“Show, don’t tell” is one of the two most misunderstood and misapplied pieces of writing advice that are commonly given to new writers (the other being “write what you know,” but that’s a different post.) It’s most commonly trotted out in relation to characterization, where “show” generally means “dramatize.” That is, rather than saying that George is both mean and a miser, the writer “shows” him complaining about his restaurant meal in order to avoid leaving a tip, turning the heat down on a bitterly cold day, kicking a puppy, etc.
One ought never, according to this advice, write something like “Oh! But he was a tight-fisted hand at the grind-stone…a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner!” That would be bad writing. Fortunately, nobody told Dickens that, or we wouldn’t have that lovely description of Scrooge.
There are two things one needs to be sure of when this sort of advice is trotted out: first, that the writer receiving the advice understands what the phrase really means; second, that the person so blithely giving the advice understands what it means. When one is clear on both of those, one can then decide how one wants to apply it in one’s current project, and/or whether to take the blithely given advice to heart.
The first problem I nearly always run into when I’m arguing with someone about this is that they don’t understand that “Jake stumbled out of bed, shut off his alarm, and sleep-walked through his morning routine” counts as “showing” just as much as saying “Jake stumbled out of bed in the general direction of the alarm. He got the alarm shut off after three tries, then shuffled into the bathroom. He turned the shower on and brushed his teeth while the water warmed up. He had time for a longer one than usual this morning, which almost made the damned alarm worthwhile. He was contemplating, in a groggy sleep-soaked fashion, whether to shave or pretend for the rest of the day that he was growing a beard, when the scent of coffee penetrated to the bathroom.”
The two descriptions have different levels of detail, but they are both “showing” what Jake is doing in the morning. The “telling” version is “Jake had a hard time getting up in the morning.” In other words, “telling the reader” means giving the reader the conclusion they would draw, without giving them any of the actions or thoughts or descriptions that would lead them to that conclusion.
None of those examples is inherently “better” or more desirable than the others – not the first, short dramatization; not the longer, more detailed dramatization; not the “telling” version that skips the whole boring getting-up-in-the-morning description. They are only more or less desirable in the context of the particular story the writer is telling.
And context means the whole context: pacing, characterization, plot, setting, theme, etc. If Jake having trouble getting up in the morning is eventually going to be important to the plot, the writer would probably choose one of the dramatized version – letting the reader come to a conclusion by observing the character in action is almost always more vivid and effective than just summarizing things. If the pace has been headlong and a breather would be welcome, the writer might choose the longer version; if the pace needs picking up, the writer might choose the “telling” version and look for a place later on to confirm the judgment by dramatizing Jake getting up some other morning. If it’s not plot-critical but adds to the theme or atmosphere in some important way, the shorter dramatized version might work best (assuming pacing considerations don’t enter in). It depends on context.
“Telling” the reader something is most obviously important when the writer needs to move lightly over a long period of time. “The long, dangerous trip to Byzantium took them six months, and they were nearly captured by pirates twice, but they arrived safely at last just in time for the coronation” lets the reader know that a) six months have passed, b) they were probably fairly eventful months, but c) the events aren’t particularly important to this story. Telling is also highly useful for background and plot-related exposition where there’s so much necessary material to get through that doing it all in dialog would be implausible, would slow the pace to a crawl, and would take far too many pages.
One of the first places people go wrong in applying the “show, don’t tell” business is in making it an absolute blanket “rule” that can never be broken…meaning that these writers use much less effective methods for certain things in order to avoid the evil expository lump. So once you have decided that what you are doing is, in fact, “telling” or exposition, you then have to decide whether it is a) necessary in this place, and b) effective in this place. If it is neither, then yes, it should probably be cut or rewritten more dramatically. But if it is merely ineffective-but-necessary, then what it needs is to be fixed, not to be cut.