“Show, don’t tell” is easily the most common of all writer’s-class clichés—right up there with “Write what you know” and “Don’t depend on your mom for criticism”. (That last one might work if your mom was Doris Lessing, but you get the idea.)
What I’ve discovered over time, though, is that “Show, don’t tell” is at best misquoted and at worst slightly misleading. For me, the choice isn’t between showing and telling alone, but when each is appropriate for the circumstances. A better way to put it would be “Show when you can, tell when you must”.
Much of my thinking about this issue was spawned by this post wherein C.E. Murphy demonstrated showing vs. telling. I opined that both had their place depending on the circumstances. One example that came to mind after the fact is the first two chapters of Anne Tyler’s The Accidental Tourist. The first chapter shows us Macon and Sarah’s marriage in its final stages during a tense conversation in the car (“Macon, I want a divorce,” Sarah told him); the second tells us a welter of details of what life is like in the house after Sarah leaves (The windows shrank. The ceilings lowered. There was something insistent about the furniture, as if it were pressing in on him).
You could probably respond by saying that both of these are “show”, not “tell”, because a “tell” here would have consisted of something like Macon and Sarah broke up early that year … True enough. But as with many other things, the context is what sets the two apart. In the larger context of the book, one classifies as “show” and the other “tell”. Each one also has their own context: it helped to first show us the marriage up close, and then tell us details about how things had been before, and why things fell apart. That way we get something specific and immediate to begin with, and then have that expanded outwards to enrich our understanding of the whole.
I’m going to try to come up with some more examples in the future.