A couple weeks ago, I posted about when it’s okay to use telling in your story. Since then, I’ve had a few conversations with people about showing, and it turned into a question of good showing vs. bad showing.
There is a difference, and it’s basically this:
Good showing is when your characters are in a specific action.
Bad showing is when they're in a vague action.
Good showing in a novel is hard to spot, because it’s seamless to the story. It's what sucks you in and helps you to connect with the characters and their situations, and puts you directly into the story so you can experience it for yourself.
James entered the room quietly.
James slunk into the room.
Both sentences have the same meaning, and both are showing the reader how the character is performing the action. But the second paints a more vivid picture of both the circumstance and the character.
Let’s talk about adverbs. Everyone is always saying how adverbs are bad, and I agree, for the most part. In the first sentence, an adverb is used to describe how James enters the room. Technically, that makes it showing. But the action is not specific enough to paint a vivid picture in the reader’s mind. If you need that specific picture in the reader’s mind, then you need to drop the adverb and describe the action in a way that brings out the character, the situation, and the story’s tone.
The best example of showing in a novel (that I've seen so far) is The Spectacular Now by Tim Tharp. It shows an alcoholic teen in stark reality. Specifically, it shows how the main character, Sutter, is an alcoholic through his actions, dialog, and interactions with others. Another alcoholic is probably different because he's a different person. That's what good showing is.
All aspects of writing are so connected that it's really hard to separate them. Therefore, some aspects of Show vs. Tell seep into characterization, pacing, structure, and a whole lot of other things. You have to keep these things in the back of your head as you write, and that’s why it’s SO HARD to get everything right. It’s also why you can’t write a really great book in one draft, but that’s a topic for another day. :)