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Descriptive vs. Narrative Essay Writing

Updated on January 12, 2012
While descriptive and narrative essays have some similarities, they differ in format and style.
While descriptive and narrative essays have some similarities, they differ in format and style. | Source

By Joan Whetzel

Narrative and descriptive writing are used to write essays and short stories. Though they have some similarities, the difference is in the methods they use to write the story or explain what's going on. Narratives "tell" while descriptive writing "shows" what's going on. Both methods require a bit of planning, practice and creativity. Essay writing helps students use their thoughts to develop ideas, theories, and hypotheses in their writing. Essays require students to write concisely, with a clear purpose and direction. Assigning descriptive or narrative essays helps students direct their thoughts while writing.

Descriptive Essays

Descriptive essays use words to illustrate something, to express how something or someone looks or feels. Descriptive writing "shows" the reader with creative and sensory images. With descriptive essays, students are asked to describe people, places and things as well as experiences, emotions, situations and events. Descriptive writing allows for a great deal of artistic freedom. The goal is to use all five senses to paint vivid images that will involves the readers' emotions and sets their imaginations into high gear.

Writing the Descriptive Essay

To begin writing a descriptive essay, choose the topic you will be describing. If, for example, you choose to describe the a diner in small town America, first name the diner. Then make lists of the sensory images that you might encounter in the diner Make a list of smells coming from the diner - toast crumbs burning in the bottom of the toaster, brewing coffee, fresh biscuits coming out of the oven. How about a list of tastes like apple pie with ice cream - hot pie and cold ice cream, tart apples and sweet cream, the crispy crust and smooth ice cream. Now for sounds. The diner will have sizzling hamburgers, waitresses calling out orders and the way she calls her favorite customers "hon", "doll", "darling", or "sweet cheeks". The regulars are probably sitting around discussing local politics so feel free to show what the conversation sounds like. While you're at it, show what the speakers look like, and the waitress in her pink dress with her white apron, and the cook behind the counter. What does the diner look like, the layout of the place. Are the booths and chairs covered in vinyl? Describe the color (i.e. sparkly turquoise with purple trim along the seams). Describe how things feel - the way your legs stick to the vinyl on hot summer days when you're wearing shorts, the damp table that just got cleared and cleaned right before you sat down, the whack-whack-whack on the back of your seat from the ornery kid in the booth behind you.

Once you have compiled a list of details about your topic, begin using them in sentences. Don't just tell us there were booths, and a waitress and an ornery kid. Describe them in detail using all your senses. Make sure the sentences flow naturally. For instance, with the diner, begin the description with the door and your first impressions as you walk through the door. In the second paragraph, look slowly around the room describing everything you see. In the third paragraph, describe your experience as you sit down, order and eat. In the final paragraph describe checking out and leaving, the door, what you experience as you walk out the door. Is the conversation on local politics still going? Is the brat still whacking away in the booth? Describe the whole thing from beginning to end using juicy verbs and nouns.

Narrative Essays

Narrative essays either tell a story or relate a sequence of events which are told in chronological order. Narrative essays consist of stories which are meant to illustrate a point. The usually begin each paragraph with a topic sentence introducing the part of the story - or event - discussed in the paragraph. Most narrative essays are personal, anecdotal or briefly tell about an experience one had. These type essays allow writers to express themselves more creatively and tell more moving stories.

Sometimes narrative writing simply entertains readers. However, in formal academic writing, narrative writing is used to inform or persuade the readers. In academic writing, the topic sentence establishes the writer's main point for each paragraph. Then the author uses the rest of the paragraph to set out to prove his or her point by backing up his main point with evidentiary statements.

Narrative essays allows the use of first person when writing, as well as speaking in a casual or conversational tone. Narrative essays use first person to communicate the author's views, ideals and recollection while descriptive essays generally center on a single event, item or location. Narrative writing can be used to discuss the past or future. Narrative essays usually follows the five-paragraph format as opposed to descriptive writing which follows a more free-form writing format.

Writing the Narrative Essay

When writing narrative essays, get right to the point, avoiding length prologues and explanations. Tell the story about an event or experience that meant a lot to you and conclude with what you learned from the experience. The essay starts with a topic paragraph, followed by three paragraphs in the body of the essay, and completed with a concluding paragraph which ties the whole essay together. In like manner, each paragraph starts with a topic sentence introducing the paragraph topic, followed by the body of the paragraph to fill in the details and explanations, then concludes with a closing sentence to wrap it all up. The best narrative essays are those inducing images in the readers's minds about what's happening by using concrete, specific verbs and nouns rather than a lot of adverbs and adjectives.


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    • profile image

      6 years ago

      It's helpful, as always, to have an additional set of eyes to improve our writing.*

      Did you do that on purpose? Lol.

    • JY3502 profile image

      John Young 6 years ago from Florence, South Carolina

      You are welcome. It's nice to see a professional writer who doesn't get upset over a little helpful criticism.

    • joanwz profile image

      Joan Whetzel 6 years ago from Katy, Texas

      JY3502, thanks for providing your editor's eye. It's helpful as always to have an additional set of eyes to improve our writing.

    • JY3502 profile image

      John Young 6 years ago from Florence, South Carolina

      THAT is very solid information THAT you have written. THAT is to say THAT this is a good article but there is something THAT needs pointing out. Can you guess what THAT is? Good hub though.

    • gmwilliams profile image

      Grace Marguerite Williams 6 years ago from the Greatest City In The World-New York City, New York

      Excellent hub with an equally good descriptive analysis.