To understand all of this, I think it’s important to first know the difference between the two.
Telling relates to a more fact-based sentence. A piece of information, told in a no-nonsense way.
Showing will use the different senses (see, hear, taste, smell, feel) to draw the reader in. Ultimately, it will create the experience for the reader—as if they are right there with the main character in the story. It’s related to thoughts, emotions, senses and actions.
While telling is usually not considered a good thing, sometimes you still need this in your story to get from point A to B. I also believe if you would show everything in your story… well, you’d have trouble staying within the word count guidelines for whatever genre you’re writing in.
To show you the difference between telling and showing, I’m going to use some examples from my YA contemporary Under The Dark Clouds.
Telling: “April threw the bottle out of the window.”
Showing: “April hit the button to roll down her window and chucked the bottle out. It hit the earth with a loud crunch and burst into uncountable pieces, glass and liquor alike splaying in different directions.”
Telling: “The trailer was in a bad condition.”
Showing: “Steps were broken, paint was peeling off, rust was everywhere, and the windows were so dirty April doubted you could see anything through them.”
Telling: “April panicked.”
Showing: “April’s palms were sweating, and her heartbeat sped up as she saw the first debris of the town flying in the air through the rearview mirror. Black spots dotted her vision, and a scream sounded—”
Now, all ‘telling’ examples don’t tell you much. It leaves a lot open. If you have a good imagination, you can fill in the details and create your own picture. But that’s not what writing is about—you want to transfer that image you have in your head to paper, only for the readers to rebuild it in their heads.
I used different senses to create this image. The first has hear and see. The second creates a vivid image of what the trailer looks like, and the third should make you feel like you’re having a panic attack of your own, or, at the very least, can imagine what April is going through.
Telling: “Flower was angry.”
You don’t need the actual word to show that she’s angry.
Showing: “A sharp breath hissed out between her teeth; her blood boiled as she kicked the table, not caring that her foot throbbed with sharp pain each time it connected with the wood. She would not marry a complete stranger.”
(The above is not from Under The Dark Clouds, although Flower is one of my main characters. She certainly wouldn't agree to marrying a stranger, though!)
It uses a combination of senses, actions and thoughts to show you that she is, indeed, very angry, and doesn’t agree with whoever decided she’d marry a stranger.
Now that we know the difference and have seen some examples, the next question is: how do you decide?
As said at the beginning, telling is more fact-based. You might need it to cover some ground, transition from one scene to another, etc. In those cases, it’s okay to tell rather than show.
To decide if you’re balancing this correctly, put on your reader’s hat. Look at your scene. Can you picture the setting? The way a corner of a mouth lifts when your character smiles? How his or her brow creases when they frown? Details are important—but you don’t want to overload. You don’t have to describe it every time, and certainly not everything. Instead, feed it to your reader in pieces. Let them build the character in their head as they read your book.
If you get bored reading what you wrote, chances are you’re not creating a vivid image. Think about the setting. Where are they? What does it look like? What time is it, and how does that influence the weather?
It all comes down to that balance—a balance that is not only connected to showing vs. telling, but also to dialogue vs. story, the length and flow of your sentences, story development vs. action scenes.
Telling vs. showing requires a fine balance, one I think you will always try to improve as you keep developing yourself as a writer. If you tell too much, no one will be invested in your story. But if you show too much, your story is going to be too long—and too slow.