Basic Narrative Structure

Fictional writing doesn’t have hard and fast rules, other than the use of grammar, but it does require an understanding of the fundamental principles of fiction writing.  Writers can choose to follow those principles and become better writers, or they can ignore them at their own peril and languish on the slush pile.

Basic narrative structure is one of those principles that writers should follow and it takes part in three defined sections – beginning, middle and the end (resolution).  It’s how these are stitched together to make a story, and the order of the events that happen in the story.

The beginning of a novel is the setup, where main characters are introduced and the basic premise of the plot and theme is revealed – the main problem or obstacle(s) that the main character has to overcome.  This where the writer sets the scene and hints at what might come.

The middle contains the substance of the story – characters come into conflict, the main character overcomes his or her problems and undergoes major life changes as it builds up to the resolution.

The ending is the denouement – where the narrative grows to an exciting climax and allows the characters to confront and overcome the ultimate obstacle through several turning points i.e. defining moments in the story or your characters.  The story should reach a satisfactory conclusion and world order should be restored.  It also allows the writer to pull together all the loose ties from subplots etc. 

Read any mainstream novel and they all follow the same structure – there’s a balance of narrative, dialogue and description. We can further break them down into their working parts:-

Narrative – the storyline arc.

Dialogue – characters’ conversations that keep the story moving.

Description – The depiction of key scenes.

Narrative works on many different levels. The job of the narrator is to make the reader respond to the story in a particular way. Clever narrative evokes the right emotions - sad, funny, scary or exciting etc.  Stories are written to entertain and inform us, but on a deeper level they also help us understand aspects of human nature and the world around us. 

Narrative should have the following basic order:-

The Opening Set the scene Introduction of character A series of events Conflicts and obstacles Turning Points Characters change Climax Resolution
Narrative should also contain other basic tools – POV, flashback, indirect exposition,
Character motivation, tension and atmosphere created through conflict.

10 Things you should include in narrative structure

  1. Plot and theme
  2. Characterisation revealed through dialogue.
  3. Description, including the range of senses.
  4. Flashback summary and emphasis.
  5. Clear POV.
  6. Obstacles and conflicts.
  7. Indirect Exposition (Show, Don’t Tell)
  8. Motivation, atmosphere, tension and emotion.
  9. Turning points – key moments that define the story or your characters.
  10. Satisfactory conclusion and resolution.

Dialogue if often overlooked by writers because they think it doesn’t matter so much, but what your characters say is just as important as what they do.  Basic narrative structure needs dialogue because it helps with characterisation, it moves the story forward and it helps the reader make sense of what is going on in the story.  All this is done through your characters.

Description – self explanatory.  No story is worth reading if it doesn’t contain description of some sort.  Description is best for key scenes because it can then add to the overall atmosphere rather than detract from it.

Evocative description bridges the gap between the real world and the fictional one.  Well-written description adds to the richness of your reader’s landscape, it adds atmosphere or tension and other emotions; it gives a deeper insight into the fictional world and makes them feel as though they are there. 

Basic story structure should contain all these basic elements – a defined beginning, a packed middle and an exciting end, and all three will contain narrative, dialogue and description.

Follow this structure and it will help you construct better stories.

Next week:  Writing the climax to a novel


  1. Hello, good post, I always set out to do what you say, but being a panster is a major set back to following any plan, or outline.

    With short stories its not such a problem, they seem to evolve as they are written, and because generally only 1000 - 2500 words, I can hold everything in my head.

    Novels area whole different ball game though...I tend to use dialogue to move the story forward, and have in the past relied too heavily on flashbacks. I am learning, and look forward to more advice.

    1. Thanks Maria, as long as the advice helps!

    2. hello, if you are like me and have relied on too many flashbacks you might focus on your main stories climax and give slight clues as to what might occur and then follow up with your flashbacks to turn a twist with your characters on your audience :-). Its work for me in the past.

    3. Best advice for flashbacks is to use them sparingly (on is really quite enough)...and at the most precise moment needed.


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