My guess would be that you dislike this phrase as much as I do. I would imagine most writers dislike hearing this when it comes to their work. Probably as much as editors and teachers dislike rehashing this over and over. This subject is probably one of the most discussed of all writing issues.
From the editing done on a few of my novels, I’ve heard this phrase over and over. At first, I was not sure what it even meant so I asked and did some research on the subject. My daughter taught me how to show & not tell. In the novels I have written since my first, I know I still make this mistake, even though I should know better. Thankfully it is not as often. I’m sure I’ll always do some of this in my writing but it is nice when it is brought to my attention. It gives me the opportunity to make my writing even better and to create a much richer scenario for my readers.
An example of show, don’t tell could be the following:
James grabbed a frozen meal, tossed it in the microwave, and zapped it. Once it finished cooking, he grabbed his dinner and took it to the couch to catch the news while he ate.
The sentence works, it explains James's dinner prep and what he did while eating. It gets the point across, plain and simple. Here is an example to show this same scene showing instead of telling:
The grind of the car biz was getting to James. Another long day, dealing with people that only wanted to haggle for an hour, without a sale to show for all that exhaustive back and forth. He was tired and by the time he got home, the desire to cook dinner for himself had evaporated. Reaching into the freezer, he pulled out a Stouffers frozen meal of Chicken Marsala in brown gravy. Yum.
As the meal cooked in the microwave, James grabbed silverware, ripped a paper towel from the roll, and grabbed an ice-cold beer from the fridge. The timer beeped and James removed his meal from the microwave. Grabbing the tray, he ended up doing the fumbling, quick dance to the counter to drop the nuclear hot plastic tray of Chicken Marsala. “Owwww, goddammit!” he yelped and ran his fingers under the cold water of the tap. Once he dried his hands, he used an oven mitt to carry his food out to the living room. James set up in front of the television to catch the latest global events on the news while he enjoyed his processed meal of some sort of mystery meat. Fitting meal for his long, tiresome day.
As you can see, the writing is much more descriptive and detailed. This invests your readers into the scene much more than the first example had. It gives background into the day our character has had. For the initial example, your reader was a witness to the scene, nothing more. In the latter example, your reader becomes invested, tapping into his or her own memory to associate with the scene that is taking place on the page.
Most of us at one time or another have had a long, tiring day at work. We have also gone home, made a quick easy meal in the microwave, and settled in front of the television. One can assume James is probably single, which fits more with what takes place within the scene. We also can associate with burning our hands or fingers on something we grab from the microwave as I’m sure we’ve all done that at some point. I know I have, more than once (not sure what that says about my capacity for learning!).
By forcing the reader to use their own memories to picture the scene or when they did something similar, they can connect to the scene. It draws the reader in and makes them do part of the work that you have laid out in front of them. You are looking for your reader to engage emotionally with the scene. The wonderful thing about that is they can feel whatever emotion you are trying to convey without ever taking the risk. If what you are writing is something intense or scary, they can go through the scenario, feeling fear, maybe breaking out in a cold sweat, or their heartbeat kicking it up a notch but they have no risk. Nothing is going to happen to them as the scene is only happening on paper, not in their lives. Exciting and safe.
There are some great examples online about showing and not telling. It is exhaustive how much there is online about the subject. I’m sure there are better examples out there but hopefully, by the example above, you have a better feel for what showing and not telling is and how it can enhance your story. I know I would much rather read and picture the scene in the second example instead of just rolling over the words in the short first example. I love to have a scene unfold in my mind as I read instead of the words not really giving me the detail that would make the scene richer. Isn’t that why we read in the first place? Both examples portrayed the same outcome and you ended up at the same place but don’t you feel the second example was more enjoyable to read? I sure do and would prefer that over the first one any day.
Adding detail and building the scene is important in showing and not telling. The caution here is to not add too much detail, not to go too far the other way. If you add too much, you take away from the reader experience. They have ideas in their heads about the scene and scenario so let them fill in some of the details. Give enough without going overboard. I don’t think there is any formula for how much is enough and how much is too much. It’s something you must experiment with and then bounce off your beta readers, people who read a lot and can give you feedback. This can give you the guidelines you need to establish your happy medium.
Show, don’t tell. Detail but not too much, let the reader fill in some of those details and it will enrich their reading experience, draw them in and keep them invested in your story. It can be just that simple.
Happy reading, happy writing!