Most Common Writing Mistakes: Under-Explaining

The other day, I walked into the local theater to watch a showing of Captain Phillips. As I approached the door to Auditorium 4, popcorn and Pepsi in hand, I could hear the trailers still running, complete with epic music and bass-heavy vocals. Whatever was playing sounded pretty good, so I elbowed through the door and stared up at the screen. Except nothing was up there. The screen was blank; the room was pitch black. The audio kept playing, but somebody had glitched the visuals.

This is kind of how our readers feel when we fail to properly describe important aspects of our stories. A few months ago, we talked about how over-explaining can frustrate readers and even insult their intelligence. But, of the two, under-explaining is perhaps the more egregious mistake. Why? Because, like what happened to me with the trailer before Captain Phillips, under-explanation tantalizes readers with the possibilities without giving them enough details to fill in the blanks.

What Causes Under-Explaining?

Under-explaining can happen for one of two reasons:

1. The author doesn’t know his story well enough.

If you’re writing about a character, setting, or activity that you really don’t know that well, you may fail to fill in important blanks simply because you lack the info yourself.

2. The author knows his story too well.

At the other end of the spectrum, we have the problem of our own rampant imaginations running away with us. We see our characters, settings, and situations so clearly in our own minds that we forget readers aren’t sharing that vision. You may know your hero is blond, 6’1”, and about twenty pounds overweight, but that doesn’t mean that information will be automatically brain-waved to your readers.

Underwhelming Explanations

Sir Nigel burst into the room. He drew his sword and fought with some enemy soldiers. He left through the other door and used his eye patch as a tourniquet for the wound on his shoulder.

As I’m writing this, I’m seeing all kinds of possibilities for Sir Nigel. He looks kind of like Jeff Bridges. He’s wearing armor and tabard straight out of an N.C. Wyeth painting. The room he enters is at the top of a circular stone tower and is furnished only with a wooden trunk and a table and chair. There are about ten enemy soldiers, all wearing chain mail.

That’s a pretty detailed vision. But did you get any of that when you read my original paragraph? You were probably able to draw a couple inferences from the context (this “sir” guy is fighting with a sword, so he’s probably from a medieval setting), but that’s likely about it.

You definitely weren’t sharing the details from my vision for the scene, because I completely failed to present those details. Even the wounded shoulder ended up surprising you, because I didn’t allow you to see the blow that gave him that wound. And the eye patch? Where the heck did the eye patch come from? Sir Nigel started that scene already missing an eye?

Excellent Explanations

Avoiding under-explanation comes down to a few key techniques:

Distribute details throughout the book

Optimally, half of the details we’ve already discussed would have been distributed in other paragraphs. By the time Nigel storms the tower room, readers should already have a general idea of his appearance (the eye patch for sure, if perhaps not the Jeff Bridges comparison).

Let readers know what the narrator knows

Nigel probably knows the room he’s about to enter is round and on top of a tower. You can prep readers for what’s to come by keeping them abreast of the narrator’s own knowledge and presumptions.

Show readers what the narrator sees

As soon as Nigel opens that door, he’s going to see the salient features of the room, the number of men inside, and the details that prompt him to believe they’re enemies. What he sees readers should see.

Show, don’t tell

Quite frankly, our fight scene in that paragraph stunk. It wasn’t a fight scene at all, just a bare mention that there was some swordplay going on. You’re not going to need to give readers a blow-by-blow account of everything that happens in your story, but you are going to want to dramatize the exciting and pertinent moments—such as when Nigel is wounded.

We have to find a balance between too much description and not enough. We never want to insult our readers’ intelligence by giving them more info than they need. But we also have to make certain we’re giving them enough details to help them share our visions.

Tell me your opinion: Do you think you are more inclined to under-explain or over-explain?

Most Common Writing Mistakes, #26: Under-Explaining

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. I tend to under-explain because I worry that I’m over-explaining. How’s that for logic? But one of my biggest problems is being too wordy. I use long sentences. Or, as one of my dear, and honest writerbuds says, “I like to hear myself write.” So I tend to over-compensate by cutting out a lot of description. A rule of thumb I’ve gone by recently is this: if I’ve used two or three visuals to describe a scene, pick the one that works the best. Cut the rest.

    • This is a great rule of thumb. It’s one of the ironies of writing that more descriptors are often less powerful than fewer.

    • Same here. Though in my case it’s also a matter of feeling as though my explanations or descriptions will bring the pace to a crawl.

      • K.M. Weiland says

        We need to listen to our internal story sense. If it’s telling us something isn’t working, it’s probably right. That said, our sense of a story can sometimes get a little wonky when we’re in the thick of writing it. We always need to take a step back during the revision process and evaluate how description (or the lack of it) is affecting the pacing.

  2. Lorna G. Poston says

    I tend to under-explain. I have to remind myself that just because I can clearly see the scene in my head, it doesn’t mean the reader can as well. More often than not I have to go back and add detail.

  3. I’m more likely to over-explain because I the scenes appear vividly in my head and want to re-create them in words exactly as I see them. Of course, I realize this isn’t always for the best. But I do believe it’s much easier to pare down over-writing than to bulk up under-writing.

    • Sometimes it’s easier to go ahead and get all that over-explaining out on the page (and out of our systems), and then go back and edit them down to optimum fighting weight.

  4. I had (have) problem #2. I’ve learned to go back and add in more sensory details after my first draft. Oddly enough my fight scenes were the ones that I tended to actually put in the necessary details first.

    • K.M. Weiland says

      This is one of those things we don’t necessarily need to worry about too much in the first draft. At that point, we just need to get all our thoughts out on paper. Then we can go back and fix our under- or over-explanations.

  5. Jeriann Fisher says

    Under or over? Gee, for me it depends on the draft! Your example is probably what is put in for a rough draft because I’d want to get to dialogue. I’m one of those “dialogue first” writers.

    But description is a delicate balance. By the time the MS is polished, I’d rather over explain than under. But a friend of mine, mystery writer Bernadette Pajer, has a theory of “triggers”. I.e. Putting in enough detail to get the reader’s participation to fill in the rest.

    For example: “she stumbled through the door and into a small room dominated by an enormous four-poster bed lined with heavy brocade curtains of deepest crimson.”

    That creates a picture but mine may be different than your picture. Hopefully it’s just enough.

    Great topic!

    • K.M. Weiland says

      I think I’d like your mystery writer friend! She’s spot on. In so many ways, a book is really a collaboration between writer and reader. We want to make sure we’re not trying to do their job as well as ours, while at the same time giving them enough info so they *will* be able to envision the story for themselves.

  6. In the first draft, I definitely under-explain. That is why it grows so much during revision. And that is probably why I feel like I’ve told the entire story at aprox 50 or 60K words. It will probably be at least 10 or 20K words longer before I finish the second draft.
    I think that this is due to the fact that I am so eager to get it written as fast as I can, before losing that momentum where I see the scene really clearly in my head.

    • K.M. Weiland says

      It’s important to know how we write best in the first draft: slim and trim or overblown and flowery. Then we can go back and revise as necessary in the following drafts.

  7. Kay Anderson says

    Good post! I used to actually over-explain (especially when describing setting) more than under-explain, but not I’m in between the two of them. I try not to do more than the other, some things I think are actually better untold or not described.

    • K.M. Weiland says

      I agree. We have to be able to look at our stories and realize which details the ones that are best shared to bring the scene to life for readers.

  8. Katie, I tend to over-explain in 1st draft, then cut out a lot through subsequent edits and such. It takes some skill in being able to share bits and pieces of description/explanation throughout a novel without doing it all at once.

    A useful post, Katie. Did you enjoy Captain Phillips? Some friends raved about it.

    • K.M. Weiland says

      I found Captain Phillips a very enjoyable, interesting, and well done movie. However, it made me seasick. Literally. :p If you’re inclined to motion sickness, wait for the DVD!

  9. Great post, Katie!

    I have a tendancy to under-explain, especially with descriptions. I forget that my readers can’t see what I’m seeing. I tend to write what the character is feeling rather than seeing.

    My beta reader (my bff) is great about racking my knuckles to remind me. 🙂

    • K.M. Weiland says

      At the end of the day, a character’s reaction to the scene is always going to be the most important element. So you’re erring on the right side of the fence! But it’s great that you’re able to get the objective input you need to balance out the description side as well.

  10. Afraid I do this all the time. Sometimes it’s cutting corners in how I picture the environment, sometimes it’s getting caught up in mysteries and teases where I want to say just enough and rush on. Both things that mean a lot to me, where I want to have just enough detail to play things how I want… but I now and then I miscalculate.

    I guess the best cures are to know what the basics are (say to set a scene, or explain an event), and then double-check with our trust betas.

    • K.M. Weiland says

      Nothing wrong with putting a little rush on in the first draft. We just need to get the words out (and have fun along the way) at that stage. We can always go back and adjust the amount of info we’re sharing later on.

  11. I definitely tend to under explain — I think it’s the result of wanting to manage the reveals and sometimes going a little too far. Thank you for the great post and reminder to balance the witholding of information with the need for enough!

    • K.M. Weiland says

      Beta readers are great for letting us know when we’re stringing them along with just the right amount of mystery – and when we’re just leaving them hopelessly confused. Since we see the big picture of our stories, we can sometimes have a difficult time properly gauging whether we’re doling out our information at the right speed.

  12. I would say I’m guilty of under explaining. Although I don’t hate description altogether, I feel too much of it kills a story really fast, especially when it’s over nonessential or non interesting details. My favorite kind of description is when it is given piece by piece and keeps your curiosity and comprehension until you see the big picture, but of course, that just doesn’t work at times.

    • K.M. Weiland says

      You’ve definitely got the right idea. It’s a misconception that modern audiences don’t like description. What’s true is that they don’t like description that is just tossed at them in a heap, rather than artfully sown throughout the story.

  13. Coming from a screenwriting background, I always employ the “less is more” philosophy, which is so sadly under utilized in most Hollywood films (and mainstream novels) today.

    This is a great article however — because I do fall into that trap of under-explaining. Leaving room for the audience to think and connect the dots from your subtext creates a more intelligent work, but they also can’t read our minds! This is a tricky balance I battle with every time I write.

    • K.M. Weiland says

      Although I love a good, fat, luscious sentence, I’m inclined to agree with you. We have to get the balance of “just enough” right, but, most of the time, it’s better to err on the side of too little rather than too much.

  14. brian jones says

    Hey Kate, This is really good. I tend to under explain, which is why it’s important for me to have someone else look at my work. Preferably after the second draft(It’s less painful for the reader.) I tend to think people are as stoked about my story and understand where I am going. Wop, wop, completely untrue.
    Have you gone into how to write action in a scene? I have used examples from Hemingway’s In Our Time, short story collection. He explains in one story when they are skiing matter-of-factly what happened. I find in action scenes we tend to over explain and unfortunately our readers get lost.

  15. Jessica Lancaster says

    I tend to over explain. One of the pitfalls of being a novice. But I am learning and you’re helping more than you know, so thank you!

    • K.M. Weiland says

      One of the best ways to learn the proper balance in explanation is to study what works in successful books. Sometimes we might even want to go so far as to write out whole pages of a book, so we can see how the prose works, word by word.

  16. hi would love to connect with you regarding being a coach for me.

    • K.M. Weiland says

      I’m afraid my schedule doesn’t allow me to read manuscripts, but I’m always happy to respond to specific questions. You can email me here.

  17. I’m very guilty of under-explaining, for the same reason mentioned above — I’m afraid I’ll bore my reader by over-explaining. I also have an expressed preference to draw the reader into a story by intentionally not going over every detail so that s/he has to fill it in themselves; it’s a method of engaging their imaginations.

    My solution has been to have someone who’s totally unfamiliar with the story read it and tell me whether it makes any sense for them. When I pick my beta reader I will often deliberately choose one that I know doesn’t know a whole lot about whatever might be going on — for example, I wouldn’t have a vet check a passage about caring for a newborn kitten. (I would have had the vet check it well ahead of this point to get rid of actual errors.)

    So far my beta-on-the-street method seems to be working.

    • K.M. Weiland says

      Smart move. We all need betas who can mirror the experience our average reader will be having when they read our books.

  18. #1

    Most definitely #1.

    I came across NaNoWriMo a day or so before it started and joined in having never written anything before in my life.

    I’m feeling like the guy who gets off work heads toward the subway as usual but sees a crowd gathered a street over and finds a marathon. Like to enter? Sure, why not. Suit, shoes, briefcase… where’s my #? So, yes, definitely #1.

    I can see a good number of settings, experiences but don’t know how to ‘paint’ them (sorry to mix metaphors) Not sure what to put in or leave out.

    So, I’ve been writing what I see, hoping that, at the end, I’ll have at least an outline, a framework, to work from. And hopefully between now and then learn the process of how to do it right.

    • K.M. Weiland says

      Just have fun with it. NaNo is more about getting those words on the paper than it is getting them perfect. So just have a ball, let those words flow however they come out – then go back and edit them into something readers can enjoy as well.

      • Thank you. Will certainly try!

        Though, a quick follow-up… of all the resources available ‘recommended reading’, any that stand out at this stage… you know, that would be the equivalent of changing street shoes to runners, losing the briefcase/jacket and tie? (though I could use the tie as a headband, keep the sweat out of my eyes… so may keep that).

        After reading the example paragraph at the start of the article, have to admit feeling a little “runner’s envy”… so, any additional thoughts, recommendations as you sprint on by? Perhaps I’ll just read through the material you have available here as a start. Either way, I’d really like to finish and not be hobbling around on sore feet for weeks after! ;-D

        Thanks. 😀

  19. I loved this post. I think I’m an under- explainer, at least in my first drafts. I love going back and finding places to flesh out the characters and the action. It’s like adding color to a bland painting.

    • K.M. Weiland says

      Yes, it’s actually fun, isn’t it? It gives us an excuse to go back and revisit our stories and explore more details.

  20. I’ve noticed as I’m coming to the finish of my first long work that I tend to under explain. I had decided that I needed to add description and more details with the second draft but there’s all those minimalist writers that preach about keeping things sparse… As a genre writer, I’ve never been comfortable with that approach because it produces the exact examples you gave. Thank you! I really appreciated your article.

    • K.M. Weiland says

      It’s always useful for us to analyze what *we* enjoy reading in a book. Do you like the sparse approach? Or do you prefer a little more detail? Write the kind of book you would love to read.

  21. I have a problem with under explaining in my first draft. My beta-readers told me that “there was too much story” and that was only the first part of my novel. For this reason I’m working on adding details and on showing not telling.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Showing, not telling, is a huge factor. Really, it’s what all of fiction is about! The day we master that one is the day we master storytelling.

  22. “The audio kept playing, but somebody had glitched the visuals.” Not necessarily. I used to work for a movie chain. If we didn’t sell any tickets to a certain showtime, the projectionist ran that movie “dark”. In other words, the audio runs but not the video. It’s supposed to stop auditorium hopping or at least keep it to a minimum.

  23. I definitely tend to under explain because personally I hate reading lots of explanation. I’d rather think how it looks in my head. I often skip entire paragraphs of description in books to get to the meat of it.

  24. Great article! I have a problem being wordy and using too many adjectives but I’ve gotten much better at show, don’t tell. I feel a lot of current books are bare bones to the point dryness. They’re “cut for time” because supposedly modern readers can’t handle it. What bugs me a lot is a book lacking character description. I don’t mind if the author tells me she’s 5’2, eyes of blue. I’d like it even more if they’d focused on a feature that stands out – A long nose, freckles or bee-stung lips. Whatever the case, I’m not seeing that anymore either. Being allowed to use our imaginations is good, but I’d like to “see” the author’s imagining too.

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