Spatial Description

Think about your childhood home, or a particular place where you spent a lot of time growing up. Could you describe that space to someone who has never been there? What would you say to try to make them feel as though they were standing in it now, seeing it for themselves? 

Spatial Description Spatial Description

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    There are many ways to describe something; this example does not ask you to describe how the space makes you feel, how it smells, or even how it changed as home decor trends came and went. This exercise asks you to provide a spatial description.

    Definition of Spatial Description

    A spatial description explains things with sensory details as they appear when observed. The focus is on location, based on physical details and using spatial order to create a logical flow.

    Spatial order, also called order of place or space structure, is an organizational tool used to describe where things are located in space.

    Spatial description, then, is a way to describe something using spatial order as a means of organizing. Here’s an example of spatial order used to describe someone’s childhood bedroom:

    When you walk in the door, you’ll see a boy band poster featuring a large headshot of Justin Timberlake on the opposite wall. Immediately to your right is a tall dresser with a massive, plastic boom box on top, the side of which reflects the orange light of a lava lamp beside it. Just beyond that is a closet door; if you open it, you’ll find a lumpy bean bag and camping lantern set up in the corner as a makeshift reading nook.

    The description could go on, but you get the point.

    Spatial knowledge comes from the senses, primarily sight, sound, and touch. A thorough description of space uses details associated with senses to explain how things are related in the space. Notice in the example how the description explained the items in the room as they related to each other (e.g., “Immediately to the right…” etc.).

    Another thing to note about spatial description is that it is tied to the author's or speaker's perspective. The author might be a character in a story or an impartial, fly-on-the-wall narrator, but the description will be filtered through their perspective.

    Spatial Description, Definition of Spatial Description, Classroom with Desks, StudySmarterFig. 1. You can describe a single space or event in a variety of ways, depending on the perspective of the writer.

    For example, a description of a classroom by the teacher versus the student might sound drastically different. While one might focus on carefully selected decor and entertaining manipulatives strategically set out for student enrichment, the other might only describe rows of hard wooden desks and closed windows and doors.

    Purpose of Spatial Order

    The way text is organized tells a lot about what the author thinks is important. For example, if an author is writing a short story and uses spatial order to describe a scene, then we can infer that the location, or something in it, bears some significance. Spatial order is known as a principle of organization, which are ways an author can emphasize certain aspects of their writing to express the purpose of the text itself.

    Principles of organization are a logical pattern to help arrange information in a way that makes the most sense for the purpose of the text.

    There are four main principles of organization:

    1. Spatial order – Creates a vivid image of space and location by arranging things according to their physical placement.

    1. Chronological order – Chronological order is also called linear order or time order because it denotes a movement through time in one forward direction.

    1. Climactic order – Also called order of importance, this method arranges items according to least to most significant. Order of importance leaves the most critical item for last, as it will be the last thing the audience hears or reads and will leave an impression.

    1. Topical order – Connects details by topic, or figurative relationships. Best used when the topic doesn’t lend itself to an arrangement by time, space, or order of importance.

    There are no rules for which type of order to use to best convey ideas. The author should decide how to arrange the writing based on what they would like to emphasize. Think, for example, of a parade; someone could describe it in chronological order by explaining the order of floats and events or in climactic order by describing their favorite floats. It simply depends on which aspect of the parade they would like to emphasize.

    Because the main purpose of spatial order is to set a scene, it is an effective way to order narration if the author wants the setting to carry a particular meaning. Spatial order orients the audience in a particular space so that they feel as though they are there.

    Because spatial order creates vivid imagery in the reader's mind, it is also useful in giving instructions or directions.

    Spatially Descriptive Writing

    While creative writing is one logical place to use spatial description, it is also useful in descriptive essays. When writing an essay meant to describe a location or space, spatial order will undoubtedly be the preferred principle of organization.

    In a spatially descriptive essay, you might arrange your body paragraphs according to the objects you describe and in what order you wish to describe them.

    Introduction

    • Introduce topic

    • Thesis: Climate change is the fuel for wildfires that are changing the landscape of the United States

    Body paragraph 1:

    • Massive wildfires are scorching the Western US

      • Killing livestock and farmland

      • Destroying entire residential and commercial buildings

    Body paragraph 2:

    • There are more wildfires in the Eastern US (including the Midwest states), but they are smaller and don’t burn as many acres.

      • Warmer, drier conditions due to climate change make it easier for wildfires to occur, even in places that are not historically prone to them.

      • Human negligence is the leading cause of wildfires.

    This example takes the topic of wildfires and describes them according to zones in the United States. The body paragraphs can go into greater detail about the effects on the landscape due to the prevalent wildfires.

    Spatial Order Signal Words

    Just as the words first, next, and last function to move the action forward in chronological order, there are words that signal movement in spatial order. These signal words and phrases are almost exclusively prepositions.

    Prepositions are words that denote a relation to another word with respect to space or location, as in “He looked under the table.”

    Spatial Description, Spatially Descriptive Writing, Four Traffic Signals, StudySmarterFig. 2. Signal words give hints about what to expect from a text. Spatial description signal words tell you that you're reading a spatial description.

    Here are just a few common examples of spatial signal words:

    • Above

    • Behind

    • Along

    • Beside

    • Under

    • Below

    • On top of

    • Nearby

    A word of caution: spatial order should be used sparingly; otherwise, the reader could get burdened by the constant use of descriptive language. Imagine if the novel you’re reading is written entirely about the physical things the main character sees and experiences. At some point, it would become tiresome to read.

    Also, spatial descriptions can be a distraction if they’re overused. Because spatial description emphasizes the physical details, then the overuse of it will reduce the importance of each detail. If everything is emphasized, then nothing feels significant.

    How to Write a Spatial Description

    Whether you’re writing a descriptive essay or an instruction manual, once you decide to write a spatial description, the first thing is to think about the situation from the reader’s perspective. What do you want them to see? What do they need to understand?

    Once you know the goal (i.e., whatever it is you want the reader to see), you can choose a starting point. Pick a spot in the space and begin describing how everything else relates to the starting point in an orderly, logical progression. You can move left to right, up to down, or in any other physical direction that makes sense for your description. You may even begin by describing something in its entirety, then breaking it down and describing it detail by detail.

    Spatial Description Examples

    Read these two examples from literature and pay close attention to how the authors use spatial description to allow you, the reader, to experience the details of their stories.

    This example is another description of a home: Barton Cottage, which is new residence of the Dashwood family in Sense and Sensibility (1811), written by Jane Austen.

    The situation of the house was good. High hills rose immediately behind, and at no great distance on each side; some of which were open downs, the others cultivated and woody. The village of Barton was chiefly on one of those hills, and formed a pleasant view from the cottage windows. The prospect in front was more extensive; it commanded the whole of the valley, and reached into the country beyond. (Ch. 6)

    This passage uses words and phrases like “behind,” “on each side,” and “beyond,” which are classic spatial description signals. This description of the land around the cottage is effective because it uses spatial order to organize the details, which helps the reader envision the space.

    The following example comes from The Great Gatsby (1925) by F. Scott Fitzgerald:

    Their house was even more elaborate than I expected, a cheerful red-and-white Georgian Colonial mansion, overlooking the bay. The lawn started at the beach and ran toward the front door for a quarter of a mile, jumping over sun-dials and brick walks and burning gardens — finally when it reached the house drifting up the side in bright vines as though from the momentum of its run. The front was broken by a line of French windows, glowing now with reflected gold and wide open to the warm windy afternoon, and Tom Buchanan in riding clothes was standing with his legs apart on the front porch. (Ch. 1)

    This description of the Buchannan's home is a unique case of spatial description. Fitzgerald doesn't use many of the typical words to signal spatial order—instead, the description is worded as though the reader's eyes are moving over the space. He says the lawn "ran toward the front door" "jump[ed] over sun-dials and brick walls and burning gardens" until it "reached the house." This is a creative use of spatial description.

    Spatial Description - Key Takeaways

    • A spatial description explains things with sensory details as they appear when observed.
    • The focus of spatial description is location, based on physical details and using spatial order to create a logical flow.
    • Spatial order, also called order of place or space structure, is an organizational tool used to describe where things are located in space.
    • Spatially descriptive writing is appropriate for descriptive essays or anytime you want to create a vivid image for the reader.
    • Spatial description signal words and phrases are almost exclusively prepositions.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Spatial Description

    What is the spatial method of writing?

    Writing with a spatial method means explaining things with sensory details as they appear when observed. The focus is on location, based on physical details and using spatial order to create a logical flow. 

    What is an example of spatial order?

    Here is an example of spatial order:

    The fiction section in the library is upstairs, in the wing on the left. Go through the big doors, and you’ll see a series of shelves to the right beside the large window. 

    What is the importance of spatial order in writing?

    Spatial order is important because it is an organizational tool used to describe where things are located in space.

    How do you start a spatial essay?

    Once you know the goal (i.e., whatever it is you want the reader to see) then you can choose a starting point. Pick a spot in the space and begin describing how everything else relates to the starting point in an orderly, logical progression.

    What are the four principles of organization in descriptive writing?

    The four principles of organization in descriptive writing are spatial order, chronological order, topical order, and climactic order.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    ________, also called order of place or space structure, is an organizational tool used to describe where things are located in space.

    True or false: Spatial descriptions are necessarily tied to the perspective of the author or narrator. 

    Which principle of organization is missing?1. Chronological order2. Spatial order3. Topical order4.

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