Spatial Order in Composition

Spatial order
"Behind the garage was a barn that appeared to have seen better days, and a small empty paddock." (Mariah Stewart, Dead End, 2005). William Morris / EyeEm / Getty Images

In composition, spatial order is a method of organization in which details are presented as they are (or were) located in space — such as, from left to right or from top to bottom. Also known as order of place or space structure, spatial order describes things as they appear when observed — in descriptions of places and objects, spatial order determines the perspective from which readers observe the details.

David S. Hogsette points out in "Writing That Makes Sense" that "technical writers may use spatial order to explain how a mechanism works; architects use spatial order to describe a building design; [and] food critics reviewing a new restaurant use spatial order to describe and evaluate the dining area."

As opposed to chronological order or other organizational methods for data, spatial order ignores time and focuses primarily on location, as seen in David Sedaris' description of a Nudist Trailer Park or in this comparison essay by Sarah Vowell.

Transitions for Spatial Order

A spatial order comes with a set of transitive words and phrases that help writers and speakers distinguish between parts of the spatial ordering of a paragraph or argument, of which include above, alongside, behind, beneath, beyond down, farther along, in back, in front, near or nearby, on top of, to the left or right of, under and up.

Like the words first, next and finally function in a chronological organization, these spatial transitions help guide a reader spatially through a paragraph, especially those used for descriptions of scene and setting in prose and poetry. 

For instance, one might start with describing a field as a whole but then focus in on individual details as they relate to one another in the setting. The well is next to the apple tree, which is behind the barn. Further down the field is a stream, beyond which lies another lush meadow with three cows grazing near a perimeter fence.

Appropriate Use of Spatial Order

The best place to use spatial organization is in descriptions of scene and setting, but it can also be utilized when giving instructions or directions. In any case, the logical progression of one thing as it relates to another in a scene or setting provides an advantage to using this type of organization when writing about a setting.

However, this also provides the disadvantage of making all items described within a scene carry the same intrinsic weight to their importance. By using a spatial order to organize a description, it becomes hard for the writer to ascribe more importance to say the dilapidated farmhouse in a full detailing of a farm scene.

As a result, using spatial order to organize all descriptions is not advised. Sometimes it is important for the writer to only point out the most important details of a scene or setting, giving emphasis to things like the bullet hole in a glass window on the front of a house instead of describing every detail of the scene in order to convey the idea that the home is not in a safe neighborhood.

Writers should, therefore, determine the intention of describing a scene or occurrence before deciding which organization method to use when presenting the piece. Although the use of spatial order is quite common with scene descriptions, sometimes chronological or even just stream-of-consciousness is a better method of organization to convey a certain point.