It can be tempting to over-explain in your writing. Sometimes you may feel the need to add an extra thought or sentence for clarity’s sake, or to make sure that your reader has inferred the correct information.
I know I’ve talked before about not leaving anything open to interpretation, but I’d like to look at the flipside of that coin today and talk about trusting your reader. We all have a pretty good idea about the things you shouldn’t do, like info-dumping or illustrating every tree on the horizon Tolkein-style, and while it's true that many of us may need practice perfecting the art of painting a picture without overexplaining, I think we all kind of know what we are *supposed* to be doing. And as always, much of this can be refined once you’ve tackled the first draft and are on to the editing stage. As such, it’s during the first editing stage that I’d like you to take the information I’m about to impart to heart and try putting it into practice.
You must trust your readers.
Obviously they are not psychic. You have to impart enough information for the story to be adequately conveyed, otherwise what is the point of writing it? Setting the scene is important, giving your readers something to envision is important, but you must find a happy medium somewhere and not explain every little detail to them. Beyond the fact that this is simply exhausting as an author, it also takes away the reward for the readers to an extent. I talked last week about how they love to be rewarded for paying attention – and this goes for being trusted with information as well.
There will be instances where you need to tell the reader what to think and feel, either through the eyes of the character, or because they might not yet understand the politics or mannerisms in the world you’ve created, or whatever other reason that makes it necessary to help them understand the impact of what’s happening. This is especially so with matters of emotion, as you want them to feel what your main character is feeling (remember in this instance to show, not tell).
Other times, you don’t need to explain so much. If you leave a cold glass on a wooden table, and a ring forms underneath it, you don’t have to tell the reader that it’s from the condensation on the glass and that water leaves marks on wooden surfaces. This is information that can be inferred. When a character’s arm gets crushed and they hear a snap and then scream, you don’t need to tell them that the arm is likely broken; they can probably figure that out on their own.
Likewise, use body language to cut out your adjectives and adverbs. If your character gasps and drops something, you do not need to add “in shock” to any part of that sentence. Your reader can pick that up. Tempted though you may be, resist the urge! Or, you know, slash it in post.
When a character’s eyes flit and they fidget, you don’t need to make the observation that they are uncomfortable. There is a good chance that your reader will recognize this as unsettled or nervous behavior.
I could carry on for hours talking about body language cues and how you don’t need to explain them, but it all comes back to the concept of trusting in your reader to understand what you’ve put onto the paper. This requires some trust in yourself, as well, and you will find it easier and easier to trust your audience when you place trust in your own writing.
In these cases, sometimes you can do with a solid critique partner, or a good content editor. A good editor can help you pinpoint these types of redundancies, and it’s one of the things I cut out of manuscripts with great frequency. Anything that can be inferred from your descriptions doesn’t need to be outright stated.
In English, Please
It’s also easy to become bogged down in exposition through dialogue, especially in fantasy settings, and to over explain what is being said either through the dialogue itself or as a footnote in the narrative. This not only muddies your dialogue, but it makes your readers feel like you think them inept. They can likely pull a lot more information from context than you think.
For instance, if a character uses a term that is unique to your fantasy world, don’t feel the need to jump into the narrative to explain exactly what it is right away. Likewise, don’t have a dumb character asking questions all the time as a means for you to explain a complicated or techy concept. In fact, my friends, family, and I have a term for this character; we call them the “Jimmy Bond.”
For years, I was obsessed with the Fox television series, The X-Files. X-Files had a spinoff series called The Lone Gunmen, which is brilliantly crafted and unfortunately lived a very short syndication due to a tragic coincidence with the falling of the World Trade Center in 2001. Within the show was a character whose name was actually James Bond, known as Jimmy, played by Stephen Snedden. The hunky, dumb, athletic type, Jimmy often served as a bridge between characters and the audience, wherein one of the “smarter” protagonists would explain a plan, but Jimmy wouldn’t grasp the lingo and would ask for an “in English, please” explanation. This is a trope I’ve seen across a multitude of programs, especially in Science Fiction but also in fantasy (and weirdly in a lot of crime shows). It can be nice to have a laymen’s explanation for something you worked hard on, but you dismiss the attention span and intelligence of your audience when you too often over explain.
For Those of You Who Don’t Know…
Nothing insults me, personally, as an audience member more than having something from real life explained to me. There are of course exceptions to this rule, and you’ll find me once again referencing the brilliant Stephen Brust who utilizes this tool via snobby historian who assumes all of his readers are dumber than him (underhandedly, of course, because heaven forbid he should insult the good reader). Typically, though, this is used as a way of assuming that your audience falls under a certain category or age group and won’t know what you’re talking about.
I see this often coming from writers who have passed a certain age and have a bit more experience or knowledge of older technologies, but it happens in other instances, too. The “for those of you who don’t know” trope is often a way to explain a simple or mundane concept as though a person has never been a part of civilization before. Sometimes it is also used to explain something a bit more complex, but more often than not when I strike unnecessary explanations from prose it contains information that is either commonly known or easily searchable on the internet.
Much in the vein of over explaining because of mistrust is the temptation to infodump simply because you did the research and want your audience to know what you’ve found. In these cases, refrain! Writer and blogger Greg Leitich Smith wrote an article titled “Research is for the Background,” and I absolutely agree. You will want to share all this information you dug up, but you must only do so in the places where it definitely matters in order to move your story forward. Otherwise, your audience will feel less like they’re reading a story and more like they are reading an educational text.
As you work through your edits this week, ask yourself, “did I actually need to explain this?” and strike it out anywhere that the explanation was unnecessary.
Thank you all for reading, as always!
As you can tell, I've had a bit of trouble getting to my desk in order to post new blogs on Sundays. Part of this I can fault to wix for not allowing me to schedule posts, but I'm simply too busy with non-work-related items over the weekends to post regularly on Sundays. As such, June will see the migration of blog posts over from Sunday to Monday! If there is a day you all would find more convenient for incorporating my invaluable writing and editing advice, please let me know in the comments!
As a quick update, we will be enrolling more beta readers June 3rd – June 7th, but there will be NO ENROLLMENT IN JULY. My book will launch on Monday, July 1st, and my energy will be spent traveling and promoting. If you were considering joining this program, please make sure you sign up during that first week of June! We will be accepting new manuscripts for the beta program on FRIDAY, June 14th. The submission window is moving to Fridays!
I will be in Minneapolis July 12, 13, and 14, at Narrativity. You can get your tickets at narrativity.fun! I hope to see at least some of you there; please stop me if you see me and say hello!
Don’t forget to sign up for Novel News! Our newest Beta Rockstar will be announced shortly, and you’ll also get monthly updates on events happening within the writing community and here at Overhaul My Novel!