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 lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. @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!

  2. 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!

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. @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.

  6. 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!

  7. 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.

  8. 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. 🙂

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

  10. 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.

  11. 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.

  12. @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.

  13. 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.

  14. 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.

  15. 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.

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

  17. 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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