Most Common Writing Mistakes: A Surefire Sign You’re Over-Explaining

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.

Explanation Overkill

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.

Explanation Excellence

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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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. I used to be too generous with my descriptions, but I think that’s because in French, this is pretty much the norm. Prose is more ornate. Now, however, I sometimes tend to be too concise. I guess It’s a question of tuning at this point.

  2. @cg: Yes, that’s the great thing about this particular mistake. Nothing’s easier than hitting the backspace button a few (dozen) times.

    @Stephanie: Balance, always balance. We all tend to swing first one way, then the other. It just takes experience to figure out how to walk that tightrope.

  3. I usually have to cut out something I thought was particularly clever. A turn of phrase I worked hard on…but then, I stuck it in not because it moved the story forward, but because I was proud of myself. I have a great CP that is wonderful about helping me trip the fat.

  4. Killing our darlings is never fun. But it’s so necessary sometimes!

  5. Hi K.M.

    I often over explain more than I’d like to. But once I re-read my work I can usually spot this. Thank you for highlighting this matter.

  6. As long we catch it in the edits, that’s all that matters.

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  8. Awesome post! Thank you!

    I think this is something we, writers, learn with time (to trust our explanations).

    Thanks again! Will be having it in mind!

    xoxo

    M.

  9. It’s definitely a matter of first gaining experience, then learning to trust that experience.

  10. So true 🙂 It was for me like that anyway 😛

    Experience is worth its weight in many areas ^^

  11. Can’t make this mistake if you stick to simple MRUs (motivation-reaction units): Motivation, Emotion, Instintive reaction, Rational action. Always in this order, ie:

    >>”The fact is that I don’t want to be with you anymore, James,” she said. “Just do us both a favour and go.”

    >>He was gutted. He opened his mouth and closed it again. Then he turned around and walked away.< < Motivation: “The fact is that I don’t want to be with you anymore, James,” she said. “Just do us both a favour and go.” 1) Emotion: He was gutted.
    2) Instinctive reaction: He opened his mouth and closed it again.
    3) Rational action: Then he turned around and walked away.

    Except for the motivation, you can leave any one or even two of these steps out, but it always has to follow in this sequence.

    Most new writers over-explain because their MRUs don’t make sense to them. They know something is wrong, but they don’t know what. Most of the time it’s the sequence of the reactions. Because it’s the wrong way around, and because most new writers don’t know how to identify the problem, they try to fix it by over-explaining.

  12. MRUs are a fabulous way to strip down paragraphs and identify their foundational elements. You’ve done a great job explaining the basics. If anyone would like to read more about them, they can check out this post.

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  1. […] core of the over-explaining problem, thinks K.M. Weiland, is repetition.  That’s usually symptomatic of authorial insecurity – We distrust […]

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