Those three words are often repeated without being really explained, so they become noise. This writer’s bumper sticker is supposed to mean, “let the reader experience the story and make their own judgements, so they feel they live it through the viewpoint character, rather than you predigesting the matter and only giving them summaries of action or your summation of the characters.”
Fiction written to be read and storytelling, especially for children, diverge here. Oral storytelling uses Tell, because that’s more concise and it is a less immersive art. Listeners know they are hearing someone else tell them the story, and don’t expect close identification. Contemporary fiction emphasizes getting the readers to forget the author and themselves and move into the character’s skin. The major tool for this is Showing rather than Telling.
Tell: He awoke, and looked up through the branches of an alien tree at an alien sky.
Show: Rolling over in his sleeping bag, cursing a rock under his hip, he let his eyes ease open in the filtered light. Above him, dull yellow branches, like bark-covered beads on pipes, supported clusters of red feathers–if the feathers were cut from hologram paper. Beyond, greenish sky shimmered, as if trying to come into focus but constantly failing.
The first orders us to believe the tree and sky are alien, without telling us how the character knows they are alien. Baobabs or banyans can look pretty bizarre if you’re only used to temperate-zone trees. The second presents the evidence, and we decide, “Wow, that’s alien!” That alone makes it more intense and immediate for us: we reacted to a situation and reached a conclusion. The reader participated in the character’s experience.
Notice, too, how sensory information loads the Show, rather than abstract conclusions. We feel the hard ground implied by the rock, rather than Hanging in Formless Space as “he awoke.” We are inside the character’s skin, not just hearing about this third-hand. When we live as an alter ego in the story, tension increases because threats of failure are threats to us. Everything matters more. As long as you don’t cause the readers to pull themselves out of the story, you have a stronger piece of work.
Do note Cherryh’s Law: Never follow any rule over a cliff. There are times Telling is much better than Showing, but you need to hone your sense of when to do each.
Your checklist for when to be sure to Show:
- The story opens, to get us in the character’s skin.
- Moments of high drama.
- Pivotal interactions change the plot’s direction, whether battles or discussions or just inner epiphanies.
In short, the reader wants to be there for the good stuff.