Showing instead of telling means that the writer is describing behaviors, settings, or elements in a way that allows the reader to see what is happening and infer certain things like character conflicts, flaws, and emotions. Telling is simply dictating, and though at times it is unavoidable to tell the reader something, the less it is used the better.
For example, telling is something like:
Sarah was obsessed with Tom.
A more evocative method is to show the reader that Sarah is obsessed with Tom:
Sarah watched Tom from her perch across the cafeteria. He laughed, revealing a captivating smile. She imagined herself, sitting at the table with him and his friends, wearing his letterman jacket and a promise ring on her hand. She scribbled his name for the seventy-eighth time on her notebook. She traced over the letters, engraving Tom Peterson into the paper with her green pen. His laughter cut through the crowded lunchroom once more. Sarah smiled as she surrounded his name with a green heart. Beneath it she wrote Mrs.Sarah Peterson.
The reader understands that Sarah is obsessed with Tom because the passage reveals her obsessive behaviors. Her behavior carries more meaning then the statement “she is obsessed” and creates a more visceral response in the reader.
Brian closed the apartment door behind him. Jennifer emerged from the bedroom with a cardboard box in her hands.
“What are you doing here?”
“I live here. What are you doing here?”
“I came to get the last of my stuff.” Jennifer walked over to the book shelf and picked up a copy of Catch-22. She threw the paperback into the box.
“What are you doing with that?”
“Like I said, I’m getting my stuff.”
“That’s not yours, that’s mine.”
“No it’s not.”
“Yes it is. I bought that at the bookstore while I waited for you at the coffee shop. You know, the day you were twenty minutes late.”
Crimson burned her cheeks. “Fine, keep it.” She grabbed the book and threw it at him. “Do you want any of this other stuff?” She grabbed a picture frame and tossed it across the room. “Because you can have it all. I don’t care.”
Brian dodged a well aimed bottle of shampoo. “Will you calm down? You can take the damn book if it means that much to you.” A pink gorilla from a travelling circus ricocheted off his chest.
“None of it means anything. It’s all a lie.” Jennifer slammed down the box. She yanked her purse down from the counter. Like a level five hurricane, she blew through the apartment, knocking off several picture frames as the door rammed shut behind her.
Much of the relationship between the two characters is revealed in the dialogue. The reader can sense the break up is recent and that it was not under good terms. It also makes the reader wonder what exactly happened between the characters and is it truly over, since Jennifer made a point of coming back unannounced. Such questions keep the reader interested, which after all is the writer’s big goal.
If you are still unsure of the difference between showing and telling, you may want to look into Jessica Morrell’s Thanks, But This Isn’t for Us. It’s a simple and easy to read guide that helps writers quickly identify missing elements and areas for improvement. It’s also a good practice to study the works of published writers. Read multiple passages and see how the author creates a balance between showing and telling. Ask yourself what makes that passage work, how did the writer convey certain ideas and emotions, and how can you incorporate those techniques into your writing. Studying (not stealing) published works is one of the best ways to improve your writing.