|Courtesy of chidsey|
One of the first things I learned when I started working toward writing professionally was the old adage show, don't tell. And since then, I've repeated it many times as I've critiqued and done beta reads. (Actually, I've modified it a bit so I say something more like, show more here where I think showing would deepen the impact of the scene.)
But like all the rules of writing, I think show, don't tell is more about balance than choosing one thing or the other. There will be some places in the story where telling works more effectively than showing, but the trick is figuring out which ones. This all goes back to taking a step back and looking at the story objectively so you can see what the story needs where.
In my opinion, showing and telling are at opposite ends on a spectrum with many varying degrees of each in between. The key to writing an effective scene is to find the degree that works strongest for the story.
What's the Difference?
According to Brown and King in their Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, telling is ". . . a narrative summary, with no specific setting or characters." The reader is told what has happened rather than living it along with the characters.
Showing, on the other hand, engages the reader in specifics, often while employing the five senses. Many writers do well when it comes to sight, but for me at least, I often forget about smells and the sense of touch when I'm showing a scene. And yet a person's sense of smell is closely linked with memory and could be used every bit as powerfully as the sense of sight.
When to Show
I would say that it's safe to show most of the story most of the time. A good story engages a reader, allows them to slip into the characters' skins and see life through another person's eyes. Showing, making the reader feel the heart pounding terror the character is experiencing is one of the most effective ways to do that. It brings the story alive in a way that is deeply personal to the reader.
The key point to remember when showing is that the amount of time you spend showing something or someone is going to determine the importance of the object, event, or character the reader. A rule of thumb for me is that if I'm going to show something, it's got to matter to the story.
When to Tell
There are some times when telling is more effective then showing something happening in the scene. As you go through your manuscript, pay special attention to your gut and what it's telling you the story needs. 9 times out of 10, your gut is right.
The times when I tell are usually determined by the scene, the importance and relevance for what is happening in the scene, and the pacing.
For example, the characters are gathered in the hearth room when one of them notices the painting above the fireplace, specifically the necklace the woman in the painting is wearing. For each person, let's say there's five, in the room, the necklace brings back a different memory which, in turn, arouses different emotions.
Showing all of this would draw out the scene when maybe what the story needs is a short, snappy bridge to set up for the murder that occurs. So, rather than dwelling on each part of each memory (let's say we're either in an omniscient POV or a character is observing the other people in the room), I'll only focus on the ones that matter most overall for the story.
Then the murder happens and the pacing speeds up. This is where I'd use shorter, somewhat choppier sentences that do a little more telling and a little less showing. How much of each would depend on what the story needed the scene to be. The important thing here would be to make sure that the showing and the telling complement each other and work hand in hand to convey the story with the most power possible.
Because that, I believe, is what all writers are aiming for--transmitting the thoughts, pictures, and ideas in their heads to someone else's through words.