Show, Don't Tell Tips from Jeff Gerke, Part 1

I attended an excellent workshop last night given by Jeff Gerke, publisher, author and editor. Billed as "The Last Class on Show vs. Tell You'll Ever Need", it was full of concise explanations and fun exercises. Jeff is also the author of a brand-new Writer's Digest book, Plot Versus Character: A Balanced Approach to Writing Great Fiction, where he helps both plot-first novelists and character-first novelists overcome their weaknesses.

The workshop was hosted by the Springs Writers group. If you live anywhere near Colorado Springs, Colorado, they offer a free conference-quality workshop each month. Click on the link to keep informed of what's coming up next.

Gerke started out with two pieces of advice:
Don't summarize--dramatize.
Don't narrate--illustrate.

Telling. Gerke explained that telling is when you stop the story to explain something. He asked, "When does the reader want the story to stop?" The answer is "never". Telling is easy, economical, and fast, but it's boring, like a lecture.

In normal conversation, we explain what we mean, so it's natural to do that in fiction. But as writers, we want to make the reader curious, which keeps them from putting the book down. Gerke says, "Resist the urge to explain."

There are three types of telling:
Backstory, where the author tells anything that happened prior to the current action.
Exposition, where explanation is inserted into the story.
Explanation of character motives, where authors don't trust the reader to understand why a character acted as he did.

Showing. This requires thinking like a filmmaker. If the camera can't "see" it, we don't know about it. Instead of telling the reader that a character feels nervous, show the beads of sweat on his upper lip, and his hands trembling. Showing makes the writer work harder and spend more words, but  as Gerke says, "What you sacrifice in exactitude, you more than gain in reader engagement."

Gerke quoted author Tim Downs: "Lecture [telling] hands people the answers. Story [showing] makes readers ask the right questions." Downs also mentioned that showing and telling is like an easter egg hunt. Telling is where you leave the eggs in plain sight for the smallest children. Showing is where you hide the eggs for the older kids, and they have to work harder to find them. Readers who "figure things out" feel much more satisfied.

Stop by tomorrow for the rest of Gerke's workshop, where he explains the wrong way to show, and several excellent ways to share information without telling.

Do you write like a filmmaker?

For more info on Jeff Gerke:
His personal website, Jefferson Scott.
Gerke's speculative fiction imprint (with fantastic books): Marcher Lord Press.
The speculative fiction website, Where the Map Ends, and the Anomaly Forums, where writers and readers can connect.
Don't forget Gerke's other writing book, The Art & Craft of Writing Christian Fiction.


  1. Ooh, always looking for good tips on showing vs. telling. This is a big help. Thanks for sharing :-)

  2. Sounds like a great workshop!

    I've been trying to write like a filmmaker for a while now, but like Gerke says, it takes a lot more words and it's harder.

    Now, what about those transitional paragraphs from one scene to another where you fill in for the reader but you don't want to "play out" the scene because it's not interesting enough or you want to show that time has passed? Is this also considered "telling"? (Because, I admit, I'm still doing this...)


  3. Thanks for stopping by Kenda & Lorena!

    Lorena, I love books that just jump into the middle of the new scene, and as the reader, I "catch on" to the time passing, or whatever else happened in the meantime through carefully inserted details or comments. I'm trying to cut more of my own scenes to just leave the interesting parts.


  4. Great summary of great material -- I had the opportunity to take a similar class by Jeff last September at ACFW, but opted for a marketing workshop instead!

    Still, one question: everyone says "show, not tell," but so many published authors (even good ones, even classic authors) violate that "rule." Are there perhaps some exceptions Jeff mentioned? I also wonder if he listed reasons -- besides the obvious, "they sell books so it doesn't matter" -- why published authors are able to get away with explaining their characters and exposit the plots all the time.

  5. This is so helpful--it's such usable advice! I can't wait to read the next half!


  6. Stephen, I agree with your frustration about published authors who "break the rules". It makes me even more determined to do a better job myself! I posted my opinion in the second part of this post ( ) and invited readers to share what they think.

    Thanks for popping by, Carla! Hope you enjoy the rest of Jeff's comments.


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