I have heard "show, don't tell," at least a thousand times from writing teachers, gurus, workshop leaders, etc. However, just like those who warn against hyperbole (*w*), these teachers often didn't bother to explain what they mean by "show" or "tell," or why one is preferred over the other.
I think as students taught to be writers of nonfiction, we are trained to write summaries so much that we assume that shortcuts are not actually twisty weedy tracks, but the main roads of good writing. We begin to apply these shortcuts to our own writing instead of creating something memorable.
For example: "He was sad."
When we tell our readers how our characters (fictional or not) are feeling, we are being lazy. No one is going to remember that sentence, and they won't feel sad, either.
On the other hand: "He snuffled into a tissue damp with tears as he stared with wet eyes at his dead dog."
Here the writer does NOT tell how the character is feeling, but it is evident. In fact, not only do you know that the character is sad, you know how sad, for how long (enough to wet at least one tissue) and why. Plus, if you've ever had a pet die, you instantly empathize with the character.
Make your words work. The second passage does so much more than state a feeling: it gives action (crying), it gives a character sketch (he loved the dog), and it implies a story (why is the dog dead?). And it's only one sentence. One sentence that doesn't TELL you that the man is sad. It SHOWS you how he's feeling.
I am reading Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, Second Edition: How to Edit Yourself Into Print by Renni Browne and Dave King, which I am finding useful. (I will post a link to it in the sidebar). I like their concept of "RUE," which is "Resist the Urge to Explain." Simply, let your characters move, and don't explain why.
In non-fiction, the onus is on the writer to spell out his meaning to the reader. In fiction, the writer gives hints to meaning and the reader spells it out for herself. This is why two people can have wildly different interpretations of fiction (as they do for art, music and other art forms). The art is in the ambiguity. Let the ambiguity be, but leave me a trail of fat breadcrumbs in the forest.
Your prompt for today is to look at a piece of your writing and find a spot where you have told the reader how a character is feeling. Re-write that scene without the emotion words, and make the character do something that reveals how she is feeling.
Please post your exercises to the comments below.
Go write! Have fun!