Chapter 7 – Patterns of Development (Narration/Description)

“Gears” by xresch, Pixabay is in the Public Domain, CC0

Many college essays follow a primary pattern of development for laying out their ideas and expressing their main thesis. A pattern of development is the way the essay is organized, from one paragraph to the next, in order to present its thesis and the relevant, authoritative support for it, in a coherent and meaningful fashion.

Your readers will be experiencing your essay in time. That is, they will read it starting in paragraph one and then two, then three, four, five, six…etc. This may seem obvious, but you will need to consider how the reader will experience the essay in time and in relation to your thesis statement.

Thus, we will need to organize the essay into a coherent pattern which allows the reader to easily follow our logic through the reading experience, and be able to fully relate it back to our central theme(s). Some essays use a combination of patterns to communicate their ideas, but usually a primary pattern is established to present the overall structure and logical flow of the essay. Common patterns include:


  • Narration & Description (see below)
  • Exemplification
  • Comparison/Contrast
  • Cause/Effect
  • There are several more variations of patterns of development (see below), but these are the most common ones you will use in academic essay writing. You will also likely be asked to combine one or more of these elements into various projects and writing assignments. They are, first and foremost, ways of organizing ideas into a flow that leads the reader through an experience and helps them become better aware of the relationships between the ideas you are presenting. Which should help them to better experience and understand your primary thesis.

BEST: Patterns of development work best when they are used consistently and in conjunction with the structure and theme of the primary thesis statement.

  • Follow this link to a more developed discussion on the more popular modes of essay writing.
  • Consult this handout on the basic understanding and uses of the primary patterns of development.
  • Consult this handout on the patterns of development discussed as the modes of essay writing.
  • Here is a useful link that helps to visualize and summarize the primary patterns of rhetorical writing.
  • And one more useful link that does more of a deep dive into the modes. With relevant exercises and questions.

Narration & Description

This week, we begin our exploration of Narration & Description as patterns of development for academic college essays. We will also spend some time discussing thesis statements, essay structure, and the invention and arrangement of topics.

Narration tells a story by presenting events in an orderly, logical sequence. Narration can be the dominant pattern in many kinds of writing (as well as in speech). Most histories, biographies, and autobiographies follow a narrative form, as do personal letters, diaries, journals, and bios on personal Web pages or social networking sites such as Facebook. Narration is the dominant pattern in many works of fiction, film, and poetry, and is even an essential part of casual conversation. Narration also underlies folk and fairy tales, radio, television and news programs. In short, anytime you want to tell a story about what happened (from a given perspective), you are using narration.

You use description to tell readers about the physical characteristics of a person, place or thing. Description relies on the five senses—sight, hearing, taste, touch and smell. A descriptive essay tells what something looks like or what it feels like, sounds like, smells like or tastes like. However, description often goes beyond personal sense impressions: novelists can create imaginary landscapes, historians can paint word pictures of historical figures and scientists can describe physical phenomena they have actually never seen. When you write using description, you use language to create a vivid impression of what something feels like for your readers.

We will then apply what we have learned to our first essay, a narration/description about your favorite song, band, or genre of music. Your job in this first essay is to use your writing as a means of inquiry. In other words, your essay will not only teach us about the song, band or musical style you chose, but it will teach us something essential about you and your view of the world. It may even teach you something about yourself that you didn’t know before.

Objective, Subjective, Figurative Description

Objective description is primarily factual, omitting any attention to the writer, especially with regards to the writer’s feelings. Imagine that a robotic camera is observing the subject; such a camera has absolutely no attachment or reaction to what is being observed.

Subjective description, on the other hand, includes attention to both the subject described and the writer’s reactions (internal, personal) to that subject.

Figurative description relies on creating likenesses between objects, often through simile (e.g. like a snowflake…or fragile as a snowflake…) or metaphor. Such likenesses allow the reader to perceive the object more precisely.

An objective sample:

The kitchen table is rectangular, seventy-two inches long and thirty inches wide. Made of a two-inch-thick piece of oak, its top is covered with a waxy oilcloth patterned in dark red and blue squares against a white background. In the right corner, close to the wall, a square blue ceramic tile serves as the protective base for a brown earthenware teapot. A single white placemat has been set to the left of the tile, with a knife and fork on either side of a white dinner plate, around nine inches in diameter. On the plate are two thick pieces of steak.

(Notice how “objective” the narrator in the piece is; his or her eyes scan the scene, but there is no emotional response provoked by the scene).

A subjective sample:

Our lives at home converged around the pleasantly-shaped kitchen table. It was the magnet that drew our family together quite warmly. Cut from the sturdiest oak, the table was tough, smooth, and long enough for my mother, my two sisters, and me to work or play on at the same time. Our favorite light blue ceramic tile, stationed in the right corner, was the table’s sole defense against the ravages of everything from a steaming teapot to the latest red-hot gadget from the Sears catalogue. More often than not, however, the heat would spread quickly beyond the small tile and onto the checkered oilcloth, which just as quickly exuded a rank and sour odor. Yet no matter how intensely the four of us competed for elbow room at the table, none dared venture near the lone dinner place arranged securely to the left of the tile. There was no telling when he would get home from work, but, when he did, he expected the food to be ready–steaming hot. He liked to eat right away–steak mostly–two bloody but thick pieces.

(The narrator scans about the scene, but now, objects take on a sense of “utility” and “meaning”–the narrator explains how certain objects are important, even bordering on the personal and emotional meaning behind each piece.)

A figurative sample:

The kitchen table, a long lost remnant cut from sturdy oak, was sturdy like my father’s hands, and as equally calloused by age and tempered by heat. The table had large welts that had grown even darker and more foreboding with age, and mother frequently commented on getting a new table because of these clear signs of progress, but father would have none of it—the table was as dear to him as his own child. After all, this was his grandfather’s table, handcut, the final essence of that old progenitor’s largesse on the earth. Dumping this table would be akin to dumping my father’s grandaddy. And such an act would be akin to murder itself. This table was like family.

When to Use Each:

  • Narration: when the writer is telling a story to make a point.
  • Description: when the writer wants to evoke the senses to create a picture.
  • Often, the patterns are used together to give the reader a compelling story with vivid, descriptive details which help to illuminate and strengthen the writer’s thesis.

BEST: when the writer uses both together for writing a detailed account of some memorable experience:

  • First trip abroad.
  • Last-minute victory.
  • Picnic in some special place.
  • A favorite song or band and how it changed your life.


How much do I tell my audience?

  • Personal Experience (Is your essay primarily focused on the song/band’s effect on you personally or on the culture at large?)
    • How much personal detail should you include?
    • How much external research and/or “objective” material should you include?
  • Add or Delete Material
    • Should your thesis include all of the sub-points you intend to make in the essay or just the main one?
    • Should your thesis include language that highlights your primary pattern of development?
    • Is your thesis too bulky? Too vague? Too specific?

How much do I show my audience?

  • Unusual Subject (include a lot of information, especially if technical)
    • How much does your audience already know about your topic?
    • How much background and technical information will you need to provide?
  • New images and insight that create a fresh vision of the subject
    • Are you addressing a familiar topic in a new or unexpected way?
    • Can you use vivid language and subjective description to paint a visual or auditory expereince for your reader?
  • Click on this handout for more guidelines for writing the narrative essay.
  • Consult this handout for more guidelines on writing the descriptive essay.
  • Read these Purdue OWL articles about writing narrative and descriptive essays.
  • View this video on Writing Narrative/Descriptive Essays (14:00):

  • View the video on crafting narrative essays (2:28):


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Composition in Cultural Contexts Copyright © 2021 by Andy Gurevich is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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