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Narrative Structure in Creative Nonfiction

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April 2010
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What is narrative structure? In creative nonfiction, the narrative structure is the sequence of events and the way in which the writer tells the story. The narrative structure can also refer to how the ideas are presented to the reader.

The writer has many ways to tell his true story. For instance, the writer can tell the story from beginning to end. He can use flashbacks. Or the writer can contrast two different stories.

This article discusses the various types of narrative structures that a writer can use to write a personal essay, memoir, autobiography, and so forth.


In the Art of Creative Nonfiction, author Lee Gutkind discusses the “frame”, which is a way of ordering and controlling the writer’s narrative so that the story is presented in an orderly and interesting way.

The writer can use any of the following frames:

  • Chronological frame. The writer narrates the story from beginning to end, from the inciting incident to its resolution.
  • Manipulating time. The writer can tell the story by compressing time, using flashbacks, or by beginning in the middle, and so forth.
  • Circular Construction. The story ends where it begins. For instance, the writer can repeat a key phrase from the beginning of the story at the end.
  • Parallel narrative. The writer tells two separate narratives that converge into a single narrative. These stories are used to highlight some significance or deeper meaning.


Which type of frame should the writer use? Gutkind suggests that the writer begin the frame by isolating a point in the story where there is a significant event, conflict, or action.

Three-Act Structure

In Writing Life Stories, author Bill Roorbach discusses the three-act structure, which is a popular narrative structure for writing screenplays.

In Act I, the writer introduces the inciting incident, characters, conflict, and problem. In Act II, the writer introduces the challenges, obstacles, and setbacks. In Act III, the writer resolves the story, shows the change, growth, and development of the character, resolves the problem, answers any unanswered questions.


In Truth of the Matter, author Dinty Moore writes about using “collage”, as a way of presenting the ideas or events to the reader. The writer constructs a collage by obtaining information from various different sources or images. For instance, the writing can construct a personal essay from memory, library research, and interview. These various parts are combined to form a whole.


Dinty Moore also discusses the narrative structure called “braiding.”Using this type of narrative structure, the writer tells two or more separate narratives, and then combines them at some point, to make a comparison and point out some significance.

Which narrative structure should the writer use? The writer makes his/her own creative choices about choosing a frame or other type of narrative structure. “There is not an easy way to explain how to find a story that frames a narrative.” writes Lee Gutkind in The Art of Creative Nonfiction. Some stories work well with a story framed chronologically. Others work well using a collage or braided narrative structure. Often the writer discovers the best narrative structure through experimentation and revision.


The following books were used to write this post:

  • Writing Life Stories by Bill Roorbach
  • The Truth of the Matter by Dinty Moore
  • The Art of Creative Nonfiction by Lee Gutkind


Next, I will discuss a few miscellaneous topics on creative nonfiction in general and memoir in particular, including point of focus, subjectivity and objectivity, educating the reader, and point of view.



  1. Keith says:

    I was happy when I read the description of parallel narrative. I needed to understand the concept and this nailed it on the head. Thanks!

  2. Novel Girl says:

    I’ve just posted a recent article like this.

    I Googled “braiding story structure” and you came up just above my WordPress blog. Great info here about story structure. Thanks.

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