The ‘show, don’t tell’ rules is probably one of the first bits of advice a new writer gets. It’s generally illustrated with an example along the lines of, don’t write “he got angry”, write “he clenched his fists and shouted”.
There’s nothing wrong with this advice, of course. The details help establish character, create atmosphere and draw the reader in. As a reader, I like being guided through skilful scenes to the conclusions I should be making rather than being informed of them; as a writer, I like putting together dialogue and actions and seeing if the reader works out what I intended them to work out (or works something else out entirely, also interesting).
The problem comes when you take it too far. I’ve been flat-out told by an editor that he would rather I just told him what the characters were thinking/feeling instead of hinting (ie showing). Right or wrong, I was making him work too hard when reading that particular story.
In the writing process itself, there’s a sort of paralysis that too tight an adherence to this rule can cause. I can’t count the number of times I’ve started a paragraph and been stopped in place: no, I can’t write that, I’m just telling what he’s feeling, not showing (that’s when ‘just keep going’ comes into its own…)
To combat this feeling, as a big fan of well-written SF and Fantasy and a sometimes-reluctant reader of so-called literary fiction, I invite all genre writers to pick up a literary novel, any literary novel, and tell me those authors don’t happily tell rather than show when it suits the story.
The prime example that springs to mind for me is Sebastian Faulkes’s Birdsong. Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s fantastically well-written and I gulped down those first 100 pages in particular, but there is a lot of telling going on – skilful, deliberate, well-chosen telling.
Show, don’t tell, is a useful rule of thumb, but don’t be afraid to break it when your story demands it. Just make sure what you choose to tell is just as good as what you choose to show.