Writer's Digest features a piece where thriller writer Lee Child's debunks the biggest writing myths:
Picture this: In a novel, a character wakes up and looks at himself in the mirror, noting his scars and other physical traits for the reader.
“It is completely and utterly divorced from real life,” Child said.
So why do writers do this? Child said it’s because they’ve been beaten down by the rule of Show, Don’t Tell. “They manufacture this entirely artificial thing.”
“We’re not story showers,” Child said. “We’re story tellers.”
Child said there’s nothing wrong with simply saying the character was 6 feet tall, with scars.... (read more)Shawn Lamb gives a feet on the ground example of when she "tells" instead of "showing" in her YA series Allon.
And finally, with the help of Google, I came across this older blog post on The Recalcitrant Scrivener which very eloquently laid out what's right and what's wrong with this maxim. Essentially, this writer says that all writing is a form of telling.
There. The entrance Tristine anticipated. Twenty-year-old Ellan the brown-haired, blue-eye beauty wearing her new red and gold gown like a strutting peacock, smiling like she owned the world. Well, at least Ellis.
This lays the foundation by suggesting a jealousy rivalry between the sisters that carries on with action and verbal exchanges throughout the story. Yes, I know, some will say Show Don’t Tell concerning the paragraph, to which I reply Pshaw! I established the scene from Tristine’s POV, so it is natural to include the way she views Ellan’s entrance. I’m not suddenly going to switch to Ellan’s mannerisms for show. However, Ellan's subsequent actions, reactions and speech once she is involved in the scene supports Tristine’s assessment.... (read more)
Contrary to this approach I would cite Wayne C. Booth’s The Rhetoric of Fiction, first published in 1961. Here the author engages in a sustained critique of the “show, don’t tell” maxim. One of Booth’s main accomplishments is to demonstrate that there are a nearly infinite number of gradations between absolute telling and absolute showing, and that these can be used by fiction writers in a variety of ways. It’s worth noting that this is a work of criticism, not an off-the-shelf “how to” book.
My intention is to take Booth’s argument further. My claim is that the partisans of “show, don’t tell” suffer from a very specific conceptual confusion. The truth is that in an absolute, literal sense, narrative writing can only tell.
The bullets whizzed by my ear. My guts fell to the floor.
The shots narrowly missed Pearson. He felt his nerves tighten.
Contrary to what certain people would tell you, both these sentences are forms of telling. The first is clearly more vivid, but it is nevertheless written as first-person narration, a manner of telling. If I were sitting next to you in a bar and said “The bullets whizzed by my ear…” I would be telling you something. I would have shown you nothing.... (read more)