Models for Writers lists a variety of writing methods for an essay under "Methods of Development:" illustration, narration, descriptions, process analysis, division and classification, comparison and contrast, etc. (Rosa 15), but I like to boil a concept down to its essence when I'm trying to understand it.  When you boil down the writing methods mentioned in your text to their most elemental styles, you'll find there are really only two kinds of writing:  narration and description.  Those two "methods" are so crucial that I like to say they are your most basic writing tools.  They are built upon and used in certain ways to make all the other methods.  Most writing is a combination of those two, but for you to be able to see the difference, let's look at extreme examples of each.

 
Description

 

Do you ever fall asleep while reading your textbook?  Textbooks have the reputation of being so boring, so snooze evoking, that I have friends who say "When I have trouble sleeping, I just read my textbook."  It can be their chemistry book, psychology book, or history book.  Whichever the subject, it seems the authors take their permission to be as boring as possible seriously.  What makes textbooks so boring?  You might think it's the material they are covering.  But I don't think so.  Speak for a few moments with a professor who's excited by his subject, and that subject comes alive and dances on the table.  It's the exposition or description style of writing that makes the reading so boring. 

 
Exposition Example from Weather & Climate, a middle school textbook.

The Earth's atmosphere is divided into layers according to temperature, although there are no solid boundaries separating each layer.  The Earth is the only planet in the Solar System which has large amounts of water, both in its atmosphere, and on or below its surface (Watt and Wilson 5).

 
 

If you were to describe your kitchen without talking about what you do there, that's exposition.  In your exposition, nothing much happens.  You should see lots of variations of the verb "to be" (is, am, are, was, were) which is a non-action verb.   

My kitchen is shaped like an L, against two outer walls of my house.  The long side of my kitchen is along the east wall where the back door is.  Next to the back door is my refrigerator.  A bit of counter separates the refrigerator from my stove/oven; then counter and cabinet make the corner.  On the short wall is the sink with a sunny, south-facing window above it.  A counter, or bar, comes out from the short wall and parallels the long wall.  The countertop is a deep blue bound in the yellow blond wood grain of my cabinets.  

 
Narration

Narration is telling a story that in its basic order is chronological.  That means there's a beginning and end, and the beginning happens before the end.  (This may sound like a "duh," but try to say where the beginning and ending of my kitchen are.  Everything I describe is there at the same time.  It doesn't just appear as I mention it.  I could have started anywhere.  That's not true of narration.)

During the recent snowstorm, my husband had trouble getting home.  The state police closed down Old Highway 66 and wouldn't let him through.  He called home and said he was going to try to go around through Mountainair.  But then he changed his mind and drove to the parking lot of his work and spent the night in the truck.  Because he was there already, his employer sent him out on another route to Farmington.  The next morning, when I got up, my husband wasn't home.  He tried to call me but reception was spotty.  I worried for several hours until my husband got through on the phone and said he got extra work. 

(Note, description would have made this more understandable to you, but I tried to strip this down to pure narration without description.  Still I was forced to keep some description -- eg. "reception was spotty.")
 

 
 

Notice in the above narration that there is a time element:  "during the recent snowstorm" identifies a one-time event -- not every snowstorm, just that one.  It happened from the beginning (the police not allowing him to drive on Old 66) to the end (his calling me to say he got extra work).  Transitions that show the movement of time in this story are "then," "the next morning," "already," and "until."

The most common form of written narration you'll encounter is short stories and novels.  In our visual literature, movies and TV shows are forms of narration.  They tell a story where something happens in a one-time event

The biggest indicator of narration as opposed to description is action.  That's the something happening.  You'll find more of the active verbs than the non-active verbs.  And most of the time, these verbs are in the past tense.  Although active verbs are indicators of narration, however, they are not guarantees of narration.

Often when I ask my students to write a story, they give me "general narration" which is a kind of marriage between description and narration.  It's using narrative style to describe something or someone.  It's not about a one-time event, but rather about a collection of events over a span of time.

So let's say I ask my students to tell me about an event that changed their lives.  They might choose graduation from high school as that event.  But what they write about isn't the graduation, but rather, their high school experience.  And instead of being one event, that's a collection of events over a span of time.  Their narration ends up being general, with verbs like, "I used to not pay attention . . ." "I would go to . . ."  "Used to" and "would" are helping verbs that make past tense verbs habitual over a span of time.  These verbs describe the students by their actions.

Back to the kitchen description.  If you were to add what you do there, it's still description.  When I mention my sink with a sunny window, I can add, "I like to look out the window while I wash dishes."  There's no beginning or end to the "liking to look out" -- it's just describing the kitchen a bit more by my response to it. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Let's look at Monk, one of my favorite TV shows.  If I were to tell you

Monk is about Adrian Monk, an obsessive-compulsive ex-detective who solves murders mysteries for the police of San Francisco, 

the active verb "solves" might lead you to think that this is narrative, but it's description.  Because this is talking about something Monk always or often does, there's not a before and after, nor a beginning or end.  It's actually describing him by his actions.  This description is always true, or at least true for a span of time, no matter what the episode we're talking about.  To get into pure narration, we would have to talk about one episode.

In one of my favorite episodes, Mr. Monk gets a little crazy because of a garbage-worker strike.  Someone shoots the garbage-workers' union boss while he sits in his wing-backed chair.  Monk suspects murder, while the police think it's a suicide.  Monk is so desperate for the garbage workers to go back to work that he takes the quick way out and says it's suicide.  However, the union workers discover that Monk has lied about his suspicions, and continue their strike.  Monk loses his tenuous hold on sanity, steals a garbage truck, and starts cleaning up San Francisco, "one bag at a time, one truck at a time."  He plans to drive the truck into the bay once it's full and steal another truck.

The funniest part is where he tells the police chief that he solved the mystery.  He shows a flyer for an Alice Cooper concert which was in town the night of the union boss's murder.  "He did it," Monk says.  "Is his name really Alice Cooper?  I don't think so.  And as everyone knows, rockers love to collect wing-backed chairs."  Monk's solution has Alice Cooper becoming jealous of the union boss and beating him up and shooting him for the wing-backed chair. 

"Well, why didn't he take the chair?" one of the officers asks. 

Monk shrugs.  "It was all bloody and had a hole in it."

Monk's friend, Captain Stottlemeyer, arranges for him to visit an electronic lab "clean room," so he can clear his mind, and that's when Monk can think better and actually solve the case.

Okay, you may remember that I said the verbs in a narrative are usually in past tense, and yet the majority of verbs in this little story of mine are in simple present.  What gives?  Well, when you retell the story from some kind of literature -- either visual (movies) or print (novels) -- the convention is to tell it in present tense.  I don't know why for sure.  Perhaps it's because every time you see that show again, it happens again.  If I were to say "Monk got crazy," that makes it one time in real life.  "Monk gets crazy" means every time I see this episode, darn it, there he goes getting crazy again! 

 
 

 

 

 

Narrative answers the question "What happened?"  (Or in the case of literature -- "What happens?") 

Let's try it out.  Let's say I want to tell my office mate about something that happened during our Christmas break.  Here's how our conversation could go. 

Me:  Two days ago, my daughter ran over my puppy. 

Susan:  What happened?

Me:   Shiloh doesn't wag her tail any more.  She doesn't even want to chew on anything.  She just sits there looking sad with her big brown eyes.

 Susan:  Well, what happened?

 Me:  Physically, she doesn't seem hurt.  I mean, she limps a little, but nothing's swollen or discolored, and she doesn't seem tender to my touch.  No broken bones.  But at night, she wakes me up with the strangest of cries.  It's just kind of a baby-like "waah." 

Susan:  WHAT HAPPENED?

You can see that up to this point, I haven't told her the story.  I've described the results, both in Shiloh's appearance and actions.  Even though there are active verbs ("wag," "chew," "sits," limps," "wakes") they don't tell what happened.  Therefore, everything I've said up to this point doesn't tell what happened, it's description.  If Susan persists in asking what happened, I should eventually get to it.

Me:  I had asked my daughter to leave Shiloh outside with our older dog, Tanker, when she left to go to work.  Shelli, my daughter, got in her truck and saw Shiloh running away, so she put her truck in reverse.  She went a couple of feet, heard Shiloh yelping, and drove forward again.  The thought occurred to her as she drove forward, that she might be running over Shiloh a second time.  She stopped the truck, got out, and looked underneath.

Shiloh came running toward her from under the truck, and when the puppy saw my daughter, she fell over on her side in the snow, still yelping.

Shelli took her inside and palpated her to see if anything was hurt.  Although nothing seemed hurt, Shiloh was crying and whimpering and breathing funny -- with a "wheeze," Shelli said.  So she wrote me a note, left Shiloh inside, and went to work, worrying the whole time about my puppy.

Susan:  Ah, so that's what happened.

FINALLY, the details of the narrative!  Of course, you might have caught on to the fact that my very first statement -- "my daughter ran over my puppy" -- also was what happened.  When I ask my students to tell me what happened about a one-time event, they often feel that a one-sentence statement is enough.  That one-sentence statement is their summary.  They then need to tell details, to beef up their narrative.  I deal with that issue in "Beefing up Your Essay."

 
 

 

 

One of my favorite activities in my face-to-face classes is to have the students write for about three minutes describing a toy they used to play with, but without naming it.  Then their partners get to guess at what the toy was. 

If you were to describe a toy from your childhood, how would you start?  Pure description would be what color it was, its size, its shape.  Bringing the narrative style into the description would be to say what it did and what you did with it.  But click on the picture to the left to check out this classical description of a toy on YouTube.  "The Marvelous Toy" is a song written by Tom Paxton and made famous by Peter, Paul, and Mary.  The lyrics are below if you can't download and view YouTube videos.

 
When I was just a wee little lad, Full of health and joy, My father homeward came one night And gave to me a toy. A wonder to behold it was With many colors bright And the moment I laid eyes on it, It became my hearts delight. Refrain: It went "zip" when it moved and "pop" when it stopped, "whirrr" when it stood still I never knew just what it was and I guess I never will. The first time that I picked it up I had a big surprise Cause right on the bottom were two big buttons That looked like big green eyes I first pushed one and then the other, Then I twisted its lid And when I set it down again, here is what it did: (refrain) It first marched left, and then marched right And then marched under a chair And when I looked where it had gone It wasnt even there I started to cry, but my daddy laughed cause he knew that I would find, When I turned around my marvelous toy Would be chugging from behind. (refrain) The years have gone by too quickly it seems, I have my own little boy And yesterday I gave to him My marvelous little toy: His eyes nearly popped right out of his head And he gave a squeal of glee! Neither one of us knows just what it is But he loves it just like me! It still goes... (refrain)

Can you identify the true narrative in this song?

"My father homeward came one night and gave to me a toy."  (then description)

"The moment I laid eyes on it, it became my heart's delight." (then description)

"The first time that I picked it up, I had a big surprise. (a bit of description) I  first pushed one and then the other.  Then I twisted its lid, and when I set it down again, here is what it did.  It first marched left, and then marched right, and then marched under a chair.  And when I looked where it had gone, it wasn't even there.  I started to cry, but my daddy laughed 'cause he knew that I would find when I turned around my marvelous toy would be chugging from behind."

All this is narrative.  It is story about the first time the kid got the toy and what happened THAT NIGHT.  You get quite a good description from the story.

"And yesterday I gave to him my marvelous little toy:  His eyes nearly popped right out of his head and he gave a squeal of glee!"  This, too, is story, set up with a little bit of description (I now have my own little boy).  And when it moves into present tense (Neither one of us knows just what it is but he loves it just like me) that's general narrative/description.

Just for fun:  Can you draw this toy?

 
 

Works Cited

Rosa, Alfred, and Eschholz, Paul, eds.  Models for Writers.  9th ed.  Boston:  Bedford, 2007. 

"Monk and the Garbage Strike."   Monk.  USA Network, New York.  14 Jan. 2006.

Watt, Fiona, and Wilson, Francis.  Weather & Climate.  London:  Usborne Science & Experiments, 1992.

 

 
  This page was last updated Tuesday, May 18, 2010, by Connie Gulick.