There are are always these examples, “Look how flat and boring telling is. But ah, showing! Now the prose shines, the scene comes alive.” And the examples are, well... usually something of this caliber:
My father was an angry man.
I still remember the first time my father hit me. His white knuckles and clenched fists, the spit shining on his lip. My mother was crying in the corner of our little living room. The faint light of the broken kitchen lamp mixed with the last of the dusk light coming in through the window, and the smell of alcohol hung in the air.
The telling examples, meanwhile, are often accidentally decent. Were this the beginning of a story, I'd say the first option is far more captivating than the second.
Why? Because the Show, Don't Tell discussion usually ignores two obvious, yet important points.
- Showing isn't enough – you need to learn how to show well. Well meaning show something that is, on the surface, uninteresting, in a manner that makes it interesting.
- Balance is key, and effective telling has its place.
The thing is, yes, people don't like being preached to or told what to feel, but they do want to know what the author feels – what the author considers interesting, beautiful, worthwhile; the unique lens through which this particular writer looks at the world, and the unique worlds they conjure up.
Which is why there's a significance to what the author chooses to show, and what they choose to tell. Showing and telling are akin to a psychological zoom-in or zoom-out. Showing is zoom-in – we see the psychological minutia and puzzle out a big picture on our own; telling is zoom-out – we grasp a big picture altogether. Certainly not everything has to be examined with equal depth, and sometimes it's better to offer a judgmental, superficial description, particularly if the level of showing one is willing to put into this scene is itself rather superficial.
Let's go back to my reconstructed examples. The first tells me "This is what this author considers interesting. Clichés about abusive fathers and white knuckles." The second tells me "The author dismisses this; this isn't the point. But why is it significant, then? There must be more to this; I'll keep reading for a bit."
So, my take on this – before falling into the trap of “If I offer a visual description of what's happening in this scene, that'll make it pop,” ask yourself these questions:
Is what's happening in this scene interesting? And if not, can I make it interesting through showing?
If yes, go for it, show your heart out.
If not, get better at showing, or solve this one with telling. Honing either of those skills is worth your time.