenty-six states in the United States seek to “expand the time frames of ecological research to match those of ecological change (i.e., decades or even centuries)” (Millerand, F., Ribes, D., Baker, K. S., & Bowker, G. C,2013, p. 14). Since narrative writing essentially narrates a series of cause and effect relationships, employing narrative writing in scientific research is an essential communicative tool for researchers because scientific discoveries constantly fluctuate with new knowledge and technology. The ‘sensemaking’ characteristics of narrative writing implore the audience to sympathize with either the narrator or a message that the narrator wishes to highlight. The same can be said of political candidates addressing national issues, confirming a narrative of how the issues came about, the present state, and the projection of the future.

Figure 5: Medical and science fields need narrative writing too. Unknown. Keegstra, L. n.d.

Additionally, how societies come to understand history through a narrative is similar, especially through historical fiction, literature, and other media such as movies and documentaries. Although fictional historical movies and literature contain fictional aspects of history, the medium certainly entrances an audience, and some historians thus seek how to incorporate narrative writing in their historical research documents. David Bridges (2003), a doctor of philosophy at the University of East Anglia & St. Edmunds College and Homerton College Cambridge, wrote the following statement in his book discussing the relationship between historical fiction narratives and educational research:

Historians take care (variously) to ground their narratives on such evidence, to support their claims by reference to such evidence, to limit their accounts to territory in which such evidence is available, and to challenge each other’s narratives ... (16.5 The Distinction Between the Historical and Fictional Narrative section, para. 2).

Bridges makes quite an important remark when he mentions ‘other’s narratives, meaning other historians who make observations using a myriad of available evidence. Historical narratives change with new evidence, especially when studying ancient history, where evidence is few or distorted with time. Even still, recent historical narratives are also at risk of changing, and identifying these changes is key to narrative writing.

Figure 6: How to Tell a Story. Anonymous. n.d.

Another important feature of narrative writing is that, while there are incorporations of objectivity, narrative writing is much more subjective because the writer wishes to appeal to a reader’s emotions. Using creative elements in narratives creates a stronger, more tangible connection with the audience. Suha Idrees Mohammed (2021), an assistant English as a Second Language (ESL) instructor at the Nineveh Directorate of Education, provides the following explanation of the functions of a Narrative Essay:

A narrative essay makes descriptions of people, makes presentations of their conversations, and gives their experiences to provide lessons to readers. It's like a story but the difference is that it concentrates on a motif ... Its main aim is to give life experiences information and the lessons that can be obtained from the experiences (p. 33).

Narrative writing is looked at unfavorably by certain scholarly circles because of the subjectiveness of narrative writing and the familiarity the narrator can have with the audience. As aforementioned, narrative writing utilizes figurative language often, but it also details characters, dialogue, and how one sequence of events transitions to the other to convey a message. Employing descriptive writing to explain a character is also important because the description of a character impacts how the character may experience the world and establishes empathy with a reader.

Figure 7: Dialogue is a common characteristic of narrative writing. At The Table: Events. Hancock, M. 2018.

Furthermore, the subjective nature of narrative writing that Mohammed references is thus the reason why certain scholars caution against the consumption of narrative writing. Yiannis Gabriel, an Emeritus Professor of Organizational Theory at the University of Bath, raises the issue of truth and reliable narration in his research of using narrative to study social and organizational phenomena. He uses the example of the published 1996 narrative Fragments: Memories of a Wartime Childhood by Binjamin Wilkomirsk, a Holocaust memoir that was found to have been fake because the author was not a Jew or a Holocaust survivor (2004). Gabriel makes the following conclusion:

Knowingly or unknowingly, the authors have exceeded the prerogatives of poetic license and ventured into the field of misrepresentation ... the fundamental credibility of such narratives has been broken. Verisimilitude has given way to dissimulation. The narrator is no longer a creditable one (p. 8).

‘Verisimilitude’ refers to the appearance of something being real or true (Merriam Webster, 2022b), whereas ‘dissimulation’ is “hiding under false pretenses” (Merriam Webster, 2022c). Narratives do not necessarily have to be true, but they do have to be believable. The case of Wilkomirsk is just one detrimental consequence of breaking the symbolic relationship between the reader and author, and misrepresentation of historical and scientific narratives generates mass consequences such as public distrust and false knowledge. The power of narrative writing is strong, and thus requires substantial ethical considerations in its execution.

Figure 8: [The Hypothesis-Driven Design process can help your team figure out how all the pieces fit together in a complex storytelling project.]. Lee, D. 2018.

In conclusion, narrative writing can highlight important scientific, organizational, and social problems to the public. It can convey stories whose messaging resonates with populations for years. Narrative writing, therefore, has a lot of influence interpersonally and professionally in businesses, science, history, literature, politics, and research. Gabriel (2004) examines that, underscores narrative as an essential skill set in some communication roles in organizations: "Numerous people simply do not have the time, the inclination or indeed the skill to tell stories (p.10). Indeed, more employers of the late 2010s and today have recognized the value of this specific skill-set. Many job positions listed for writers, marketers, and communication specialists contain the desire for an applicant with apt ‘storytelling’ abilities. Narrative writing is essential, but this writing type should be approached with caution because of the instances prior mentioned. It should not be underestimated in any field, especially in the applied sciences, because in the end, narrative writing applies to the human experience regardless of industry and complete objectivity.




Bibliographical sources

Bridges, David. (2003). Narratives in history, fiction and educational research. 10.1007/0-306-48043-3_8. Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/319758524_Narratives_in_history_fiction_and_educational_research


Gabriel, Y. (2004). Narratives, stories, texts. In D. Grant, C. Hardy, C. Oswick & L. L. Putnam (Eds.), The Sage Handbook of Organizational Discourse (pp. 61-79). London: Sage. Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/288273053_Narratives_Stories_and_Texts


Goodson, I. F., & Gill, S. R. (2011). Narrative construction and narrative capacity. Counterpoints, 386, 55–70. http://www.jstor.org/stable/42981364


Harris, A. F. (2012). Narrative. Studies in Iconography, 33, 47–60. http://www.jstor.org/stable/23924270


Merriam Webster. (2022). narrative. The Merriam Webster Dictionary. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/narrative


Merriam Webster. (2022b). verisimilitude. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/verisimilitude#:%7E:text=From%20its%20roots%2C%20verisimilitude%20means,common%2C%20but%20simply%20something%20believable.


Merriam Webster. (2022c). dissimulate. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/dissimulation


Millerand, F., Ribes, D., Baker, K. S., & Bowker, G. C. (2013). Making an issue out of a standard: storytelling practices in a scientific community. Science, Technology, & Human Values, 38(1), 7–43. http://www.jstor.org/stable/23474462


Mohammed, Suha. (2021). Suggested strategies for writing narrative essay. International Journal of Linguistics, Literature and Translation. 4. 30-39. 10.32996/ijllt.2021.4.12.4. Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/356883186_Suggested_Strategies_for_Writing_Narrative_Essay


Nash, R. J., & Viray, S. (2013). The Who, what, and why of scholarly personal narrative writing. Counterpoints, 446, 1–9. http://www.jstor.org/stable/42982209


Nicolini, M. B. (1994). Stories can save us: a defense of narrative writing. The English Journal, 83(2), 56–61. https://doi.org/10.2307/821156




Visual Sources

Figure 1: Egyptian Mythology Creation Story. (n.d.). [Photograph]. Egypt Tours Portal. https://www.egypttoursportal.com/the-creation-of-egyptian-mythology/


Figure 2: Lockamy, M. (2018). An Author’s Words [Illustration]. Behance. https://www.behance.net/gallery/62208219/An-Authors-Words?tracking_source=search_projects%7Creading%20and%20imagination


Figure 3: Baciu, D. (2022). Writing You [Illustration]. https://www.behance.net/gallery/134504831/Writing-You/modules/761171847


Figure 4: The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano: or, Gustavus Vassa, the African (Modern Library Classics). (2004). [Photograph]. Amazon. https://www.amazon.com/Interesting-Narrative-Life-Olaudah-Equiano/dp/0375761152


Figure 5: Keegstra, L. (n.d.). Unknown [Illustration]. https://www.independent.ie/entertainment/books/book-reviews/literary-finds-that-helped-our-writers-conquer-the-lockdowns-40720363.html


Figure 6: How to Tell a Story. (n.d.). [Illustration]. New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/guides/smarterliving/how-to-tell-a-good-story


Figure 7: Hancock, M. (2018). At The Table: Events [Illustration]. https://www.behance.net/gallery/72483081/At-The-Table-Events?tracking_source=search_projects%7Cevents


Figure 8: Lee, D. (2018). [The Hypothesis-Driven Design process can help your team figure out how all the pieces fit together in a complex storytelling project.]. https://training.npr.org/2018/06/25/take-our-playbook-nprs-guide-to-building-immersive-storytelling-projects/