Show, Don't Tell Tips from Jeff Gerke, Part 2

Today's post is a continuation. If you missed Show, Don't Tell Tips Part 1, you may want to read that first. I'll share Jeff Gerke's do's and don'ts for converting telling to showing.

Once you've determined that a section of your manuscript is telling (see Part 1), it's time to make some changes. You've taken away the reader's curiosity. Now give it back.

What NOT to do:
Remember to ask yourself, "Can the camera see it?" Gerke says there are three ways writers try to "show", when they're really telling. Check to see if you've tried these inadvertently.

Telling in quotation marks. This is dialogue solely for the purpose of explaining something you think the reader needs to know. Usually, it's two characters who both know the same information and talk about it anyway.

Like this example: "As you know, Sally, John Smith was a medic in the war." And Sally responds, "Right, Jim. He endured some difficult situations."

Sneaky telling. Usually only a few words, but they slip in information that the camera can't see. Like: "Of course," said the former war medic. Sneaky telling undermines your reader's curiosity.

Flashbacks. Though some are done well, others are just long passages of telling in quotation marks. Flashbacks are usually not as necessary as the writer thinks they are. Ask yourself, "Does the story really need this?" If so, Gerke suggests considering a prologue. He believes chronological storytelling is stronger.

What TO do: 
Which do you prefer: an informed reader, or an interested reader? Interested readers don't put books down. Informed readers glean enough details to satisfy their curiosity, and stop reading.

Action. Have the character demonstrate the information. Gerke mentioned that in the first Indiana Jones movie, a narrator does not tell the audience that Indy is an archaeologist, and talented with a whip. We see him in action. Our medic above, could rush to assist in a car accident.

Scene. For information that is very important, Gerke suggests creating a scene around the information that needs to be revealed. The more important the information, the more time you can spend in this scene.

The Dumb Puppet Trick. Gerke advises using this technique only five percent of the time, and using the first two most often. A "dumb puppet" is any character who genuinely doesn't know what's going on, and has a reason to ask. This could be a child, a reporter, a tourist, a student or intern.

A variant of the "dumb puppet" is to make your characters argue. People blurt out all kinds of information they both know while arguing.

Is it ever alright to "tell"? Gerke pointed out that there is only one time where it's ok to tell. Two conditions must be met: the reader wants to know, and the story can't go on without the reader understanding this information. In order to get to this point, the writer puts in a lot of hard work getting the reader pulled into the story.

Gerke says it's like a bank account. The writer puts in multiple deposits of reader engagement before they can make any withdrawals (telling), or they will overdraw their account.

E. Stephen Burnett asked this question yesterday:
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.

It's true that published authors have a wider latitude in "breaking the rules". But I often wonder how much better their books would have been if they had followed the rules more closely. What do you think?

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 Endsand 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. As always, great post, Debbie. I'm really enjoying your blog. You have great tips for writers in here. Now back to my nanowrimo novel! :-)

  2. Thanks, Mayra. My Nanowrimo novel is suffering because I'm working on my synopsis to send in to a contest. My crit group is making me work really hard!


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