As a writer, you've heard the old adage, "show, don't tell."
To be honest, I couldn't tell you how many times I heard that as I was honing my craft. And, ironically, I parroted it back when I taught creative writing. Looking back now, my experience with that phrase is much the same as with another phrase, the one we swear when we become parents that we will never repeat..."because I said so."
But what does "show, don't tell" really mean? What does it mean to describe things and how does that differ from telling the reader about it?
In short, nothing.
There are really two issues here with which writers grapple. The first is that a writer must set the scene. It's no different than a playwright who is writing details and creating the visual representation of where the actors will perform. The writer too must build a picture of the character, the environment, and other elements so that the reader has something in which to anchor the characters and ground the story. The second is the writer's decision to describe what a character is doing versus showing them doing it in action or behavior.
In the first case, I can't say enough about proper description. As writers, we sometimes get caught up in the act of storytelling: what's happening to the characters. That's the raw storyteller in every writer, the same kind of experience many of us have sitting around the campfire (or maybe the coffee shop table) spinning a yarn for eager ears. But writers are more than just storytellers. They have the unique opportunity to flush out aspects of a story that might never get "told." Things like what characters are thinking, what they are feeling, how their interaction with environment and other characters impacts them and the story. It's that whole writer-as-god thing.
But it's important to understand that because it highlights that as writers, we are doing more than just telling a story. We are building a world that includes one part description, one part showing (events that actually happen), and one part storytelling. This critical distinction is what separates great writers from good writers. The great writers recognize they are building an entire world, a place for you to escape visually, mentally, and emotionally. They engage you in reading just as they were engaged to the act of creating that world through their writing. But great writers don't engage you because their characters "act" out everything, because they "show, don't tell." Truly creating an immersive world for the reader involves knowing when to show and when to tell.
Remember that and you just might never hear that old adage again.