Most Common Writing Mistakes: Don’t Drown Your Reader in Explanations

Readers have needs. Authors are supposed to fulfill those needs. One of those needs is knowing what’s going on in a story. So, naturally, the author’s response is to explain what’s going on. So far, so good, right?

Well, that depends.

Explanations, in whatever form (narrative, dialogue, or action), are essential to any story. But, when overdone, they can leave your reader feeling as if he’s drowning in a flood of wordy information. Let’s consider an example:

Too Much Explanation

Angie walked into the grocery store. At the door stood the old guy who was responsible for handing out carts, stamping stickers on return items, and guarding the exit from potential shoplifters. All the kids knew better than to mess with him. A few years ago, he’d tackled the star fullback on the high school team, just because he thought he looked guilty (he wasn’t; he’d only come in to buy a pack of gum). Angie passed the first checkout stand—abode of Mountain Dew-swilling Mrs. Walker—and offered a little wave in return to Mrs. Walker’s energetic one. “Hi, there,” Angie said and kept walking. She wasn’t in the mood to listen to Mrs. Walker’s latest bit of scandalous gossip. The last time she’d stopped, she’d had to listen for nearly an hour to whispers about balding banker Horace Wallace supposedly sneaking money out of his own vault. She didn’t have an hour to spare today. She was on a mission to save the stock boy, her best friend Rupert, from flunking math after missing another class.

So what do we have in this paragraph? At first glance a lot of explanation. None of our explaining here is essentially bad, but since the mean door guard, Mrs. Walker’s gossip, and the possibly compromised bank never show up in the story again, our explanations of the grocery store don’t move the story forward. In fact, all this extraneous info becomes a murky slough that the reader has to slog through to find the truly pertinent info. Let’s strip this down to bare necessities.

Just Enough Explanation

Angie walked into the grocery store. She was on a mission to save the stock boy, her best friend Rupert, from flunking math after missing another class.

Not only did we just reduce our word count to an eighth of its original bulk, we also streamlined the story down to the essentials of the plot and kept it moving forward, right toward the crux of the scene.

Over-explanation is highly subjective to its context in each story. In some stories, the explanation of the grocery store setting and/or the various personalities in Angie’s town might be crucial to the plot or even just worthwhile for the general color they provide. Authors have to make their own decisions about which explanations are necessary and which will force readers to tread unnecessary water. Always be aware of why you’re including a particular explanation, then reevaluate it to determine its value and don’t be afraid to chop it if it’s interrupting the information that’s of true importance to your story.

Tell me your opinion: What was the last explanation you wrote that didn’t move the plot forward?

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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. Well, let’s just say I chopped out two chapters — whole — from my book, between the first and second drafts…..

  2. Great post and your example is very good. A mantra worth repeating that strengthens what you are saying is that almost all writing can be improved by cutting words.
    I run a writing circle and suggesting to some that they might cut words from their writing is greeted as if I had suggested they cull their pets or even their children.
    Still if everyone could write well there would be no need for advice and editing and too much competition to make writing financially viable. 🙂

  3. The biggest issue I came across that I could think of wasn’t so much that the information didn’t move the plot forward, it was that I didn’t space it out enough. I had a huge section of one character telling another what was going on and it was until I went through afterwards that it occurred to me he didn’t have to explain nearly as much–in fact it was better that some things weren’t explained until later. Finding the balance between explaining the right amount (and at the right time) isn’t an easy thing, but it’s definitely worth the effort!

  4. @Daniel: Chopping that much is always painful – but so worth it when the results create a more seamless story.

    @Christopher: Between adding words and deleting words, adding is by far the more time-consuming and strenuous. But sometimes just that bare act of poking the delete button is ten times worse. Keeping everything in a delete folder – just I case I change my mind – has always eased the pain for me.

    @Ava: That’s an important point. Sometimes the explanation *is* vital. In those cases, our biggest pitfall is the info dump, and that’s relatively easy to avoid, simply by interspersing the info with dialogue, action, or even internal narrative.

  5. Urgh. It’s a pet hate to read too. Too much exposition is definitely a bad thing.

    In my own writing, I’m probably more guilty of not saying enough out of fear of giving too much away.

  6. It’s easy to overreact to this pitfall and end up not giving the reader enough info. We have to find the right balance between drowning them and letting them die if thirst.

  7. Great post. I always seem to write too much and have to hack and slash after, but I’m working on it.

  8. In my opinion, it’s actually easier to overwrite and cut rather than underwrite and add. But not all authors would agree with me on that.

  9. My bloated fantasy, which originally came in at 160,000 words, had A LOT of over explaining. In one instance I found a way to cut thousands of words by having my mc already know things that would otherwise have to be explained to her and I found a way to do it in a logical manner. I was rather pleased with myself that day 🙂

    My current work is much, much leaner and if anything, I’ll end up having to find ways to add details. I think I agree with you it’s easier to cut than add.

  10. It’s amazing how a little creative finagling can reduce the need for the vast majority of explanations.

  11. Arrgh, I am in the middle of doing that now. Where my protagonist meets someone who isn’t going to have anything to do with the plot.

  12. @Bethany a.k.a. Bobo: Take a Creative Writing class at your local community college that will force you to read. It’s a good habit to get forced into. You might actually like it one day.

  13. An unexpected meeting? Those can be both exciting and frustrating. Usually in that order.

  14. I tend to under-explain.. the most common complaint I get from my readers is that the stories are too dry.
    There’s a fine line between over-explaining and under-explaining… Finding that line can be tough. At least, that’s the way it goes for me.

    Thnx for another great article, KM.

  15. I’ve found it helpful to push yourself in the direction opposite from which you tend to lean. If you under-explain, purposefully give a try to over-explaining. You may have to trim back in the edit, but it’ll help you stretch yourself and learn to feel for that balance.

  16. Another good one, Katie.
    Almost two years ago, I think it was, I was completing a course in fiction writing at the Longridge Writer’s Group (to refresh my fiction tech), and my instructor, critiquing one of my mystery short stories suddenly pinned me to the wall with: “You’re spoonfeeding the reader.” Well, that was rather blunt, but I’ll tell you I quit that!

  17. Another good one, Katie.
    Almost two years ago, I think it was, I was completing a course in fiction writing at the Longridge Writer’s Group (to refresh my fiction tech), and my instructor, critiquing one of my mystery short stories suddenly pinned me to the wall with: “You’re spoonfeeding the reader!” Well, that was rather blunt, but I’ll tell you what–I quit doing that!

  18. There’s little readers resent more than having the author patronize him. A story is a partnership between reader and writer, and, as such, the author has to trust the reader to be at least as smart as he is.

  19. Great post. A few weeks ago, I cut a scene that didn’t move the plot forward where my MC was talking to a neighbor. It even had me bored, so I knew it wouldn’t work.

  20. The boredom guideline is always a good rule of thumb. Whenever I find my interest lagging in a scene, it’s always a good indication that one or more pistons aren’t firing.

  21. Thanks for giving great examples and explanations:) I can think of a few paragraphs already that need some
    chopping;( Thanks for the help!

  22. Happy deleting! (If there is such a thing. 😉

  23. I try to make sure that any explanation included has a reason to be in my story, otherwise I start looking for ways to cut it out.

    Can’t even remember the last over-explanation I did. 🙂

  24. I’ve only lately found my balance. I think all writers at first want to over-explain. In my case, I then realized what I had done and toned it down. However, I toned it down too much and went really bare bones. Now, I think I’ve got it.

    Of course, editing is where things still get cleaned up.

  25. @Misha: You go! That’s the way to win readers and influence agents.

    @Olene: In my experience editing unpublished manuscripts, I actually see as many people under-explaining as over-explaining – but that’s a post for another day!

  26. Good post! I find that the times I’m likely to over-explain are (a) at that beginning of a story, and (b) when I get stuck. In the first case, it’s kind of like the junk closet: I’ve been thinking about the story for days, weeks or months, and by the time I’m ready to start writing, I’ve accumulated quite the stash of detail. In spite of outlining and planning, when I do begin, it’s kind of like opening that closet door and having great whacks of detail tumble out at once. Usually I just let it tumble, then tidy up (or delete) that first chapter once the story starts finding its rhythm.

    In the second case, I notice that when I reach a part of the story that I know is going to be difficult, or I encounter a plot point that doesn’t feel right, I start stalling–adding extraneous detail just to keep the writing momentum going. It gives my brain a chance to process and hopefully solve the problem. And then snip, snip, snip!

  27. I think nothing would explain the problem quite as well as presenting those to paragraphs right next to each other. The simplicity of the second one, in contrast to the almost unchecked trail of thoughts in the first one drives in the message perfectly.

  28. It’s valuable to over-explain in both those instances – in the rough draft. Write it all down, get it all out of your system – and then go back and delete it. A lot of what you cut will probably find a proper place later on in the story. And, at the very least, it helps you figure out things in your own head.

  29. @Jane: I’m all for interesting descriptions and characterizations, so, in the proper place, in the proper story, that first paragraph wouldn’t necessarily have to be out of place. But we have to recognize when over-explaining just gets in the way of what’s really important in the scene.

  30. Great, succinct post! In the same vein, I always find it valuable to look at my writing both from the writer’s point of view (the reader NEEDS all that explanation or he/she won’t understand the subtle point I’m trying to make!!) and from the reader’s (does this writer think I’m an idiot? Talk about beating a dead horse!) It’s amazing what a wide gap separates the two. We should always try to look at what we’re writing from the reader’s perspective. Thanks!

  31. As writers, we should be masters of seeing through imagined people’s perspective. So if we can just imagine we’re our readers as we review our work, we can get a lot closer to an objective opinion.

  32. Popping in to let you know I’m highlighting you on my blog tomorrow. I just noticed you made the top ten sites for writers! Yahoo. 🙂

  33. Hey, thank you so much! I appreciate that a lot.

  34. This is sage advise that I’ve heard before, and will probably need to hear it every time I complete a first draft. It’s kind of like dieting after the holidays. No one wants to give up on December’s festive indulgences, but most could stand to lose a few pounds come January.

  35. Ugh… I always do stuff like that when I’m writing, then realise that I don’t need it, and cut a whole bunch of stuff out.

  36. @Tasamoah: Good analogy! Losing weight is tough whether we’re talking poundage or verbiage.

    @Aimee: So long as you realize it during the edit, that’s all that matters.

  37. Donny Yodel says

    That’s always my most obvious error – when it comes to description, I often feel as though I stepped out of the flow of the story to throw a list of details at the mind of the reader. Definitely working to improve in that area.

  38. Grocery lists of details are rarely a good thing. But if we can work those same details into the flow of the story, the reader gets to benefit from both the description and the plot progression.

  39. Good post and very helpful, but I’m more impressed with how many comments you generated. The idea of leaving the reader a question to answer was brilliant. I plan to try this myself.

  40. Well, thank you for adding to the number! 😉

  41. mimsy/darkocean says

    This is one of a building pile of reasons why I’m taking a break from the online writing group I joined. They want me to explain everything right now. No! You have to read on to find out what happens lol. If it needs to be explained right then and there I do, but I keep it short.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I tend to think this is one of the dangers of sharing works-in-progress. When someone is asked to critique bits instead of the whole, they sometimes don’t give the best advice *for* the whole.

      • Yes sadly, it still happens often. I’ll just thank them and try another critic. (Thankfully there are loads of people willing to help online.<3)

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