After dropping the idea in an abstract fashion into the last post, let me provide some context for those reading and not used to idea as it applies to writing.
For years, dating back to my earliest fiction writing classes “show don’t tell” was a phrase thrown about during the workshops but was usually defined vaguely at best. It often went something like, “This part here is okay, but it might work better if you show more than you tell.” As a novice, I heard the basic idea behind the phrase but understood it more as “add more adjectives” and failed to really understand it at an intuitive level until much later. It took me attending a writer’s workshop (again with the Uncle Orson reference) to really get a clearer understanding of why this is a sticking point concept for newer writers.
Telling is natural. Everyone tells stories. Every. One. When you’re out with your friends pause (mentally) long enough to listen to what’s actually being said and you’ll hear them. “This happened to me at work…” or “The other day at the gym…” Telling. Because you know the speaker, you know some of the context of the story – maybe the location being used, some of the people – you can follow the events without having to stop often and go, “Wait, what? I need more exposition.”
Physically being present while someone is relaying a story is a passive relationship – you have that opportunity to ask questions or to connect with the emotional delivery of the speaker. Watching a well-acted play or movie can deliver much the same response because you have the opportunity to pick up on subtlties of character or context of location.
Reading fiction, however, is a much more active experience insofar as if it’s not written down the reader doesn’t have the chance to experience it. It’s the power of the reader’s connection with the story experience that determines how well the narrative ultimately works.
Look at it another way, think back to your days as a kid. How many times were you told by someone – a parent, teacher, older sibling – not to do something. They could even tell you why you shouldn’t do something – touch an active burner on the stove is a classic example, becuase it will hurt – but until you actually did it, experienced the moment of searing pain as the soft pink flesh of your finger touched the spiraled metal coil, do you actually understand what they were telling you.
Showing is the act of presenting the story, stretching the moments out and providing necessary details so the reader comes away having lived the experience of the story without having the scars from the stove top.
Classic example: Telling: John was angry.
Showing: John’ paced the floor, his arms shaking as he repeatedly clenched and opened his fists.
Yes, showing may involve adjectives, but ones very specific to the intended vibe and tome of the storyones, not lines of bloated purple-prose intended to add layer upon layer of paint on the canvas so the image eventually gets lost. It’s painting with subtlties instead of definites. It’s giving the readers the chance to experience the world for themselves. It’s breathing life into the otherwise inanimate.