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Introduction: Description, Narration, and Reflection

16.2 Techniques

Storytelling is one of few rituals that permeates all cultures. Indeed, there’s nothing quite as satisfying as a well-told story. But what exactly makes for a well-told story?

Of course, the answer to that question depends on your rhetorical situation: your audience, your socio-historical position, and your purpose will determine how you tell your story. Perhaps your story is best told in traditional writing; maybe it is a story best told orally, among friends or family; it could even be a story that uses images or technology. By creating your own story in this unit, you will be negotiating a distinct rhetorical situation. As you learn techniques and concepts for effective storytelling, so too will you practice asking the critical questions of any rhetorical situation. Also we believe that storytelling and developing a clear voice are vital for success as writers in most situations.

The following section explores three useful rhetorical tools —description, narration, and reflection—that often contribute to effective storytelling. Each section will provide techniques and activities to help you decide which stories you can tell and the ways in which you can tell them. The assignment at the end of this section, a descriptive personal narrative essay, encourages you to synthesize all three rhetorical tools to share one of your stories in writing.

16.2.1 Describing a Scene or Experience

We have been programmed to overlook tiny but striking details: the slight gradation in color of cement on the bus stop curb; the hum of the air conditioner or fluorescent lights; the weight and texture of a pen in the crook of the hand. These details, though, make experiences, people, and places unique. By focusing on the particular, we can interrupt automatization.1 We can become radical noticers by practicing good description.
In a great variety of rhetorical situation, description is an essential rhetorical mode. Our minds latch onto detail and specificity, so effective description can help us experience a story, understand an analysis, and nuance a critical argument. Each of these situations requires a different kind of description; this chapter focuses on the vivid, image-driven descriptive language that you would use for storytelling.

We believe storytelling is the place you will bring yourself to writing and develop your voice as a writer. Some instructors have traditionally thought that narrative has little place in academic writing. As students you should determine your instructors’ position on this issue.


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Expression and Inquiry by Christopher Manning; Sally Pierce; and Melissa Lucken is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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