Readers (and writing instructors) won't complain that you're "telling too much" as long as your prose sings. Whether you choose a folk song or an aria is up to you. Some telling can be downright showy and makes for splendid description. Look at the differences in the following simple, declarative sentences:
Mrs. Brimley went into Ms. Kendall's classroom.
Mrs. Brimley sneaked into Ms. Kendall's classroom.
Mrs. Brimley lurched into Ms. Kendall's classroom.
All three sentences describe a person entering a room. Can you see how much less vivid the first one is than the others? Remember, no matter how small the action, you are describing it to the readers, not just informing them that it happened. You can add life to a sentence just by changing the verb. Verbs like "sneaked" or "lurched" suggest more than a mere action; they describe a character's state of mind. Embroider the sentence even further, with some strong images, and the prose springs to life:
Mrs. Brimley sneaked into the darkened classroom, her breath stalled in her throat, her eyes caught on a slender thread of moonlight that defined the wire rungs of the hamster's cage.
This is a good example of a narrative passage that gets its energy from imagistic language. Not only are you telling your readers that Mrs. Brimley is entering the classroom on the sly, you are showing them her heightened sense of awareness by describing the light on the cage. You are also showing them that Mrs. Brimley's clandestine entry is at night without ever coming right out and saying "that night," or "long after dark." The thread of moonlight tells the tale. You can go on to describe the creases in Mrs. Brimley's face, the hair that's mashed down on one side, the glint of her mother's ring under the eerie light. Technically, you're still telling, but in a way that offers the readers a vivid picture of a woman who is not altogether grounded, at least not at the moment. Call it "show-telling" if you wish. Show-telling demonstrates your descriptive powers. No one will fault you for that. Readers complain, "It's too talky" or "Nothing's happened yet" only when the prose itself is flat.
Another way to get a "showy" quality into your narrative is to use internal monologue. Internal monologue is a narrative line that is intended to echo the character's own voice. It is a very effective way to bring the readers so close to the character's experience that they feel they are being "shown" the character's innermost thoughts. Look at the following narrative passage, which uses no internal monologue:
Straight narrative: Mrs. Brimley skulked the perimeter of Ms. Kendall's classroom, allowing her eyes to adjust to the dark. Slowly the shapes of the classroom came clear: desks moved into groupings of four; a full-sized skeleton propped on its stand; silhouettes of posters and bookcases. The aquarium cast an eerie light across the back of the room, where Ms. Kendall's calico hamster ran round and round the wheel in its cage. Her heart seemed to beat in concert with that whirring wheel, for she felt guilty for leaving her mother alone and began to worry that something had happened in her absence. And yet she could not leave. Entering this classroom, this mysterious, underlit realm, made her feel so close to Ms. Kendall.
This is a perfectly functional "tell" passage that uses some good, imagistic language. Still, you are "telling" an awful lot: how Mrs. Brimley feels (guilty and worried), what the room looks like, why she won't leave (she feels close to Ms. Kendall). In the following revision, internal monologue enlivens the passage a bit, bringing readers so close to Mrs. Brimley's experience that the passage seems to "show" more than "tell," even though it retains its narrative character:
Internal monologue added: Mrs. Brimley skulked the perimeter of Ms. Kendall's classroom, allowing her eyes to adjust to the dark. How beautifully the shapes appeared: desks in happy groupings, the classroom skeleton loitering on its stand; posters and bookcases poised in silhouette! The aquarium cast an eerie light across the back of the room, where Ms. Kendall's calico hamster ran round and round the wheel in its cage. Like my heart, Mrs. Brimley thought, putting a hand on her chest. She felt it beating in concert with that whirring wheel. She had left her mother alone, but who could fault her? Who could blame her for lingering in this mysterious, underlit realm, this place that felt like the inside of her own soul?
Okay, maybe it gets a little melodramatic at the end, but can you see the way the internal monologue works to "show" what Mrs. Brimley is experiencing? It is as if Mrs. Brimley is speaking directly to us. Her voice emerges obscurely at first: How beautifully the shapes appeared!; then more prominently: Like my heart, Mrs. Brimley thought; and then we hear the echo of her literal voice:. . . who could fault her? Who could blame her. . . ? It's as if she is saying, Who could fault me? Who could blame me . . . ? Internal monologue, more than any other technique, blurs the line between scene and narrative, because the dialogue of a scene is implied within the narrative.
As you can see, telling doesn't exist in one box, showing in another. If the prose is rich and careful, showing and telling become inseparable.
HOW TO "SHOW"
Inexperienced writers often take "showing" to extremes. They believe that good description means showing everything right down to the polka-dots on the characters' underwear. They have been trained to believe that simply informing readers about something—a character's anger, say—is a failure of imagination. They believe they must "show" the anger in great detail to make the readers feel it:
Maxwell's nostrils began to flare, and a wash of red began to rise from his neck upward, into his cheeks and forehead. He narrowed his eyes and his jowls quivered uncontrollably. Little gobs of spit formed at the corners of his mouth. Teeth bared, fists clenched, he spit the words into the public-address system.
This passage is a good example of trying too hard. This is a parody of rage, with nary a body part neglected. Showing and not telling can become a tiresome game: "50 Ways to Express Rage (or sorrow/love/ anxiety/bitterness/despair) Without Once Using the Word." Writers who play this game probably mean well; they believe their descriptive powers can be properly displayed only through one elaborate "show" after another. They become the victims of their own best intentions, for the writing becomes self-conscious and even ridiculous, with passages so loaded with detail that the readers can't find the story. Sometimes it's better to come right out and tell:
Maxwell felt the full measure of his rage begin to rain down on him.
This description—which is a good example of show-telling (a rage so intense it seems to "rain down")—is terse enough to leave room for other elements of description—dialogue, for example—to complete the picture of Maxwell's anger:
Maxwell felt the full measure of his rage begin to rain down on him. "You son of a bitch." He spat the words into the public-address system. "First Lester's will, and now this."
In other words, you have to make decisions about what to show. How you decide depends on the story. In the preceding example, Maxwell's rage is evidenced by what he says and not how his face looks. In a different story, Maxwell's face might be the better vehicle to "show" his rage.
Choosing What to "Show"
Imagine that your story contains a character named Eulalie, whose age and infirmity drive the storyline. You decide to spend some time "showing" her feebleness:
Eulalie tottered across the street, her spotted hands curled around the glossy knob of her cane. Through her thin cloth coat you could see the stippled curve of her spine. Before her loomed the oaken doors of the Social Security Administration, stolid and heavy. She sighed. First she'd have to navigate what looked like five thousand granite steps, each of which would require a painful bend of the knee.
In this example, you don't "tell" the readers that Eulalie is old and infirm, and yet her fragility in the face of a hardy world is palpable. Her bent back implies burdens both physical and emotional; the thin coat implies modest means; the building is physically intimidating and promises pain, implying the same about the system it houses. These telling details evoke the readers' empathy, which is what showing is all about. By showing us Eulalie's physical state rather than telling us about it, you make her real, sympathetic, and understandable. This passage works so well because you are not showing for its own sake; the description contains important insights into Eulalie's life and character that shore up the story and make it more than a plot.
On the other hand, if you want to focus on Eulalie's considerable strengths despite her age, you might want to deliver the information about her age and physical state more directly, and save the "showing" to reveal her personality:
Version One: Eulalie was 92 years old and ailing, but that wasn't going to stop her from marching right down to the Social Security Administration this very afternoon and giving those pink-cheeked little punks a piece of her mind.
In this version, Eulalie's age and infirmity are dispatched with at the outset ("92 years old and ailing"), leaving you free to concentrate on showing what's really important about her. Instead of wasting space "showing" her feebleness, you move instantly to the steel beneath the fragility. She is old enough and crotchety enough to view the clerks as "pink-cheeked little punks"; instead of walking or taking the bus, she plans on "marching right down" to confront them. The readers can imagine the whole story—a little old lady taking on a bureaucracy—from the language contained in that one sentence. And you've established character even further by using language that Eulalie would use, almost as if she were telling the story herself. You are not technically "showing" here; you are informing us that Character A is about to perform Action B. But if the language is rich enough, the story will shimmer whether you're "technically" showing or not. Look at the difference in the passage when you use an objective, expository style:
Version Two: Eulalie, an old woman whose social-security checks had stopped coming since the death of her husband, was angry. She decided to go to the Social Security Administration building, all the way across town, to find out what happened. She was feisty and crotchety and thought of the buttoned-down clerks as nothing more than pink-cheeked little punks.
The difference between Version One and Version Two is that Eulalie is not present in the second as she is in the first. Version One shows a picture of Eulalie and the possibilities contained in that frail shell. Version Two merely delivers information: Eulalie is A and does B and feels C. It is not showing; it is telling in the most pedantic sense. Again, we're looking at a character on a screen. We cannot enter Eulalie's world in Version Two the way we can in Version One. Instead of hearing echoes of Eulalie's own feisty, crotchety voice, we are told that she is feisty and crotchety.