In the past I simply framed discussions of show vs tell as a way to make my writing “better”. On the surface, it’s easy to understand why showing is often superior to telling—showing is more engaging and it often just plain reads better. There. My writing is better when I show.
But there’s more to it than the prosaic choice to show. Showing is your opportunity to give the reader the chance to experience a satisfying chemical reward in their brain. The mind absolutely lives to correlate information, and by allowing the reader to have moments that do this, they grow engaged. If you tell them instead of show them, you’ve made them skip the whole subconscious process of discovery, and they don’t even know what they just missed out on until they’re feeling generally unsatisfied with the story’s ability to engage them.
The experience the reader is having is fundamentally different than yours. You’re building every word with some notion of the word or sentence that comes next, but the reader is being pulled through the dark maze without that insight.
It is your job as the writer to build an experience worth having, not just to write one that was worth it to you personally to write.
Nobody should tell you to stop writing for yourself if that’s what you do, but consider what it looks like to transform your writing into a higher form of art: go from writing and hoping others like it to designing experiences from page one.
Put what the reader needs in front of them, then help them see what it is you intend for them to see. You’ll have to judge where the line for just being obtuse is, but if you can play on the side of the line that feels rewarding, your reader will be made more willing to follow you deeper into your book.
Make me fall in love with Good Gal if that’s what you’re going to claim happens for Good Guy. Let me see the details of how she behaves even when she doesn’t know he can see. You should strive to do more than report to us that Good Guy think’s she possesses this or that trait. Color his view of what she does in a way that makes us think for ourselves that he must really like her.
If a scene description ends with the author’s declaration that “Something was wrong”, take away that declaration and see if the description manages to convey that all by itself. If it doesn’t, get to the bottom of why. Is it because we haven’t seen enough of how things look normally to judge for ourselves when they look wrong? Is it because you’re not getting specific enough with the details of what makes things look wrong? It may be incorrect to withhold the declaration, but don’t rely on it to carry the whole of the nuance. That’s telling, not showing. Design an experience for the reader to have.
Coloring the world through the character’s eyes is perhaps the most potent tool for showing aspects of their personality, background, temperament, state of mind, etc. Even transient details of the character’s state of mind are often more powerfully represented in colored perception than just reporting to the reader that Good Gal is getting generically nervous. It’s so easy to rattle off description of setting or of other characters without giving appropriate weight to the character’s voice, but we can almost always do better than that. You can conceivably go too far with character voice, but I would rather work at toning down a voice than to amplify one that doesn’t really exist due to a lack of care on my part.
So there. Show, don’t always just tell. The advice is the same old advice we always hear, but really internalize what it means to build an experience for a reader with whom you want to share a story.