Authors are in a tough spot. Readers expect us to supply them with enough info to help them imagine our story worlds and our characters’ emotions in vivid details. But readers also expect us to never provide too many details. They want us to explain; but they never want us to over-explain.
Over-explaining can manifest in several ways, but the core of the problem is always repetition—and it’s usually symptomatic of authorial insecurity. We distrust our ability to explain things well enough the first time around, so we stick in a second, or even third, explanation, just to make sure readers get the point.
But not only are these inner girders unnecessary more often than not, they also tend to have exactly the opposite of the desired effect: instead of strengthening our prose, they weaken it. We end up with flabby sentences, confused metaphors, and condescending descriptions.
Tears welled in Keira’s eyes. She was so sad she could just cry. Her heart felt like it was about to bleed itself dry, like it was about to crumble into a million infinitesimal pieces, like it was breaking. “How can you treat me like this?” she sniffed dismally.
Poor Keira. She’s getting smacked around from all over the place. Not only is she sad and apparently mistreated, she’s also getting absolutely no benefit of the doubt from her author. This example features just about every kind of over-explanation you can imagine:
- Telling that’s repetitious in light of a strong example of showing.
- Three metaphoric descriptive phrases where one would do.
- An unnecessary dialogue tag.
- A gratuitous adverb modifying that tag.
Instead of milking this dramatic moment for all its worth, we’d be better off trusting the drama itself to carry the day. We could easily cut almost all of our original explanation without weakening the effect:
Tears welled in Keira’s eyes. “How can you treat me like this?”
Particularly if your subtext is strong enough to indicate why Keira is so upset, readers will understand she’s sad enough to cry ergo her heart is breaking ergo she’s dismal. You don’t need to tell readers what they can glean for themselves.
True enough that you can also go overboard in avoiding explanation. You always want to give readers enough external detail to help them visualize characters and settings and enough internal detail to help them vicariously share your character’s emotions. This is an equation to which only you can determine the right answer. But, when in doubt, err on the side of less explanation rather than too much. Readers are smart, and they love it when we acknowledge their intelligence.
Tell me your opinion: Do you ever worry that your descriptions are too subtle?
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