Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Resisting the Urge to Explain

Way back when I first got into this whole writing thing, one of the first rules I learned was “Resist The Urge To Explain.” To be honest, I didn’t really understand the rule at first. I thought it was an admonition not to bore the reader with too many details. Don’t explain how a certain gun works, for example, just have the character pull the trigger. Don’t explain why a particular bus never seems to arrive at the bus stop at the proper time, just have it be late and let the character grouse about it. In other words, Keep the Story Moving. It wasn’t until much later that I realized RUE had more to do with not telling the reader something that would be better shown. Let the reader work it out for themselves.

A month or two ago, during a four hour car trip to my mom’s house in Missouri, I listened to “The Pathfinder” by Orson Scott Card. The story has plenty of novel elements, and I recommend the book if you’re into sci-fi, but I was struck by the amount of explanation scattered throughout the book. Each new concept or revelation was explained in intricate detail, often via a character’s internal thoughts, and, in my opinion, often at the expense of pacing.* I began punching the fast forward button more and more often, skipping through the explanations, especially if it seemed another character had already adequately covered the concept. Obviously, Mr. Card’s books are well respected and liked, so I suspect the “Resist the Urge to Explain” rule, like most other rules of writing, is rather subjective.

I bring this up because I’m struggling with a similar issue in my current WIP. I’m at the point of my story where the protagonist is finally being given answers to some of the peculiar things that have been happening to her up to that point, but deciding how much to reveal and how quickly I should reveal it sometimes leaves me scratching my head. If I explain everything too soon, it may come off as an infodump, but if I take too long, I may irritate the reader. And based on the comments of my crit partners, I have yet to hit that sweet spot. Some of them think I’m giving out too much information, while others want me to explain even more. Arg!

So what’s a writer to do? In my case, I’m going back through my CPs’ notes to find out which of the explanations they’re most eager to learn and making sure I cover them  first. Once that initial curiosity is satisfied, I can dribble out the rest of the information over the course of the story. 

What have YOU learned about writing this week?

ChemistKen .

*Disclaimer.  I was listening to the book, and if there’s one thing I’ve learned about audiobooks, it’s that any perceived problems with pacing are magnified tenfold. Perhaps I wouldn’t have even noticed the explanations had I been reading the book instead.


  1. I'd say you've already hit that sweet spot if the complaints are split. Maybe it's more a matter of how they are done.
    It seems unfair when successful authors get to throw out the rules, doesn't it?

  2. I think authors like OSC can get away with breaking the rules because they are the juggernauts of fiction writing. They can write any garbage and pretty much sell it to somebody because they have a name that sells it for them.

    People who advise against certain "errors" are talking to the new and learning authors, the ones who have yet to even break into publishing, in order to help them out when doing so. It's those pesky lit agents who will throw away your MS if you explain things in too great detail, among other reasons. That's probably why these rules are freaking you out so much. Lit agents are literally NEUROTIC in every sense of the word, and to get anything past them, it has to be pretty much "perfect."

    The solution to this problem = self-publishing. Otherwise, just keep getting more "perfect."

  3. I often get the comment of, "I need more," from my critique group. I've pegged those people who need all the details of setting explained to them in order to visualize something (since I am not one of those people), and those people who are easily confused by fantasy powers (also since I'm not one of those people). I will typically try to revise to include just barely enough to help those who don't get it. I've found that including too much information either bores my critique partners or creates more questions that I'm not typically willing to answer (such as why Rin feels obligated to help Cera's father).

    But I feel you on the OSC thing. My eyes glaze when it comes to technical explanations that I don't particularly care about. :)

  4. There are lots of authors who stray from the plot with focused narrative. Michener, Clancy, O'Brian. That becomes their signature--worthwhile knowledge on a subject. It doesn't bother me, though--like you--I do flip through it at times.

    RUE--I've never heard that, but I like it. Maybe I'd replace 'explain' with 'over-explain', which of course is subjective!

  5. Believe it or not, I never ran into RUE either. But I'm in the "want more detail" camp even when i don't need it. It's definitely a personality thing because I get aggravated when time jumps forward without the author explaining how the characters got from point A to B. But I usually find some inconsistency that wouldn't have been there if the author had thought through the intervening time. Since sometimes the devil is in those missing details, it pays to account for them if only in your head. Speaking of details, I just finished round 1 of editing, so I'm ready for your next chapters..

  6. Oh, I agree with you about the listening vs reading thing! I started reading The Martian a few weeks back, then stopped reading and bought the audio version because I thought my husband would enjoy this too and we could listen to it on an upcoming car trip to Vermont. Lo and behold, hubs complained about the extensive amount of explaining. "Oh," I said ruefully. "I just skimmed those parts when I was reading."

    That said, sometimes you MUST explain, recap, summarize. Hitting the sweet spot of doing it at just the right time, in just the right amount, is a matter of trial and error and experience. And then, if you sell the book, your editor will have his/her own ideas. So be prepared to change!