"Show, don't tell" is merely a guideline for beginning writers, not a rule. A good story can be "told" as well as "shown," and usually a combination of the two techniques yields the most satisfying descriptions. Generally speaking, you show through scene and tell through narrative.
Scenes are most effective when you are trying to reveal the complex interplay between characters, or between a character and himself. Instead of telling the readers that a character is painfully shy, you might shape a scene around that shyness: for instance, somebody could challenge the shy character's religious beliefs while she's minding her own business in the grocery line.
Narrative is most effective when you are trying to fill in background information or move quickly through time to connect two scenes. Instead of writing a full-scale scene in which a young couple worries about how to tell their folks about their recent elopement, you could dispatch the information through a line or two of narrative: "On the way home they decided to tell her parents, who were the soft-spoken ones, and leave his blustering parents in the dark."
Too much scene can make a story seem drawn out, even endless; too much narrative can make a story feel dry and expository. A story takes on so much life—not to mention a pleasing shape—when you move back and forth between scene and narrative. Using the techniques together offers you the most opportunity to vary your descriptions, to give readers an accurate mental picture of the story you wish to tell.
Showing and telling both have a place in good fiction. You may have been taught that "showing" is good and "telling" is bad: if so, rethink your position! With care and attention to language, you can write a beautiful story through showing alone, telling alone, or through a pleasing combination.
DESCRIPTION AND FORWARD MOTION
Good stories move. They start at the beginning, move through the middle, and end at the end. This is not as simple as it sounds.
Without forward movement, even good characters can find themselves in dull stories. Characters can't just sit around ruminating; they have to do things, say things, go places, interact with people and institutions and their own impulses. A man thinking about death is not a story; a man building his own coffin is. Be wary of stories in which your characters reflect and remember and wonder a lot. Is all that wondering getting them from point A to point B?
Don't ask who your character is; ask what your character does. Trust that she will reveal herself to you through her words and deeds. You might think you know exactly who she is at the outset—she is your creation, after all—but until you take her through at least one draft of the story, until you undertake the burden of describing her in various circumstances, you don't know for certain how she'll react. She may do or say things you didn't plan for; you may have to make alterations in plot (sometimes major ones) to accommodate her emerging personality and motivations. This sense of adventure is what makes writing so much fun.
Good stories are often psychological in nature—character-driven as opposed to plot-driven. Even so, when people ask, "What's the story about?" we tend to describe the plot: A woman loses her child in a store. A man blows up his father's car. A child catches his parents making love. In a very real sense, this physical information is what the story is "about."
What turns plot into story, however, is the emotional information that we convey to the readers. (Some writers prefer the word "psychological" to "emotional." I prefer "emotional" because it implies conflicts of the heart as well as the mind.) Emotional information reflects a character's inner landscape: A woman discovers the melancholy of her marriage. A man discovers his hatred for his father. A child discovers his separateness from his parents. These are the same emotional discoveries that make real life so interesting and horrifying and beautiful and compelling. Gather some characters together, give them something to react to, and you've got the ingredients of a story that can move, like life, on two levels: physical and emotional.
HOW STORIES MOVE
Forward movement in fiction is twofold: physical and emotional. Physical movement is the movement of the plot from beginning to end:
1. In a department store, mother berates child for swiping several stuffed animals from toy department; now in the hardware department, she "looks away" for a few moments; child disappears.
2. Father makes a scene, begins ordering everyone around; entire store engages in search for child.
3. Mother searches Home section of the store, where beautiful furnishings are arranged in idealized "rooms."
4. Mother finds child asleep on canopy bed in store display, toy animals gathered tightly around her. Mother lies down next to child.
Physical movement, as you can see, follows a plot line. First A happens, then B, then C. When your plot stalls on you, the story stops moving.
The other kind of forward movement, emotional movement, follows the development of character rather than plot:
1. Mother's irritation with child stems from a succession of inconsequential fights with her husband. He's with her now because he can't "trust her" to pick out the right kind of porch light by herself. Mother's inattention occurs when she becomes fascinated with another couple and their child. She contemplates their beauty and peacefulness. When she turns around, her own child is missing.
2. Father's tirade makes mother feel eerily calm. She begins her own search, awed by her composure. She thinks of it as "competence."
3. Mother searches among home furnishings. The beauty and implied family harmony of the displays devastate her. She imagines her husband raging through a different part of the store, and begins to imagine all the ways he will blame her when the child is found. She refuses to imagine a scenario in which the child is not found.
4. Mother finds child in bed display; recognizes her own need for refuge from her husband's harsh judgment. Succumbs to the temptation of the beautiful canopy bed and all the peace and safety it implies.
In this example, plot and character are inextricable: the physical content moves with the emotional. One can exist without the other, but both are enriched by the other's presence. A story that featured this same character standing in a store longing for an idealized family life would not be very interesting; a story that featured only the action of a couple searching a store for their lost child might be interesting but not very rich.
Stories move forward most seamlessly when plot and character mesh. As you move the mother through the physical line (plot) of the story, you can illuminate her emotional progress (character) through her observations. At the beginning, before the child is gone, she observes things somewhat coldly:
The store was high-ceilinged and bright, punctuated by straight lines: long corridors laid out like streets; grids of steel that held the harsh overhead lights; upright black shelves that housed the switchboxes her husband was pawing through. His own straight lines were turned away from her—his shoulders and back and the grim bottom edge of his hairline.
Notice how this description is all lines and edges; notice also the hardness of the language: punctuated, harsh, grim, edge. Later, during the search for the child, her observations become gentler, even surreal, suggestive of longing:
She searched through a grouping of stuffed chairs gathered like a roomful of uncles after Thanksgiving dinner.
She saw a succession of porcelain vases, round and constant, set on the honeyed tables as if waiting for the flowers the husband has just brought home.
Notice how the words change; something is happening inside her. The same store that a moment ago had "harsh light" is now full of comfortable chairs and domestic-looking vases. Emotional movement is contained in subtle descriptions that take the character through the motion of the plot toward some discovery or revelation or turning point. A plot is critical, but which plot is almost irrelevant. This woman's turning point could have come during a car crash or a visit to a museum or a bout with illness—any scenario that could accommodate themes of refuge. The lost child is one of a thousand possibilities for this particular character's emotional development.
You don't want your story to move at the same rate from start to finish. A story's pace is controlled by the physical and emotional goings-on in the story, and those goings-on are controlled by description. In this story about the lost child, the pace should probably quicken as the search expands, creating tension (will the child be found?) that reflects the character's increasing panic. At the beginning of the search, the description could be almost leisurely; after all, the child is probably right around the corner, or obscured behind a store display:
She walked to the end of the aisle, past a brilliantly colored pyramid of paint cans. She could imagine the brazen colors catching her little girl's interest. Each can resembled the torso of a brand-new crayon. She peered around the jagged shape and saw nothing but more cans of paint, their chrome handles glinting under the light.
Notice the calm, unworried quality of this narrative. The mother is allowing herself time to imagine herself in her child's place, and is herself noticing, if not admiring, little details about the store: the shape of the paint display, the appearance of the cans, the play of light. She is also "walking," not running or lurching, and "peering," not scanning or checking or glancing. In other words, the mother, like the description, is not yet moving very fast.
When the mother does not find the child within the first couple of minutes, though, the stakes suddenly rise. The child could indeed be lost, or worse, abducted. Both the physical and emotional pace of the story are affected. The mother's heart speeds up, and so does the description:
Aisle six, wrenches. Nothing. She rounded the corner and fled down aisle seven. Screws, wedges, hinges, bolts, nothing. Aisle eight, nine, ten. Nothing but hubcaps and headlights. "Mitzi!" she called, her voice jarring against all that steel and chrome. "Mitzi, answer me, damn it, can you hear me?"
Do you see how you've quickened the pace by using short, staccato sentences? Neither you nor your character can afford to linger over details here. You are giving bare-bones information, for the character is no longer capable of becoming distracted by what she can see; she is too preoccupied with what she cannot see: her daughter. The emotional content of the story at this point cannot support a physically slow description.
By the time we approach the end of the story, the search has gone on for a while and erupted into a full-blown family crisis. The father's been yelling at everybody in the store, especially the mother. The mother's initial burst of energy has been dulled by her husband's cruelty and the futility of her search. She is now wandering blindly through the Home section, broken down by fatigue and sadness, not only because of the lost child but because of what she has come to see as a lost chance for a happy family life, whether or not the child is found. Here, you can slow the pace again, for the story is about to end, and the mother is beginning to give up:
She wandered into a rounded, windowed section of the store that was dressed up to resemble a succession of bedrooms, each more sumptuous than the next. Yards of canopy. Eyelet lace. Sugar-colored pillows she wanted to disappear into. Was everything white, or was she only imagining it? Had the day's revelations bled the color from her eyes? White, everything white: sheets and towels folded into pearly mounds, doilies and ruffles and washcloths scattered like snowdrifts against cloth-covered tables. And there, sleeping like a pixie on a fresh expanse of cotton, lay her daughter, her white-blond hair dissolving against a lace coverlet.
The mother is so exhausted that her surroundings become surreal, and the frothy description reinforces everything she's experiencing emotionally. The story's physical description has kept perfect pace with its emotional content.