How to Build Meaning Through Description: Thoughts on “Show, Don’t Tell”

Beginning writers are often given the advice “Show, Don’t Tell,” meaning that the writer should utilize the five senses, sight, smell, sound, taste and touch in descriptions. This typically works very well, except for the times that it does not.

We’ve all read those pieces where the writer has taken this idea too far. Long sections of description break up the narrative, and ultimately wear out the reader. So, what has gone wrong?

In my opinion the difference lies in the meaning that lies behind the description.

A reader doesn’t need to be told that a general’s military uniform has medals or shiny buttons. A reader can safely infer that from their past experience with military uniforms. On the other hand, the lack of shiny buttons or medals, or the general’s wheezing cough, could be more meaningful to the reader and the story as a whole.

In short, your descriptions should be driven by a deeper meaning that can be inferred by the reader. Your descriptions can be symbolic in-and-of themselves.

And don’t forget the other four senses! While smell, taste, touch and sound are senses that are more passively used, subtle changes in these environmental conditions can be very meaningful to your readers.

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