I learned early on (as most writers have) "show, don't tell," which I agree with for the most part. However, I've found many situations in writing when I'd start to write a statement in tell, catch myself, and then try to rewrite it with show. Something not a lot of people talk about is that there seems to be a trade-off with showing. Are there tradeoffs? If so, what are they and how do I avoid them?
Let me give you an example. Consider the following sentence (in tell format):
ex 1: He heard a cough behind him.
"Ew!" the writer says, "That's bad style! I should show, not tell!" The writer changes it.
ex 2: Someone coughed behind him.
Or, alternatively (to avoid "behind him" referring to the cough):
ex 2b: From behind him someone coughed.
I've noticed a slight variation on the two examples. ex 1 implies immediacy: The character hasn't expected anyone to be there, and suddenly--cough!
But in ex 2, the immediacy is dampened so that it's almost as if the character was aware someone was behind him and was not as surprised by the cough. Also--let's face it--they sound more awkward. In addition (delving into human psychology), when the fight-or-flight response is activated, our brains aren't trying to analyze what coughed ("someone"), so (IMHO) adding "someone" makes the f/f response seem less believable. I thought of a third example that may remedy this situation:
ex 3: He didn't even flinch when someone unexpectedly coughed behind him.
In ex 3 (at least from my perspective) while this does amp up the immediacy this also makes it less clear if someone actually did cough just then or if, generally, the character doesn't flinch when someone coughs.
I realize I'm nitpicking these simple sentences, but I've always been annoyed when authors make a case for "show, don't tell" and then ignore these difficult cases.
Is there a pace trade-off or some other trade-off that comes with showing? Perhaps some other writers are willing to share examples of a sentence (or passage) they struggled to (and were able to) convert to show?