Differences Between Narrative & Descriptive Writing

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Seasoned writers weave descriptive and narrative writing to create compelling reading, but the two styles have distinct purposes and features emerging writers need to master separately. Descriptive writing attempts to capture the details of a topic and accurately portray its elements to readers. Narrative writing attempts to relay a story using chronological order or time sequence. Since good description often is needed in telling a story, students should master descriptive writing elements before crafting longer works of fiction.

1 The Purpose of Descriptive Writing

Descriptive writing relies on sensory detail: sight, sound, taste, touch and smell to create a three-dimensional portrayal of an object, person, place, emotion or even an idea. The purpose is to give the reader as much detail as possible and to describe the subject in a new way that makes the subject unforgettable. The famous novel "A Confederacy of Dunces" by John Kennedy Toole, starts with this description: "A green hunting cap squeezed the top of the fleshy balloon of a head. The green earflaps, full of large ears and uncut hair and the fine bristles that grew in the ears themselves, stuck out on either side like turn signals indicating two directions at once." Toole accomplishes a memorable description of the title character by utilizing spatial organization and figurative language, techniques all writers can master with practice.

2 Descriptive Writing Techniques

Descriptive writing uses illustrative or spatial organization to create a logical image of the subject. Directional signal words, such as below or above, help readers follow along with transitions in your descriptions. If your are describing something abstract, use illustrative signal words such as in addition, and for example. Figurative language makes descriptive writing unique. Metaphors and similes help readers imagine a subject by comparing it directly to another more familiar item. When applicable, use sound devices such as onomatopoeia and alliteration to help readers envision subjects more clearly. Small assignments with limited word counts describing tangible or concrete items will help students build the skills needed to write descriptively.

3 The Purpose of Narrative Writing

Narrative writing attempts to tell a story, but often can use description to help readers picture the elements involved. Narrative writing has a point of view, which usually is first-person or third-person. Herman Melville's opening lines to "Moby Dick" establish a first-person narration: "Call me Ishmael. Some years ago -- never mind how long precisely -- having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world." Narrative writing includes characters, a setting and a plot of events -- exposition, rising action, climax, falling action and resolution. Narrative writing also develops a moral or theme for its readers through the integration of various fictional elements.

4 Narrative Writing Techniques

Narrative writing uses chronological or time order to describe a sequence of events. Sequence signal words, such as first, second and next, help move a narrative forward. Flashbacks and flash-forwards are techniques used to jump through time and switch between different points of view. Foreshadowing or hinting at something before it happens is a technique that entices readers to continue reading. Narrative writing often contains dialogue or conversations between characters, which helps move the action forward and allows readers to connect with characters. While narrative writing includes detailed descriptions, the narrative writer needs to focus on telling a logical story.

Based in Winchester, Va., Karen Hartless has 10 years of teaching experience in the areas of English, creative writing and public speaking. She earned a Master of Education degree as a reading specialist from Shenandoah University, focusing on teaching, reading, and writing clear, concise text.