This is an updated version of this post in which I try to explain the nuts-and-bolts of how to apply the 'Show, Don't Tell' principle to your fiction.I'll be covering topics in the following order:
I've split this topic into several parts because I think there's many levels of subtlety when it comes to 'showing' rather than 'telling'. I'll start with what I consider the most basic techniques and work my way up to the most sophisticated ones that I've managed to mash into my wee brain.
Preamble: Show, Don't Tell (Sept 14, 2009)
Technique 1: Dramatize the Scene (Sept 21, 2009)
Technique 2: Avoid the 'To Be' Construction (Sept 21, 2009)
Technique 3: Avoid Cliches, Choose Fresh Language (Sept 28, 2009)
Technique 4: Action, Not Words (Oct 5, 2009)
Technique 5: The Art of Implying Information (Oct 12, 2009)
Technique 4 of 'Show, Don't Tell': Action, Not Words
Below is an excerpt from the (wonderful) science fiction novel Eifelheim, by Michael Flynn.
The setup for this scene is that it is 1348, and a priest (Dietrich), soldier (Max) and the miller's wife (Hildegarde) in a small German town have just made first contact. They interpret the aliens to be demons and are half-mad with terror, but confused to see these 'demons' are burned and bruised, and have children with them. The miller's wife is a petty, thieving woman and also the town slattern, and she was recently charged by the priest to atone for her sins of pride.
From Eifelheim, by Michael Flynn:
At that, the tableau broke.
Dietrich cried out.
Max drew his quillon.
The demon behind them pulled a strange, shiny tube from his pouch and pointed it at them.
And Hildegarde Muller staggered down the ridge toward the demons below.
She stopped once and looked back, locking gazes with Dietrich. Her mouth parted as if to speak; then she set her shoulders and continued forward. Oddly, they drew back from her.
Dietrich seized his fear and watched the unfolding drama with dreadful concentration. God, grant me the grace to understand! He felt that much depended on his understanding.
Hildegarde halted before the demon spewing pus from his mouth and she extended both hands to him. The hands clenched, drew back, opened again. And the demon fell into her arms and collapsed against her.
With a thin, high cry, she went to her knees in the dust and ashes and wood chips and cradled the creature on her lap. The greenish-yellow ichor stained her clothing and gave forth a sweetish, sickly odor. "Welc--" She stopped, swallowed, and began again. "Welcome, pilgrims, to the hospitality of my home. It pleases--It pleases me that you might abide with us."
Hildegarde, in this book, really isn't a pleasant woman, but this scene choked me up because the author showed me that while Hildegarde isn't nice, she is brave and at her core, has a good soul.
A person's deep character is exposed by their actions, particularly when they are under great stress. The stress makes it impossible for them to fake anything; with milder stresses, they might still be capable of veiling their true nature.
In fiction, you want to 'show' the reader who your characters are, rather than 'tell' them, and this is done just as Mr. Flynn did in the passage above. He put Hildegarde under incredible stress, then depicts her actions. When the reader learns about a character in this manner, it's a potent and emotional experience for them, and one of the hallmarks of effective storytelling--and great art in general--is that it provokes emotion.
It's fairly common to see a writer 'tell' the reader what their character is like. Perhaps the character declares his or her true nature: "No, Kara. Honesty is for all the time, not just when you think you might get caught. I won't help you do this." Or maybe a pair of other characters talk about the one whose inner heart the writer wants to illuminate: "I don't understand why she chases that fellow when Terrance would walk through hell for her."
Writers do this because it's easier. To 'show' someone's character, you have to engineer a situation where they react in a telling manner, and that takes a lot more creative energy than just slipping in some dialogue. Regardless, 'showing' is more effective.
There's actually a biological reason for why this is. Forgive my hand-wavey and inaccurate explanation of some fairly subtle science, but you have a left-brain and a right-brain. The left-brain takes care of you understanding the words you read, and, if you're confused by something, it helps you puzzle things out with logic. The right-brain takes care of you understanding the "big picture" that the words convey, and it's also responsible for you vividly imagining the story when you've been swept up in a book.
Your right-brain also triggers emotions. This is key. When a writer 'tells' the reader what a character is like, the left-brain comprehends it. However, when the writer 'shows' the reader what the character is like, the right-brain's "big picture" attribute is what understands it--and the right-brain can trigger emotion. This is why, when you 'show' the reader something, you increase their chances of responding to it emotionally.
As I mentioned, one of the things that defines great art is that it triggers emotion. A person can get very excited about an exquisitely-reasoned essay, but they don't call it art. Art is the thing that makes you cry, or laugh, or rage. Art gets into your heart.
So in summary, show your character's inner nature via their actions, particularly action under stress. This increases your writing's effectiveness by making the reading experience more emotional for your audience.