Understanding the Difference Between Narration and Description

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Who is Speaking?

One of the simplest ways of differentiating narration and description is to ask the question, “Who is speaking?”

Narration is a technique in which a character or entity, either within the story or outside the story, gives details that help the reader understand background and history.

For instance, Hemingway’s, The Sun Also Rises, begins, “Robert Cohn was once middleweight boxing champion of Princeton. Do not think that I am very much impressed by that a boxing title, but it meant a lot to Cohn.” This is narration in the first person in which the author tells the story.

Alternately, in Faulkner’s, Absalom, Absalom! there are several narrators, each with their own perspective of the story being told. The characters, Quentin, Miss Coldfield, Shreve and Mr. Compson tell their personal view of history as well as an unknown narrator, who addresses the reader on occasion. Faulkner’s use of narration in this story was unique.

Third-person narration is told by a character or entity outside of the story. The passage from “Drenched in Light,” a short story by Zora Neale Hurston, “This struck the child in a very sore spot for nothing pleased her so much as to sit atop the gate post…She raced up and down the stretch of it,” demonstrates third-person narration.

Narration is found in literature, as well as poetry. The narrative poem is a popular genre, especially when writing about historic events. Edgar Allan Poe’s, “The Raven” is an excellent example of narrative poetry.

Giving Details

Description, on the other hand, is a literary tool that presents the details of a person, place or thing. Description is a tool used in a narrative to paint a picture for the reader. A good story has clear description, which give the reader a photo-like image of a person, place or thing.

For instance, sticking with the stories previously mentioned, examples of description would be:

  • The Sun Also Rises - “jumping frogs”, “her folded hands”
  • Absalom, Absalom! - “dim coffin-smelling gloom sweet and over-sweet with the twice-bloomed wisteria”
  • “Drenched in Light” - “red plush cover with little round balls for fringe”

Each of these passages creates a clear picture for the reader to not only see, but also to smell, hear, taste and/or feel.

Poetry, by its nature, is descriptive. Poetry paints pictures by stringing words together in a creative form that inspires images for the reader as well as sparks emotions that the reader feels deeply.

Ideas for Activities

Here are some ideas for teaching the difference between narration and description.

  • Give students a short story to read. Have them give examples of description as well as tell the type of narration used by the author.
  • Have students tell a brief story from their lives. Ask them if they are using first, second or third person to tell their stories? The answer should be first person. Ask them to write the same story twice - once in second person and then again in third person. How does this change their story? How did this make the student feel?
  • Cut and laminate pictures from old calendars. If you do not have enough for each student, have students work in pairs. Ask them to write a brief (5-6 sentences), yet detailed description of the picture. Remind them to think of all their senses. After the descriptions are complete scramble them so they are not in the order in which they were collected. Hang the pictures on the wall, numbered, for everyone to see. Have students make a list to correspond with the number of pictures. (i.e., if there were twelve pictures, then they would number their paper 1 to 12.) As each student reads their description, have students record the number of the picture that they believe corresponds with the description being read. Pictures with the most correct answers are the ones with the most solid descriptions.

Literary Tools

Whether the author is telling the story or describing a character, setting or object within the story, differentiating narration and description is important to understanding. Helping students to differentiate between the two literary elements by remembering that narrators tell the story, while descriptions literally describe, enables students to understand the differences between the two. Click here for a handout on, “The Elements of Narration and Description."