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Home » People » Karl Sherlock » English 098 » Instructional Resources » info | Descr.-Narration

Descriptive and Narrative Paragraphs


Exposition in writing exists primarily to explain, tell, or "expose," ideas using claims of fact, value, or policy. Rhetorical forms such as comparison-contrast, process, classification-division, and argument-persuasion help writers convey exposition more effectively through patterns of organization. Only secondarily does an expository work of writing concern itself with an entertaining use of language, content, and style--with the exception of narrative-descriptive writing.

Unlike typical exposition, the primary intention of descriptive and narrative writing is to entertain. How one shows the reader an experience that moves beyond superficial details is part of the fun and creativity of descriptive/narrative writing.

With descriptive writing, one is concerned about experience. The meaning is suggested by showing, rather than telling, the important imagery and sensory detail of that experience. Descriptive writing answers the question, "What was it like?" It helps readers visualize, not just the facts of the experience, but the perspective or interpretation of it. A writer's descriptive choices help to convey a point of view. This is why descriptive writing is closely tied to narrative writing,because a narrator is also a point of view.

However, narrative writing is more concerned with an event, rather than experience. Whereas in exposition an experience illustrates or supports an overall point, in narrative writing the event is the overall point, and it is conveyed as a story. Narrative writing answers the question, "What happened?" What makes narration a little more complex, however, is that two events are happening simultaneously: 1) circumstances, situations, accidents and mistakes are happening to one or more characters outwardly; 2) changes, reactions, and emotions are occurring inwardly forthe narrator or a protagonist (a main character about whom a story is told, and often whose point of view determines the narrative point of view of the story.) Therefore, there are two kinds of narration: external, and internal.


Some combination of storytelling techniques comes to us naturally when we are trying to convey even a mundane experience, like what you did today at school. However, verbal storytelling is a little different from written storytelling. First of all, the audience for written communication is broader and the story avails itself to rereading. That means, there must be attention to language that entertains us on a second reading as much as it did on a first. In short, there are literary expectations placed upon writers of description and narration that are not placed on descriptive communication in everyday situations. The following are techniques you will want to incorporate into your storytelling:

 In addition to identifying what a detail is, a good writer tries to make it appeal to a reader's senses;this makes description sensual. (Note: "sensual" is not the same as "sexual"; the latter is analogous to "erotic," whereas the former tries to convey something "exotic," even in common, ordinary experiences.) Writers should try not to bias the visual senses, as this prevents the reader from being anything more than an observer. Using a balanced appeal to all the senses invites the reader to participate and transport herself via imagination.

Smell:"this mulch in his hands, grassy-sweet and fetid, like a belch"
Touch:"the underside of the leaf bristled with fine hairs and rough silk"
Taste:"tapioca of lavender and anise, at first like a mouthful of bath soaps"
Hear:"The dog's whine pierced the darkness and penetrated our deepest sleep."
See: "The wasp, at first as harmless as a Christmas light, landed on his wrist, yellow and stiff, like a syringe."

Use simile and metaphor (but not clichés) in combination with sensory appeal, to describe more subtle and abstract experiences. Similes and metaphors are, both, analogies. An analogy is different from a straightforward comparison in that it is intended to be taken as an illustration; it's figurative parallel, not a literal one, that leaves a point or makes an extended impression:

Examples of Analogies (figurative parallels)
house guests and store-bought fish: three days, maximum. (In what figurative way do house guests begin to "stink up" your home and routines?)
the cancer of Communism (How does communism spread, and what are its allegedly socially corrosive qualities?)
A president of a country these days is like the head of a multi-national corporation. (In what ways have countries come to resemble multi-national corporations?)


Examples of Comparisons (literal parallels)
house guests and hotel guests (Which kind of guest is easier to please, and why?)
Socialism and Capitalism (Are they really mutually exclusive, or do they have any common goals?)
A president of a country these days is different than what it was fifty years ago (What are the differences, then and now?)


uses "like" or "as" to draw an analogy
(e.g., "His eyes were like knots of live oak."
"Revenge is best served, as vichyssoise, cold and delicious."
"Love is like quicksilver in the hand. Leave the fingers open and it stays. Clutch it, and it darts away." - poet Dorothy Parker)


implies an analogy without using "like" or "as"

"Revenge is a dish best served cold."
"His eyes were knots of live oak."
"Some say love, it is a razor that leaves your soul to bleed."--(lyrics from "The Rose")


The sounds of words (alliteration and assonance) have emotional and psychological associations. So too does the pacing of our storytelling. Explore the effects of these in combination and use them consciously to manipulate how readers react to the various parts of your story.

Consonance and Alliteration:
Consonance is the repetition of a consonant sound; when the consonance occurs at the beginning of a word, this is referred to as "Alliteration": "The empty tin can tapped and trumpeted down a flight of steps [Alliterative "d" and "t" sounds in the words "tin," "tapped," "trumpeted," and "down"; consonant "t" and "p" sounds in "empty," "trumpeted," and "steps"]

the recurrent sound of a vowel: "on a proud round cloud in white high night"--e.e. cummings (assonant "ou" and "igh" sounds)

Longer stories quite often need structure: a beginning in which practical information about the story situation, setting, and main character are provided; a sense of action leading toward some conflict; an actual encounter or experience of conflict; and a conclusion or resolution. Within that framework, characters need to come forth and participate. One of those characters will be the protagonist, the main character whose growth or change is a result of the events of the story. In shorter stories, however, the structure often applies more to the internal story of a character: the emotional or psychological development of a protagonist that becomes the implied point of the story.

Most stories are told in chronological sequence: how events occurred in time, in order. That's useful for the plot of your story, but not so useful for the more abstract moments in which characters or narrators withdraw into their own heads, digress, contemplate, analyze, and pull readers into their minds as well as their world. Try different patterns of sequencing--or "narrative technique"-- to keep the reader interested in the storytelling.

At least two categories of voice exist in any story: the voice of the narrator, and the voices of the characters. Novice writers sometimes think these are one in the same. However, narrators posses an individual sensibility; while characters possess individual personalities. In regard to the latter, play with voices and give your characters different speech patterns, buzz words, vernacular, and so on. Without a doubt, the best and most effective way to achieve this is through dialogue-- good, interesting, engaging and personal dialogue!

Even if you are being asked to write about personal experience, that alone does not guarantee a quality of authenticity in your story. Honesty is important to making the reader trust the work as worthy of taking more seriously. Honesty is a combination of the openness of the writer to truth of an experience, and the degree of compromise implied by that openness. By "compromise," we mean the willingness of the writer to be self-critical, or to invite readers to be critical of her. Without a show of such honesty, the protagonist cannot be trusted to have grown and story has not emotional center of gravity.

Last Updated: 01/16/2016


Karl J Sherlock
English / Creative Writing
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