Resist the urge to explain: four ‘explanations’

‘Resist the urge to explain’ is a mantra drummed into us writers. Okay, another rule – but what does it mean and why should we do our best to follow it?

‘I had no idea what was going on in that book’ is not a sentence any author wants to hear about their novel. We mustn’t confuse readers or have them not ‘get it’, whatever ‘it’ is – the dramatic ending, the motivation behind the villain’s villainous deeds or the hero’s dying words. So we make sure this never happens by explaining everything. But you know what? Readers aren’t fond of having everything explained either, because while things are being explained, nothing is happening.

There’s a phrase to warn us off over-explaining: RUE, or Resist the Urge to Explain, and it comes in many guises. Let’s explore.

Explaining your world – the information dump

Often seen in high fantasy novels (but by no means exclusively), the highly informative opening chapter is where the author ‘world builds’ for several pages to ensure the reader understands what’s going on before the story starts.
However, when the reader opens page one, they rarely want a history lesson or detail about who is who at court, their upbringings, what motivates them and what a feisty tomboy the heroine is (because the author tells them so). They want action and emotion and they are happy to wait for the rest to come to light over time.

Lord of the Rings would have been so much clearer if all the backstory about Sauron, the rings, the wars, were all told in chapter one, don’t you agree? Thought not. Our understanding of that world, its history, the purpose and power of the ring, are all revealed to the reader at the appropriate moments in the story. Writers would do well to follow this example.

Explaining your characters …

New characters who come with their full histories explained are another form of information dump. We authors can be devious though. We know we mustn’t put it on the page as straight narration, so we dress it up in two ways. A common method is to use internal dialogue to, for example, interrogate childhood history and how that’s impacted the current emotional state of the character. Then there is the conversation approach with its inordinate number of facts which no normal person would remember, or say out loud, and which therefore sounds totally unrealistic.
If we tell everything up front, the reader loses interest – what is there left to discover? Conversely, there’s a huge advantage to using hints about backstory as teasers which keep the reader turning those pages.
In my women’s fiction novel, Keepers, I scatter titbits hinting at the reasons for Teddy’s unwillingness to admit his feelings for Raine. But it’s not until near the end that the big confession comes out. It’s a painful event which not even his best mate knew of and explains much of Teddy’s behaviour. What would have happened if I’d mentioned it when we first met Teddy? The reader would understand his actions all along and wouldn’t have the chance to be thoroughly annoyed at him, as so many are!

… and their words and actions

We explain a character’s words and actions to ensure the reader can make no mistake in understanding what the character feels or thinks at the time. This has several downsides:

  • assumes the reader isn’t very bright (and readers don’t want to be patronised)
  • removes subtlety in our writing and hence excitement
  • bulks out word count and slows things down.
An example of ‘resist the urge to explain’ in this context

Here’s a short piece from Legend of the Winged Lion where I’ve added to the actual text [in the square brackets] to show what I mean.

Gweyr summoned a wry smile [to show Da she was mostly joking]. ‘Chicken soup, again?’ [she said drily.] If Mam was here, it would have been carrot soup today [because Mam always made carrot soup on Wednesdays. She’d been doing so ever since Gweyr could remember]. A too familiar lump rose in her throat [at this reminder of her dead mother].
Da raised an eyebrow [to show he understood Gweyr was thinking about her mother] and tilted his head in the direction of the scullery [telling her she needed to get back to work].
‘Nearly done.’ Gweyr huffed [at the implication she was lazy]. She wrapped a thick cloth about her hand [to prevent it being burned] and picked up the kettle [from the hot range].
‘Make sure you top it up, won’t you, luv?’ [as if Gweyr needed reminding to do this each time]
‘Sure, Da,’ Gweyr [quickly assured him. She] squeezed between the table and a dresser [where the gap was very tight] mumbling [to herself], ‘And sweep the bar and the tap room and dust Mam’s chaos of old horseshoes and bells,’ as she went back to the pots [dreading the boring day of work ahead of her].

My additions have doubled the word count, added nothing to the meaning of the passage, and slowed the whole thing down.
We authors would do well to cast a critical eye over every phrase and word, whole sentences too, and cut those which explain things the reader will be able to work out for themselves. If the sentence needs the explanation, re-write it so it doesn’t.

Explaining the ending

I dealt with this in my post on story endings, so won’t go into detail here. Suffice to say that a dramatic, emotional climax to our story/novel will be sucked lifeless by further paragraphs explaining what happened, why, and what the characters think about it. Leave it be! The tale is over, a new world has emerged and our characters now live their changed lives, whatever they happen to be.

Finally, the little things – redundant words and phrases

A twitter friend posted that he’d written: ‘She had a big smile on her face.’ Duh, he said in the post, where else would her smile be? Indeed.
One of my critique partners is hot on spotting ‘he stood up’ where the ‘up’ is redundant (also ‘she sat down’).  There are many such examples, I’m sure.
Again, focus on each sentence and root out these redundancies. One which my poet friends taught me was to test if ‘the’ is necessary. ‘The’? We can’t have ‘the’? Try it – you’ll be surprised.

  • ‘Resist the urge to explain’ is a discipline to master if we want to avoid boring our readers and/or patronising them by assuming they don’t get the implications of the shorthand actions and words we’ve used.
  • Avoid information dumps. Include only information which moves the story along and place it strategically, where it’s needed.
  • Avoid words and phrases which tell the reader what you have just shown them through a character’s actions and dialogue.
  • Don’t destroy a dramatic climax by subsequently analysing it.
  • Play ‘spot the redundant word’ to tighten your writing overall.

And have fun with it!

For more writing tips explore this category in my blog.