Organizational Patterns for Descriptive Writing

Instructor: Robin Small

Robin has a BA/MAT in English Ed, and teaches 6th grade English and Writing Lab.

In this lesson, you will learn about different ways of organizing a piece of descriptive writing and how to choose the best structure for the scene you want to convey.

Over the Threshold

As a writer of a descriptive work, you invite a reader to step into your world and experience the scene as if they are there, through your senses and colored by your thoughts and feelings. Once they have taken that step in, it's up to you- the writer- to lead them through the experience. How you choose to proceed from here can create different impressions on the reader, depending on how you organize your piece. Know your options, so you can choose a way to reveal your scene purposefully.

Step into the Scene

Option 1- Chronological

Your reader has stepped into your world and closed the door behind them. They can proceed through your scene in chronological order, moving through time as they see events unfold. They might take a bite and chew the overcooked eggs in your breakfast sandwich, and then proceed to step into your work trousers one leg at a time. They might follow your footsteps on the fateful day when you discovered that your office was relocated to the sixteenth floor, which was bad enough, except when you pushed the button you discovered the elevator was broken. Near ten o'clock you finally made it to the top of the of stairs, only to realize your building only has fifteen floors. Moving through time in chronological order is a common organizational style for descriptive writing.

No 16th Floor

Option 2- Spatial

With a spatial organization of your piece, the reader steps through the threshold and moves forward with the writer in space, exploring the house one room at a time, avoiding the cats that may be twisting around their feet and narrowly missing Legos left by a child that could mutilate or maim a tender foot. They might notice the sun slanting through the dining room windows, and keep moving forward until they come across a note taped to the fridge. In this kind of descriptive writing, the focus of organization is the movement through space, as the ideas or images the writer wants to reveal become clear through the physical movement of the narrator.

Option 3- Order of Importance

Descriptions that are organized in order of importance take a reader through the door and build up details from the obvious and uninteresting to the unique and significant. The narrator might reveal a homemade egg sandwich on an English muffin. It might be a Thomas's English muffin, with a chunk of cheddar cheese melting over the edges of the egg, and pooling onto the plate. The reader follows along, examining the breakfast sandwich in closer and closer detail until the wedding ring beside the plate reveals that this is a goodbye breakfast. Descriptions that are organized with details stacked in order of importance can be imagined as a pyramid, the initial details are a foundation for further refined information stacked on top.

Other Options

Chronological and spatial organization are the most common structures used in descriptive writing. Order of importance is used a little less often, as are other methods of organizing your descriptive piece. Topical organization describes a scene one topic at a time, for instance, showing a playground by describing each piece of equipment in turn. Some descriptive pieces will also overlap a little, leaning heavily on the chronological sequence of events but also showing a narrator moving through space, or the other way around.

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