When I first started writing, ‘show don’t tell’ was one of the first rules I came across. It seemed straight forward enough; don’t tell the reader what is going on in the scene, show it. A simple rule which takes a bit of practise before you crack it. So, rather than saying ‘he was angry’ describe how his face was flushed, his voice raised, with a vein pulsing on the side of his head. It gets your reader closer to the action and helps them picture the scene.
I imagine it as the opposite of watching a film. When you watch a film it’s all about the showing. You see a character pacing the floor, anxiously looking towards a door and checking his watch and you know he’s waiting for something or someone. As a writer you have to reverse this process. You know your character is cold, for example, so show her pulling her hood around her ears then plunging her hands into her pockets. Make it read like watching a film, make the reader work out what your character is feeling, make your reader feel it themselves.
Some examples might help:
Telling: Sidney was a bully.
Showing: Sidney took out a safety pin, then, looking the boy right in the eye, popped his balloon. As the boy howled, Sidney carefully put the safety pin back into his pocket. He might need it again.
Telling: It was a winter’s evening.
Showing: Snow swirled in the spotlight of the street lamp.
Telling: Talia was excited.
Showing: Talia was at the window, hopping from one foot to the other. “How much longer?” she asked her mum for the 47th time since lunch.
Showing usually takes longer to say than telling. For a while I used to tell and then show, as if I didn’t believe in my ability to show, but after it was pointed out to me (several times!) I started to trust that what I was showing was enough for the reader.
However, as with all rules, there are times when it can be broken. If you were to show every detail in a story, then it would become unwieldy, and the emphasis on important scenes would be lost in all the showing. Sometimes for the unimportant bits, telling can impart details quickly. For example: ‘A week later, after the chicken pox spots had scabbed over and the itching had stopped, Kirsty returned to school.’ We don’t need to relive that week moment by moment if it’s not vital to the story. It tells the reader all they need to know and the story can carry on without the pace dropping.
If you’re still not sure how this works, try doing some exercises where you ‘translate’ phrases from telling to showing. How about the next book you read, notice where the author has used showing and where telling. Question why she has used showing in some places and telling in others. As with everything writing-related, your showing and telling will improve with reading and writing.