Why Writers Must Resist the Urge to Explain

Why Writers Must Resist the Urge to ExplainBecause it’s so important readers get what you’re trying to say in your stories, it can be tempting to explain things point blank at every juncture. Avoiding confusion is vital. However, when you fail to master subtlety, you not only rob your stories of added power and depth, you also risk frustrating readers with patronizing attitudes.

Silas Marner George EliotAn annotated volume of George Eliot’s classic Silas Marner offers an interesting example of how over-explaining can weaken even a strong story.

This particular version of Eliot’s story of a miser’s redemption at the hands of an orphan girl was edited by a professor who apparently felt readers wouldn’t grasp the nuances of Eliot’s writing unless he explained them in the footnotes.

For example, at certain crucial stages of the plot, the editor takes Eliot’s delicate “showing” of the protagonist’s growth from reclusive miser to loving father and packages it in a single sentence of description that, although it may perfectly explain the author’s intent, kills its power instantaneously.

The goal of every author is to write a story so strong and deep that it doesn’t require any commentary. Some of the most powerful stories in literature are those that offer characters and events with hardly any explanation.

Watch out for places in your prose where you effectively show your character’s development or your story world—and then guard yourself against sucking the color right out of these scenes by imprisoning them in careful explanations.

Believe in your writing, and allow it to stand on its own.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! Can you think of a reading experience that was weakened for you because the author didn’t resist the urge to explain? Tell me in the comments!

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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. This is something I have always struggled with! I have to regularly remind myself to trust the reader and back off on the explanation. But along with trusting the reader, it’s also a matter of trusting that your writing will do the job you expect of it. Thanks for this post! I found it very useful 🙂

  2. Sometimes it’s easier (and more mentally reassuring) to explain things in full in the first draft, then go back during the edits with an eye for paring the prose down to the essentials.

  3. In my line of work, I deal with people on a daily basis that not only have to be told that 2+2=4, but have to be shown how to count on their fingers to obtain the answer. So, it’s hard for me to break away from that when I write and just trust that the reader is smart enough to know what I’m trying to say. Though possibly, those who read are smarter than those who don’t, and at work I may be dealing with non-readers. 😀

  4. I tend to vote for the Readers Are Smarter ballot myself. 😉

  5. So damn right.

    I hate it when literature professors add their I-am-the-professor-who-knows-everything-and-you-are-stupid notes to classics. And I always skip the 30-page professor-introductions to War and Peace and Brothers Karamazov. Leave the classics alone

    Cold As Heaven

    Cold As Heaven

  6. I’m always interested in the analytical view of classics, particularly if they provide a historical context. But the editor of this particular book was more condescending than any I’ve ever read.

  7. Yeaaah, I’m working on this. I like to explain things to my readers, in case they don’t “get” something. I don’t want them to be lost, after all. LOL

    But as an agent during a one-on-one critique told me: Trust The Reader. He/she is smarter than I realize!

  8. Objective readers are really invaluable in helping us know when we’ve explained too much and when we’ve explained not enough.

  9. Honestly, I think we’re on the same wavelength with our blogs. On Dec 14 I posted a blog titled Sometimes the devil is in too many details.

    I gave two specific examples from The Hunger Games and Neverwhere that show how two bestselling authors refused to go into unnecessary descriptions, when they easily could have.

    This idea is completely new to me, but it’s a lesson I need to learn. Explaining or detailing everything can make writing (and reading) tedious. Stick to the relevant information, and leave the rest to the reader’s imagination.

  10. Fiction is one of the best frontiers of imaginative participation. Most readers appreciate having the opportunity to let the story bloom in their own imaginations. The trick is figuring out just the right balance between enough detail and not enough.

  11. Jodie Wilk says

    When my son was in 5th grade we read CARRY ON MR. BOWDITCH together for a class assignment. A massive book that had twenty pages of sailing a ship and two sentences of meat— ie, “His wife died.” Argh!! All that work reading all that unnecessary detail and no pay off. No personal story of the lead character with his wife or nothing. Needless to say (ha, see what I did there) my son and I only completed the book for the grade. He’s 23 years old now and we still pull painful faces when we mention that book.
    My writing keeps that book in mind every time.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      And that is why so many adults struggle with wanting to read classic novels after they finish school. :p

  12. I’m cutting what I see out of second draft.

    I had to drop some lore in Chapter 2, though (but I condensed it down to 4 paragraphs), otherwise it’s like…why are they about to go on this voyage?

  13. Audrie Clements says

    It’s certainly a delicate balance, especially with science fiction and fantasy, where you have to establish setting, level of technology/rules of magic, characters and their goals, and a sense of conflict/problem early on.

    I’m always looking for examples where an author nails these elements without explaining too much.

    Ursula K Le Guin is one favorite.
    Most recently I discovered Octavia Butler’s Wild Seed.

    Her opening paragraph is a masterful example of tight science fiction exposition:

    “Doro discovered the woman by accident when he went to see what was left of one of his seed villages. The village was a comfortable mud-walled place surrounded by grasslands and scattered trees. But Doro realized even before he reached it that its people were gone. Slavers had been to it before him. With their guns and their greed, they had undone in a few hours the work of a thousand years. Those villagers they had not herded away, they had slaughtered. Doro found human bones, hair, bits of desiccated flesh missed by scavengers. He stood over a very small skeleton—the bones of a child—and wondered where the survivors had been taken. Which country or New World colony? How far would he have to travel to find the remnants of what had been a healthy, vigorous people?”

    Mark Lawrence opens Red Sister in a similarly compelling bit of exposition with a close 3rd person POV.

    I find that analyzing examples like these really helps to improve my own writing.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      William Gibson had a really great comment on the this for speculative writers:

      “Sophisticated science fiction requires a sort of cultural superstructure of reading skill. We forget as readers of longform fiction that at one time we didn’t know how to do that—we had to acquire the skill through cultural education. It’s the same with good sci-fi, which generally requires a sort of superstructure of culture experience to make it pleasurably accessible. As a reader, I want to encounter rigorously imagined literature….”

  14. This is precisely the trouble I have been having with Scott Lynch’s “The Lies of Locke Lamora”–the book is 80% tell. The narration often goes on tangents in the middle of the action, in order to explain nonessential world details. Case in point, there’s a scene where one of the side heroes is fighting giant spiders. For a fantasy book, that’s all you really need to say right, giant frigging spiders? But Lynch stops the action to spend several paragraphs describing in detail the biology of the spiders. The description almost comes off as encyclopedia entry and it’s a shocking shift in tone from the surrounding narrative. The issue is compounded by the fact that the scene itself (through the POV of a side character) is largely unnecessary itself, the relevant details of the event described to the main character in dialogue in the scene that follows. We authors, particularly fantasy authors, love our characters and our worlds, and can become obsessed with sharing every detail. We need to restrain that impulse. What we put into the work (or keep after editing) should only be what is relevant to the story at hand, to the plot and the protagonists’ character arcs.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I really wanted to like that book, but the distant narrative was a breaker for me as well.

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