What Is Narrative Journalism?

Narrative journalists wait for the exhumation of Spanish dictator Francisco Franco outside the Valle de los Caidos (Valley of the Fallen) mausoleum in San Lorenzo del Escorial on October 24, 2019

Oscar Del Pozo / AFP / Getty Images 

Narrative journalism is an immersive style of storytelling, used to captivate readers by drawing them into a story with greater detail than is found in traditional news stories. It is a popular format for magazines such as The New Yorker and can be difficult to define and write.

The one key to narrative journalism is the truth. While it can be easy for writers to become overly descriptive in their storytelling, they must relate the facts and avoid embellishment. For this reason, it is a challenging form of journalism that requires practice and great attention to detail.

What Narrative Journalism Is

Narrative journalism is a form of journalism differing from straight news stories, which offer readers only the basic who, what, where, when and why of a story. Narrative news pieces are longer than straight news and allow the writer to employ more elements of prose writing.

Stories that are considered narrative journalism often appear in magazines and allow a reporter to approach a subject in different ways. The famed journalist Tom Wolfe is among those credited with pioneering the use of narrative journalism.

Narrative journalism is also known as literary journalism or long-form journalism.

What Defines Long-Form Journalism

There is much discussion among professional writers as to what defines narrative journalism and how useful it is. It is a fine line between storytelling and the truth.

The narrative story needs to have all of the accuracy and facts of any news story. Many writers have stretched this boundary and have been caught and called out for their exaggerations. Just because you are reaching into the realm of storytelling does not mean you can fabricate the truth. Because of this, many editors are leery of narratives.

Narratives are often written in the manner of storytelling with as much detail as a novelist includes in a book, just in a shorter, non-fiction piece. They include the character of a person, place or thing and use descriptive prose to bring the reader into the story, often with the intent of provoking a feeling.

Quite often, the point of a narrative is to give readers a story they can relate to, raise questions that may not be easy to answer, or is in some way thought-provoking. Through descriptive words, the writer attempts to create a story with a purpose and narratives often take on strong subjects like human interest, culture or history.

The Journalist

Many narrative journalists choose to immerse themselves in their subjects. They might spend a month on the street to do a story about the life of a homeless mother or wander the backroads of America connecting historical places that have long been forgotten.

Though it is difficult to define, at its most basic, narrative journalism goes beyond presenting basic information. It tries to get at the real heart of the story without being self-indulgent.