description vs. narration

Student writers often have a hard time writing description. There’s something inside all of us that wants to turn everything into a story. But story-telling – also called narration – isn’t the same as description. In this workshop, be sure to focus on description in your assignments. 

To help you, let’s get specific about what we mean by narrative vs. descriptive papers.  


A narrative paper tells a story. A story has characters and a plot. Events occur in chronological order. In a complete story, a problem of some kind is presented and events unfold, leading to the solution to that problem. A narrative is like a movie or a television program — it tells a story with action that moves from one scene to the next. 


The best way to think about being descriptive is painting a picture with words. A descriptive paper then would be more like a photograph than a movie. The point of a descriptive paper is not to unfold events, but to bring a scene or an object to life — to show a picture (perhaps with sights, sounds, and smells) to the reader.  

What confuses us is that stories usually contain descriptions. It’s hard to tell a decent story without describing characters, setting, and important objects. Good story-tellers weave description into stories. This makes writing a paper that is only descriptive difficult — we are used to seeing description as part of a larger story. But you can do it. Paint a picture, don’t tell a story. 

Now, just because a descriptive paper shouldn’t focus on unfolding events, doesn’t mean you can’t include action in a description. Good description often involves motion. The problem with thinking of description in terms of a photograph or a painting is that these things are motionless. But many scenes that can be described include meaningful action: clowns parading at a circus, waves crashing on a rocky coastline, or a pit crew feverishly making adjustments to a race car. Action is appropriate for many kinds of description.  

So the question is: If narratives include descriptions and descriptions can contain activity, how can I tell one from the other?  

And the answer is: It’s a matter of emphasis.  In a narrative, your goal is to relate the events of a story. In a description, your goal is make a person, place or thing seem real and alive to the reader.  

With this in mind, see if you can identify which of the following examples is narrative, and which is descriptive:  

  1. Frog visited Toad late in the afternoon, after rising comfortably late and enjoying the newspaper with his buttered toast and coffee. They agreed that the weather was too fine to remain indoors, so they packed some binoculars, a blanket, and a generous lunch, and headed out for a bird-watching picnic. Along the way they chased butterflies and tried to remember the words to old songs.

  2. A soft, golden light lay on the meadow. The surrounding trees formed an almost perfect circle, as though arranged by a mathematician with a compass. Buttercups and dandelions dotted the long green grass, and tiny wings rose and fell in every direction. From the shadow of the trees came the heavy thump of hooves on soft earth. Suddenly, a brave knight emerged in radiant silver armor, astride a glistening black stallion.

Was it obvious? Paragraph A focuses on the events of an unfolding story. It is narrative. Paragraph B, though it involves some action, is primarily descriptive, intending to make the meadow scene vivid and real.  

As you write descriptively, restrain the story-teller inside you. Don’t be afraid to paint a dynamic scene with characters who act and things that move, but concentrate on the job of description — to help the reader see, hear, and feel what you describe.