Show don’t tell is the piece of advice most given to authors of all descriptions, whether writing novels, plays, television or films. I have said it myself many times and try my utmost to apply this principle to my work, sometimes more successfully than others.
For the uninitiated, in essence it means don’t simply tell the reader something about a character (often known as “info-dumping”) but instead show an incident that communicates the information more interestingly. For example, instead of saying “John was a thief” have him steal a wallet. That instantly tells the reader what they need to know about him, and also adds intrigue and ambiguity. It could be that John is actually a thief, but on the other hand perhaps he is taking back what is rightfully his. Or perhaps he is stealing the wallet to win a bet. The possibilities are endless, and showing an incident will keep a reader hooked in a way telling will not.
However, there are times when showing becomes wearying to the reader. It is not necessary to “show” every single incident from the protagonist’s life, or else the book would be interminably long, dull and difficult to read. Pacing is vitally important to any novel, so the key is to determine which incidents to “show” and which to “tell”.
In The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, the journeys from the Shire to the more dangerous lands are covered in great detail with all manner of incident and danger, over several chapters. Much of the action defines the characters our hobbit heroes meet along the way. However, the return journey is summarised in just one chapter in both cases. This is quite correct. We don’t need every step of the return detailed with Tolkien’s lengthy descriptions of mountains, trees, rivers, landscapes and so on. These added a lot of atmosphere when the characters were being stalked by the forces of evil earlier, but going to such lengths when such threats no longer exist would be foolish, especially as the characters have now been changed so much by their adventures. Therefore these later events are summarised or “told”.
This principle is true in any novel. Some scenes want to be expanded over great length with every detail pored over, such as the suspenseful exploration of a haunted house, detectives investigating the scene of the crime, the moment when lovers fall for one another, and so forth.
But sometimes it gives a book focus to know when to summarise rather than expound in great detail. As an example from my own work, Uncle Flynn originally had a lengthy chapter near the end from Max’s father’s perspective, which provided a much greater insight into his character arc. But this chapter was cut because 1) it slowed down the action and 2) took the focus away from Max. The changes in Max’s father were instead summarised briefly in the final chapter; “told” rather than “shown”. I maintain that this was the right choice.
In the end, as I once heard a famous author say, it is called storytelling for a reason. The trick is to know what to “tell” and what to “show”.