Show, don't tell, is perhaps the most often quoted axiom for fiction writers. And for good reason. Telling is distancing and takes the reader away from the story to be 'informed' about something by the author, unless it's done just right.
But there are times when telling is an important choice. Describing a setting is an example of when telling often works best. In fact, descriptions in general, whether of settings or characters or even action, can benefit from deft telling. Such descriptions tend to be more involving for the reader. They allow the reader to feel a connection to the characters and their dilemmas in a surrounding, contextual sense, like they're there with them.
As a writer, you need to develop good techniques for telling. So how do you do that?
The key, as Elizabeth Lyon explains in her book on writing, A Writer's Guide to Fiction, is to avoid distancing by making sure the telling doesn't sound like it's in the author's voice. It needs to come from the character's voice and express a legitimate character need, not the author's need to describe the setting or character or action.
Here's an example from a classic—F. Scott Fitzgerald's Tender Is the Night. We are with the protagonist, a young psychiatrist named Dick Diver. Diver is an American who has been in France for a while, doing his duty as a non-combat officer in W.W. I, and has just come to Zurich, Switzerland to pursue his career. Here is Fitzgerald telling us, through Dick Diver, what Zurich is like:
"It was a damp April day, with long diagonal clouds over the Albishorn and water inert in the low places. Zurich is not unlike an American city. Missing something ever since his arrival two days before, Dick perceived that it was the sense he had had in finite French lanes that there was nothing more. In Zurich there was a lot besides Zurich—the roofs upled the eyes to tinkling cow pastures, which in turn modified hilltops further up—so life was a perpendicular starting off to a postcard heaven. . . "
Not only do we get a clear description of how Zurich looked and felt to Dick Diver on that April day, we get a sense of what he is looking for, what he's open to, and what he's perceiving in relation to those things. At the moment of this description, readers know that Diver is a young man at a pivotal point in his professional development, and his new life in Zurich is related to that development. We can intuit what Zurich offers him (at least in his mind) from the description. The possibilities seem infinite to Diver (as opposed to 'finite lanes offering nothing more' in France). Fitzgerald, master that he was, also slips in the danger of stagnation for Dick if he doesn't enthusiastically pursue his good opportunities in Zurich. This is done with the small phrase, 'and water inert in the low places,' a metaphor for moral stagnation.
Telling is not only for writers of literary novels, though. Here's an example from a fast-paced suspense story by Robert Crais (Chasing Darkness), in which police officers are doing an emergency evacuation door-to-door because of fire in a steep, heavily populated canyon near Los Angeles. They are about to discover a body . . .
"When they reached the top of Lookout Mountain, they started door-to-door. If the inhabitants weren't already in the act of evacuating, Beakman knocked and rang the bell, then pounded on the jamb with his Maglite. . . . When they reached the first cross street, Trenchard joined him. The cross street cut up a twisting break in the ridge and was lined with clapboard cabins and crumbling stone bungalows that had probably been built in the thirties. The lots were so narrow that most of the houses sat on top of their own garages."
This is all telling, and yet it's so clearly a statement of what these men are facing (and perceiving) in an urgent situation that it feels necessary to the story. Next comes more description, broken up with action and dialogue, when they get to a door that no one answers:
Trenchard used his own Maglite on the door.
"Police officers. This is an emergency. Please open the door."
Both of them leaned close to listen, and that's when Beakman caught the sour smell. Trenchard smelled it, too, . . .
Trenchard holstered his Maglite. Beakman stepped back, figuring Trenchard was going to kick down the door, but Trenchard just tried the knob and opened it. A swarm of black flies rode out on the smell, engulfed them, then flew back into the house. Beakman swatted at the flies. He didn't want them to touch him, not after where they had been.
Again, the description all comes from the characters' needs, observations, feelings; so it all works to deepen the story and move it forward.
One more example, from Elizabeth Lyon's book (p. 164, A Writer's Guide to Fiction). Here she shows us the difference between good and bad telling with a self-description by the point-of-view character in a story. (This is one of the hardest descriptions to pull off). First, the bad version, as created by Lyon:
"Mazy stood five-foot-nine inches and, since twelve years old, might best be described as ample. By the time she reached seventeen years old, ample had been replaced by "large." That's how she saw herself."
And here's how the author of the actual story (Jane Kirkpatrick, All Together in One Place) narrated this character description from Mazy's point of view :
"Finished, Mazy stood, brushed dirt from her ample knees. Ample. Ever since she was twelve years old and stood head to head with her father's five-foot-nine inch frame, she'd thought of herself as ample. By the time she turned seventeen and married Jeremy Bacon, a man twice her age and exactly her height, the image of herself as large was as set as a wagon wheel in Wisconsin's spring mud."
Kirkpatrick's rendering of the description tells us worlds about Mazy and how she feels about herself and what her life's been like. The 'bad' description, on the other hand, seems to tell us how Mazy looked from others' viewpoint, which she adopted herself. Nothing more.
Narrative, or telling, does slow a manuscript down, so we don't want to overuse it. However, it definitely has its place, and if it is done well, the reader will not only experience a satisfying sense of place, character, etc., but will keep turning those pages.