The cliche advice is “show don’t tell” because most beginning writers start off telling too much. And that can be boring–unless the writing is really, really, really great. There are places where telling can be useful–but you want to know the difference between the two.
This is telling the reader information: He was angry.
There is nothing wrong with that sentences. Except it doesn’t really show your character in action and doesn’t reveal characterization. An actor would take this and use it in a movie to SHOW more–does his guy get quite when he’s angry, does he yell, does he press his mouth flat and ball up a fist, does he punch someone, does the pulse jump in his jaw, does he smile? All those little details would SHOW the character expressing anger–and suddenly the character becomes more vivid to the reader–the character becomes more real. Which is what every writer (and reader) wants.
This is also telling the reader information: The sun was hot.
Again, that’s a perfectly valid sentence. And you may want those short beats and the punch in that sentence. But hot in Texas is a different hot than Death Valley in California and both of those are a different hot from the hot in Orlando, Florida. So if you want to put the reader into that world, you want to SHOW the heat. As in:
Heat waves lifted from the black top that stretched like a pencil line east and west. Shading his eyes from the glare, Joe scanned the highway. Freeways they called them here. Empty, he thought. To either side, baked land stretched to purple mountains and thin bushes struggled to stay upright. Not even enough water for a tree–or a cactus. Joe wet dry, cracking lips. Sweat trickled down his back and off his temples. His shoulders slumped. He would kill for a cold beer. But he had half a plastic bottle of warm water and a broken down Chevy truck that was turning into an oven.
Now the reader can FEEL that heat–they’ve got a parched mouth, too, just like Joe, because this layers in enough details to really SHOW Joe feeling that kind of dry, dusty desert heat.
But notice that showing takes more words–a short story is a place to tell a little more, but a novel gives you room to show. Telling can also help smooth transitions of time or place. And telling is the best way to get a synopsis done.
So show more where you need emotion and to pull the reader into the story, and use the telling in places where you need to compress time or distance. Use the tools the way that works best for your story.
And for more about showing and telling, I’m doing an online workshop next month (in June) for Heart of Carolina Romance Writers.
Good points. I think writers like Hemingway were very adept at showing (rather than telling) in the limited space of a short story. The trick is to choose a select amount of visceral details that can do the same amount of work as a paragraph’s worth of thick description.