Narrative writing isn’t just for fiction. Not by a long shot.
In fact, the art of storytelling in written form can make or break just about any book.
Why? Because books are long. They have to hold a reader’s attention over thousands of words, and nothing holds a reader’s attention like a good story.
Well-told stories can:
- grab and hold the reader’s attention
- illustrate new ideas in an entertaining way
- help readers relate those ideas to their own lives
What is narrative writing?
Narrative writing is any writing that tells a story.
The story can be fiction or nonfiction. It can be a full-length memoir (or novel) that tells one long story from start to finish, or it can be a quick anecdote in the middle of a how-to book.
No matter how long or short it is, whether it’s true or made up, every story in written form is narrative writing.
But here’s the good news: you don’t have to be a professional writer to write a good story.
Whether or not you’ve ever written even one story in your life, I’d bet good money that you’ve told a few.
In fact, you probably have a whole collection of stories. About the best and worst and craziest things that ever happened to you. Stories you’ve told a hundred times or more.
Narrative writing is just storytelling that’s written down.
First-person versus third-person narrative in nonfiction
There are two basic forms of storytelling: first-person and third-person.
One isn’t any better than the other, but first-person stories are the kind most people think of when they think about storytelling.
What is first-person narrative writing?
The first-person point of view uses “I” or “we” to tell a story.
The narrator is the main character, so the story is being told by the person who lived it.
“I’m finally on the road, heading for the convention, and I’m feeling pretty good. Despite the morning from hell, I hadn’t broken my neck, I hadn’t destroyed my marriage, and by some miracle, I’d managed to leave the house just 15 minutes behind schedule.
If I skipped lunch, I could still make it in time to give the keynote address.
This is what I was thinking, mentally patting myself on the back, when I suddenly realized I’d left my lunch on the counter, back in the kitchen, dropping it there during my meltdown.
Along with my speech.”
What is third-person narrative writing?
Third-person narrative writing uses “he,” “she,” or “they” to tell a story.
In nonfiction, third-person narration is often used to illustrate a point through a short story or case study.
“It was the worst setback the company had ever faced. The market for their revolutionary plastics had dried up overnight. And, given their recent expansion, the cash in the bank could only meet their payroll for about six more weeks.
The CEO called an executive meeting. Everyone assumed she was going to lay out a plan for a global shutdown. But what she proposed instead proved to be one of the greatest operational pivots in the history of manufacturing.”
Which one is better?
Like most writing, what’s best depends on the situation.
When the main character or actor in your story is someone else, third-person narrative is the obvious choice.
This is common in business books that include case studies, or in books by investigative journalists who track down stories about other people to learn about a given topic or idea.
When you’re writing a memoir, or when you’re writing a knowledge-share book that includes stories from your own experience, first-person narrative is extremely powerful.
But you don’t need to get bogged down in this kind of literary analysis.
Whether you’re writing a personal narrative or presenting a case study, just write it.
How to get out of your own way and write
Here’s the thing: you already know how to tell a story.
Don’t make the process of writing more complicated than it has to be.
Your book might jump back and forth between different points of view depending on what story you’re telling, but that isn’t something you’ll have to think about.
If you’re writing about something that happened to you, you’ll write “I” or “we” without paying any attention to it. It’s as natural as breathing.
If you’re writing about someone else, you’ll refer to them in the third person without any conscious effort.
The advice I am about to give you goes against most conventional writing wisdom:
People are natural-born storytellers. Trust yourself to tell the stories you need to tell.
What’s far more important is to think about how to tell the story. What should you focus on? What should you leave out?
Those decisions need to happen on a case-by-case basis, and the best way to learn how to make them is to see the results of good writing and editing in action.
Examples of great narrative writing in nonfiction books
Instead of getting hung up on literary terms like first-person or third-person narrative, great Authors worry about entertaining the reader.
No matter what kind of nonfiction you’re writing, people respond to stories, especially stories that start out with a problem.
Like these first paragraphs of Tiffany Haddish’s The Last Black Unicorn.
“School was hard for me, for lots of reasons. One was I couldn’t read until, like, ninth grade. Also I was a foster kid for most of high school, and when my mom went nuts, I had to live with my grandma. That all sucked.
I got popular in high school, but before that, I wasn’t so popular. Kids would tease me all the time in elementary and middle school. They’d say I got flies on me and I smell like onions.
The flies thing came from the moles on my face. I got one under my eye, I had one on my chin, and so on. That was kind of mean.
The onions thing was because my mom used to make eggs in the morning with onions in them. Every damn morning, I had to eat eggs and onions. That would just make you stink. The whole house would stink.
Yeah, it was mean to say I stunk like onions, but…I did stink like onions.”
Story structure: why this is great
These opening paragraphs of Tiffany Haddish’s memoir grab the reader’s attention. Understanding how and why is the first step to strong narrative writing.
1. The style is conversational
There’s nothing formal or stilted about the writing. In fact, it reads like the Author is talking directly to the reader.
That’s the first key to writing narratives: write like you’re talking to someone. In fact, don’t even think of it as writing. Think of it as storytelling.
2. It starts with a highly relatable problem
School might have been hard for different people in different ways, but we’ve all been kids. And most of us had some kind of trouble with school at some point or another.
Opening with a universal problem gives readers something to relate to personally.
3. It gets personal and vulnerable quickly
If the first line of the book presents a problem almost everyone can relate to, the second line moves like lightning into the Author’s specific experience: “I couldn’t read until, like, ninth grade.”
Sharing a vulnerable and personal experience makes the story come alive. It’s straightforward, open, and honest, and admits something that most people would be far too ashamed to admit.
A lot of great writing comes down to the simplest writing lesson of all: be brutally honest about the things that feel the most private or make you feel the most vulnerable.
That’s virtually guaranteed to grab the reader’s attention.
4. It doesn’t over-explain things
In the first few lines, the reader learns that the Author couldn’t read until the ninth grade, that she was a foster kid, and that her mother “went nuts.” But we don’t get any details about any of those things.
At least, not yet.
By not explaining them here, the Author uses those revealed facts to invite the reader deeper into the story. The explanation can come later.
5. It offers the right sensory details
At the same time, the Author does explain some things.
Specifically, she tells the reader where her tormentors’ taunts came from. Details like the stink of onions are vivid in the reader’s imagination.
But these details aren’t just sensory. They’re intensely personal, which is the toughest part of the writing process.
Even in this very short piece of writing, the Author was willing to cut deep.
6. The reader’s interest drives the organization
When they first sit down to write, a lot of Authors feel compelled to present their story in chronological order. But the actual timing of events isn’t what drives a good story.
Instead, narrative text should be driven by the reader’s interest.
In three short paragraphs, the Author jumps from high school to middle school to serve the reader. She uses these miniature flashbacks to set the scene for the whole book.
She isn’t trying to present an ordered storyline.
She’s presenting new information in the order that will best draw the reader into the story. And it works brilliantly.
“We found hell in a beautiful neighborhood. In 1981, Williamsville offered the tastiest real estate in Buffalo, New York. Leafy and friendly, its safe streets were dotted with dainty homes filled with model citizens. Doctors, attorneys, steel plant executives, dentists, and professional football players lived there with their adoring wives and their 2.2 kids. Cars were new, roads swept, possibilities endless. We’re talking about a living, breathing American Dream. Hell was a corner on Paradise Road.
That’s where we lived in a two-story, four-bedroom, white wooden home with four square pillars framing a front porch that led to the widest, greenest lawn in Williamsville. We had a vegetable garden out back and a two-car garage stocked with a 1962 Rolls Royce Silver Cloud, a 1980 Mercedes 450 SLC, and, in the driveway, a sparkling new 1981 black Corvette. Everyone on Paradise Road lived near the top of the food chain, and based on appearances, most of our neighbors thought that we, the so-called happy, well-adjusted Goggins family, were the tip of that spear. But glossy surfaces reflect much more than they reveal.”
Story structure: why this is great
Although the paragraph structure here is more like a narrative essay than a casual conversation, the writing skills are just as obvious.
1. It starts with a personal problem
Here, again, the very first line presents a problem. By using the first-person “we,” the Author makes the problem personal.
But, in this case, what draws the reader in isn’t relatability but curiosity about the unexpected.
“We found hell in a beautiful neighborhood.”
The juxtaposition between hell and a beautiful, presumably peaceful neighborhood catches the reader’s attention and holds their interest, making them want to know more.
2. It presents a powerful conflict
The opening line mentions hell. Then several sentences describe a beautiful neighborhood, but the paragraph ends with hell again.
One of the most basic facts about stories is that readers need conflict to stay interested.
Paradise, in and of itself, is boring.
Why? Because the human brain was built to solve problems. When we find one, we latch onto it.
Here, the Author paints the picture of an affluent American neighborhood but continues to touch on the idea of finding hell there, creating tension through foreshadowing.
“But glossy surfaces reflect much more than they reveal.”
3. It paints a picture with details
The Author could have simply said it was a wealthy neighborhood, but the writing paints a more vivid image by using just the right level of detail.
“Doctors, attorneys, steel plant executives, dentists, and professional football players lived there with their adoring wives and their 2.2 kids.”
By listing specific professions, the Author brings the street alive. These are real people.
At the same time, he shows the reader the facade they’re all hiding behind by using the phrase “2.2 kids.” There’s no such thing as two-tenths of a kid. The street is both real and fake at the same time.
Which is exactly the Author’s point, without having to say it directly.
How to improve your narrative writing
The art of good storytelling is important, but you can’t get hung up on it while you’re trying to write your first draft.
Just write your book. And be as honest as you can while you’re doing it.
I can’t stress that enough.
All great books move through several rounds of editing before they’re published. They don’t come out looking perfect in the first round.
But the core value of a good book comes from being true to yourself when you’re writing it.
So, don’t worry about your writing style or choosing the right sensory details or any of that when you’re writing your rough draft.
Just get your truth down on the page.
They’ll help you hone that draft until it grabs the reader’s attention and holds it until the end.