I like the word “experience” rather than “show” or “tell” because when it comes down to it, writing is more of an art than a science. Sure, there are tools to learn (POV, description, pacing, etc.), but when it comes down to it, an engaging author will learn to use the right tools at the right time to create an engaging narrative. The bottom line is: you want to help your reader experience your story. This is why movies are so much more tempting to the general population than books—movies are immediate, and they allow us to experience the world through a viewpoint carefully chosen by the filmmaker.
As an editor, I have rejected works for various reasons. Some works go into way too much detail. It’s as if the author was told by an English teacher (and I worry—because I do teach English!) to be descriptive, and the author has tried to pack as much description as possible into the scene. While an interesting metaphor or two is nice, there has to be a purpose for such description. Readers have so much to do other than reading that they want to feel their time is being respected. Everything included in a novel or a story should have a purpose.
Too much description for description’s sake can sometimes feel like a waste of time to a reader. On the other hand, I have rejected works that don’t get me close enough to the character. Some works merely summarize what’s happening in an almost clinical manner. They do too much “telling” instead of “showing.” While writing is, to some extent, subjective, good writing is good writing. An engaging story will hook most readers. Engaging writing is the key to hooking editors and agents. I’ve read and loved stories in genres I thought I hated all because of how well they were written. I’ve started, hated, and abandoned stories written in genres I love because the stories didn’t hook me—I felt like the author wasn’t respecting my time, didn’t have control of the narrative, and wasn’t trying to help me experience the story.
When you write, think of yourself as a movie director. You control the camera. Where do you want to force your readers to look? If you make readers look at too much all at once, the story becomes confusing and un-engaging. If a director simply placed a camera far enough away so that we could see all the characters at once, we wouldn’t know what to look at. We’d squint at the screen for a bit, trying to make out all the little dots running around, and then we’d probably shrug and walk out of the theater, demanding a refund.
On the other hand, if you force the reader to look at too much detail, the story also becomes un-engaging. How many times have you skipped ahead when you saw that a story contained too many paragraphs of description? When a filmmaker zooms in on something, like a close-up of a character’s lips as they are talking, it’s interesting for a few seconds, but if the camera stays zoomed in for much longer, it becomes uncomfortable—then boring. There is no “rule” for how much detail to include in a story. In general, the more detail you include, the slower the pace. You’ve got to find the right balance to best communicate the purpose of each scene. Choose your camera angle, and decide how long to focus on each element. Now apply that to your writing. The page is blank. It’s up to you.