How To Organize a Paper: The Narrative Format


What is the Narrative Format?

The narrative format in writing is a structure good for telling stories and sharing anecdotes and messages. The narrative format doesn’t necessarily need to follow a strict order or series of events to be effective, but all good narratives or stories should include five major components:

  • Characters (at least one)
  • Setting or scene
  • Plot
  • Conflict
  • Resolution

When Do I Use the Narrative Method?

The narrative method can encompass an entire work (like when you’re writing a novel or short story) or it can fall within other formats, like when you want to tell a brief story to make something clear or to argue a point. The narrative format is good in speeches and less formal papers where personal experiences and stories are meant to engage audiences and provide anecdotal evidence of something. The narrative format is great for essays, op-eds, creative non-fiction documents, and other commentary. It’s less commonly used in formal reports, proposals, memos, and traditional inter-office communications.

Consider using the narrative format within larger papers or presentations and use the format multiple times. It’s often good to tell stories in documents and speeches to grab and retain attention. The key is that you use all five components and that there is a clear purpose in telling each story.

How Does the Narrative Format Work?

There is no particular order in which narrative elements show up in a story, though it’s usually best if characters and the setting are established immediately. The following definitions should help you as you develop each of the five narrative elements:

  • Character: While most characters in most stories are humans, a character can be anything you choose to personify. You may choose to make a rock, the weather, an alien, an ideology, or an animal a character. The important thing is that characters can think or speak in the story or, at the very least, that a story about the character–with setting, plot, and conflict–can actually be told. Character is the most fundamental element of a story.
  • Setting: Setting is the location or situation along with the time in which the character acts. Someone reading or hearing a story must be able to envision where the character(s) are in relation to their surroundings and they must be able to understand when things are happening.
  • Plot: The plot is the beginning, middle, and end of a story. It’s the connecting of ideas to make a clear and understandable narrative. While it sounds fundamental, many stories go awry because there is no clear ending or because the beginning was never fully established. A good story connects a series of events that all connect together in some way.
  • Conflict: A conflict is an issue that arises as the events in the plots develop. Conflicts don’t need to be complicated, but they need to be present. Even the simplest of children’s stories include some issue that the character(s) is/are trying to resolve. As a part of the plot, a story must have a conflict where a resolution of some kind (even if the resolution is left ambiguous or open for interpretation) is possible. Whether simple or complex, conflicts must exist to give the reader/audience a reason to keep listening. If a conflict isn’t clearly developing through the telling of a story, you’ll quickly lose your audience. Make sure that your conflict becomes evident early enough that you don’t lose your audience’s interest.
  • Resolution: Resolutions are endings to conflicts. Resolutions can sometimes be ambiguous or open for interpretation, but most often audiences need to understand how the conflict was resolved. If you’ve ever had someone tell you the start of a story but never finished, you know what it’s like not to understand the resolution. Don’t leave your audiences hanging–they need to know what happened to the character and the situation!

The Narrative Structure Using the Tortoise and the Hare

Using one of the most recognizable and simple stories, this is how the narrative format works in the Tortoise and the Hare:

Characters: A tortoise and a hare

Setting: A area where the hare and the tortoise have enough room to run a race with a clearly defined finish line. As most versions of the story are told, the setting likely included areas where the hare could pull off the trail.

Plot: The slow tortoise and the fast hare agree to run a race, they define a trail, and they race each other.

Conflict: The hare is so confident that he will win the race, he determines he doesn’t need to try at all to win. In this state of mind, he takes a nap, not realizing the persistence of the tortoise. He may actually lose the race after all.

Resolution: Despite the hare’s confidence, the tortoise wins the race.

If any one of these elements were missing, the story wouldn’t be complete. It’s important that the reader can connect the dots, understand the conflict, and know what happens to the characters and the situation at the end.