Descriptive essays are those in which a representation of a space predominates, which may contain objects or even characters who perform actions. In the latter case, it is not easy to draw a clear demarcation with respect to narrative essays, but in a essay with descriptive dominance there is no real plot, a thread that links events into a coherent sequence, but only the representation of who does what.
A descriptive essay contains a series of information on objects or characters, for each of which some properties can be expressed:
the appearance, the activity that is taking place, the placement with respect to other referents. It is absolutely not possible to list all the details of a situation, and each description is therefore highly selective: this choice depends essentially on the communication needs. So, if I have to explain to someone how to reach my house, I will say that it is next to a gas station, but I will not describe it minutely, with its colors, the number of pumps, the size of the yard and so on. In short, a description can be more or less vivid and detailed, but it will never be exhaustive, and in any case it is not said that a greater length is an index of better quality: the description must be functional, neither thin nor verbose.
To produce a narrative essay there is a sort of “natural” lineup of contents, which coincides with the chronological order of events: it tells first what happened before and after what happened after. It is a perfectly adequate way of telling a story, and more complicated plots can be dictated by stylistic requirements or rhetorical effects, but they are not indispensable. On the other hand, there is no “natural” way to expose the contents of a description, because they can be grouped according to different criteria: conceptual, for example by first deleting all things and then all animate beings; perceptive, mentioning first the most salient and then the details; space, proceeding from top to bottom, or clockwise, or from the center to the periphery or vice versa.
Normally, to describe the entities in space they are placed with respect to a background or other entity: the entity placed in the foreground is called figure, or theme, that respect to which it is placed is called background or relatum. But beyond this general principle, there are other more specific ones that can be followed to organize a spatial description:
– The entity can be placed with respect to the global picture (ie the figure as a whole), saying things like there are buildings in the center; in the lower corner there is a fountain, or with respect to other previously mentioned entities, in an additive framework that is formed gradually, as benches are seen under the buildings, next to the benches there are children playing.
– The additive framework, in turn, can be produced by expressing generic relations of proximity or inclusion, called topological (near the tree; in the square; in the classroom) or more specific relationships, called projective, which refer to coordinate axes spatial (to the right of the bicycle; under the tree; above the chair).
– Finally, the description can follow different perspectives.
In a fixed perspective, we imagine to see the whole scene from the outside and we follow an order that can be divided into quadrants of the scene (top / bottom, left / right, center / periphery). This strategy is typically used to describe two-dimensional images, such as paintings and photographs. When more complex environments are described, such as an apartment or a building, a mobile perspective is often followed, in which the interlocutor is accompanied in a sort of virtual tour, saying things like Entering on the right see the kitchen; continuing along the corridor to the left there are the bedrooms, while at the end there is the bathroom; entering the bathroom, to the right you will find the shower. It is typical of this descriptive mode the use of the second person and of verbs of movement, how to enter, continue, continue. Often the mobile perspective is also used in the descriptions of two-dimensional images, in what is called the look around: the look moves on the image following a path, which is not necessarily systematic according to the Cartesian axes, but can go from an object or space to the other with complex relationships of continuity. With this mode the third person and the use of static verbs are more frequently found, as in the top there are trees, next to it there is a fountain behind which we see children playing; then below there are houses.
After discussing the descriptions of relatively fixed entities on a static space, we can briefly mention the description of scenes that contain actions.
The problem, in these cases, is to express the simultaneity between different events in a linear sequence of sentences. Also in this case, there is no basic “natural” organizational principle, but choices must be made, deciding where to start and how to proceed. You can follow the spatial criteria used to describe the objects, or hierarchize the actions, treating some as main and others as accessory: for example, in describing a rather lively class, I can keep the teacher’s actions as a common thread and place with respect to these are the actions of the students, but I can also choose the perspective of a particular student, and so on.
As you can see, there are many ways to produce a description and in oral communication we are not so concerned with being systematic: the different referents and their properties are evoked as they are presented to the gaze or to the conscience. The written essays allow for greater planning and the descriptions therefore follow more explicit orders: think of the famous ‘zoomata’ on Lake Como that opens the Promessi sposi, or all the forms of description rigidly coded within modules (such as the personal ones ) or scientific protocols (such as medical histories or descriptions of laboratory experiences).