You’ve probably heard your teachers say it a lot. But the truth is, you need to do both. You have to know when to show and when to tell.
Example: Her toothbrush was pink and purple, with little red sparkles all over it. Two of the little brushes sticking out of the top were red; the rest were white. The toothbrush had a pink grip on its handle that let her hold it better. Slowly, she picked up the toothbrush and began to brush her teeth.
Whoa! Do we care about what the toothbrush looks like? Do we even care that she brushed her teeth? No. And if you have to say that she brushed her teeth, 1) make sure it’s relevant to the story, and 2) don’t use more than a sentence.
Show only when it makes sense to show. Maybe your character is sitting on the edge of a cliff, staring at the vast world below him/her. Then you should show. But skip through the boring things. Trust me: we don’t care what the toothbrush looks like.
But maybe that’s a bad example. How many people actually describe their toothbrushes anyway? Here’s another:
Example: She stroked her long brown hair and thought for a moment, her large eyes wide with concern. Slowly, she reached down and picked up her pink cellphone, chewing on her Spearmint gum. Her mind swirling with thoughts, she accepted the call and held the phone to her ear.
Give your readers some credit. Come on. We know what it’s like to pick up a phone. The parts where you should go into detail the most and really “capture the moment” are the most important parts in the story. Or the parts where your readers will want to know every little detail. Say you’re writing something really suspenseful. Your readers will be hanging on to every little word with bated breath. That’s when you delve into detail and stretch it out (but not too much!) because your readers are literally thinking, Come on, come on… then what?
Think about the cell phone scene again. It was boring before, right? But what if the girl had been waiting for this call all her life? What if the whole story revolved around her picking up the phone at this very moment? All of a sudden, your reader is sitting on the edge of his/her seat, waiting for her to pick up the phone. It could change her life. Then by all means, go ahead and show! Go ahead and drag it out. Because we care.
A writer who only tells is a pretty crappy writer, but a writer who only shows is equally crappy. The skillful writer knows exactly when to tell and exactly when to show in order to keep his/her audience captivated.