Westborough Writers Workshop Message Board › On showing and telling
Please forgive me some scattered, self-indulgent thoughts inspired by a brief aside on "show, don't tell" during yesterday's critique session. Perhaps they will inspire some more useful ideas or discussion. Keep in mind, I have no literary credentials apart from a second major in English from a number of years ago, so take this all with a grain of salt.
In my view, rules are tools. If one of them is preventing you from realizing your vision, set it aside. Or throw it out completely. ("If you meet the Buddha, kill the Buddha" - Zen patriarch Lin-Chi)
I suspect that for every rule of literature ("show, don't tell," "brevity is the soul of wit," "avoid passive verbs") you can find at least one great work that flagrantly violates it. Faulkner probably broke just about every literary rule there is at one point or another (although he formulated new ones as well, e.g. "kill your darlings"). This is how frontiers are breached, whether in literature or in any other area of human endeavor.
Then again, most experiments in any given field fail, and many pioneers end up with their backs full of arrows. The rules have survived through the years and remain with us for a reason, apart from inertia and risk-aversion; much of the time, they work better than the alternatives. The point is to be pragmatic, rather than dogmatic or counter-dogmatic.
Furthermore, the rules are always subject to interpretation, and this can be a subtle business. With regard to "show, don't tell" specifically, the basic message I glean is to avoid over-explaining. Portray a situation, scene, or character, and let the reader infer the message you are trying to communicate; don't simply spell it out. For example, rather than writing "Larry was very neurotic," portray Larry speaking or acting in a very neurotic fashion.
But I don't think we ought to be unnecessarily afraid of detailed descriptions, or expect the characters to tell the entire story with no "exposition" whatsoever, which is how some tend to interpret this rule. To name two random examples, Fitzgerald and Tolkien's works contain lush descriptions of people and places, and are the better for it. In particular, immaterial objects cannot usually speak for themselves, so it is difficult for them to tell their own stories through dialogue, for example. And yet it is also far too easy to weigh a story down by describing at excessive length or in excessive detail. A few small, extremely vivid details can go a long way towards making a setting or a character feel present for the reader.
Like everything else in life, it's a balancing act.