“Show, don’t tell.” This is a particularly common advice from any writing teacher, but what does it mean exactly?
Showing something, like a feeling or a trait of the character’s personality through an action, instead of just describing them, is much more interesting and vivid for the reader, who will more easily feel as he or she is inside the story, watching what’s happening or taking place, instead of merely reading about it. That said, it is usually preferable to say that the character’s heart is exploding rather than just say that he’s afraid of something.
For your readers, this will provides them the possibility of imagining every single thing, as if it was standing, or happening, right there in front of them, creating empathy with your characters and making your reader feel all sort of things while reading your story.
However, it’s important that your choices make sense and are understandable for the readers. Extremely erratic behavior, for instance, must make sense in the story, otherwise, the readers will feel confused and easily grow tired.
So, we should never tell?
Not exactly. When you’re writing something, you always have a goal. The importance of a scene, what you want the readers to feel, imagine, or know… these are all things you need to keep in mind and take into consideration.
Sometimes, you just want to give a quick bit of detail about the character, for example, his profession. If this isn’t the most relevant, or if it is but you don’t want the reader to realize that just yet, then just merely tell. There’s no need to be very descriptive or imagine a huge or insanely intricate scene regarding such minor, passing, information.
Showing is however very important and you should choose it when your goal is making the readers feel something. Also, it’s a good way to get their attention or catch them off guard. If you’re doing it right, it will get them to focus on the details you specifically want them to pay attention to.