One of the many things that make me hit the back button, put down the short story, or return the book to the library is "telling". The minute the author decides to state that "X was angry" or "Y was bored", I get angry or I get bored. I've seen this issue for years--heck, I used to have this issue myself--in both fanfiction and original fiction alike, and while many reviewers/commenters often call out the author on it, they never really explain the concept. Thus, the poor beleaguered newbie gets hate over something he/she may not fully grasp.
After years of seeing this unfold, I've decided to make a writing resource about it for , in hopes that maybe, just maybe, it'll help somebody, somewhere.
What is "Telling"?
"Telling" occurs when a writer either:
a.) states a character's emotions;
b.) summarizes the setting; or
c.) summarizes situations that can be inferred or would have more impact if described.
It's like the commentary that accompanies a soccer game: you clearly see what's going on, but the announcer declares what's going on anyway. Here's an example of the first variety:
"A showed exasperation at the spilled tea."
So now we know that Character A is upset because someone (was it her?) spilled some tea. But simply being told that she's exasperated doesn't really have much of an impact on us, now does it?
An example of the second variety:
"It was a sunny day."
Yeah, and...? Why does it matter that it's sunny outside? Should it matter?
And finally, an example of the third variety:
"C had been standing in line for hours, but it had yet to move."
Not really a bad sentence, but it needs a little more oomph before the audience can react, whether it be with sympathy or schadenfreude.
What is "Showing"?"Showing", on the other hand, involves indirectly describing a character's emotions, the situation at hand, or the setting in detail. Notice that I said 'indirectly'. Get too direct and we wind up in "telling" territory.
Here's the above examples when shown:
"A groaned as she picked up the tea cup and stormed into the kitchen. She had just mopped the floor, for crying out loud!"
"The sun shone over the seaside town as the children raced towards the beach, laughing and playing as they did so."
"C bent his knees to give his legs a break, then stood on his tiptoes to peer over the line to the club. He sighed upon seeing the redhead still arguing with the bouncer. At this rate, the club would close before the line moved an inch."
In all three scenarios, the reader is given more-or-less the same information, but (mostly!) through action and thought, not summary. We know about A's exasperation through her groaning and stomping; we're given a reason behind it through a peek into her thoughts ('she had just mopped the floor'). The 'sunny day' is given significance because the children are going to the beach. Finally, we probably feel bad for C because 1.) he's tired from standing in line for so long and 2.) his misery is being caused by some moron who can't take the hint that she's not allowed inside the club. Or you're probably wondering why he just doesn't go up to the front and figure out what's going on instead of standing there doing nothing. Regardless, you're still curious about C, aren't you? And A? (Why did she have to mop the floor?) And about the children? (Why are they going to the beach? What awaits them there?)
The key to "showing" is using, as mentioned before, action and thoughts to explain things to the reader. But these two things aren't just important for the sake of description. You need them to make your audience to connect with your characters, as well. You need to get into said characters' heads, make them feel like real people. This--in combination with action--helps to establish the mood and invoke certain emotions in your reader, which in turn, keeps them reading. So the next time you're trying to describe how a character feels or how a place looks or wondering how to get your reader into the scene/situation/event that's going on in your story, think:
1.) What actions can I use to show how this character feels? What actions are normally associated with the emotion he/she is feeling?
2.) What is my character thinking during this event? Why are they thinking this thought/these thoughts during this event?
Mind you, I'm not suggesting that you completely cut 'telling' out of your life (just like you shouldn't completely cut sugar out of your life, contrary to what those damn weight loss commercials tell you). It simply must be done in accompaniment with "showing"--and rather sparingly. After all, I had to tell you what C was in line for in order for you to care about C, and I had to tell you where the children were going for the whole 'sun shining' thing to have any significance. You need to inform your audience of what's going on, but not to the point where you're explaining every little thing. Does this make sense?