Image: Matthew Loffhagen
Every character, location and event in a story needs to be introduced and explained to an audience. Every relevant detail has to be explained, and that explanation is the element of a story which enchants a reader more than any other. It is the essence of storytelling.
The way you explain the details of your story is vital to building and maintaining a satisfied readership, but often what you don’t say is just as important as what you do.
One of the easiest mistakes you can make as an author is to indulge in over-explanation. Few things will turn readers off quicker than pages and pages of details that kill pace and aren’t interesting or relevant.
But don’t worry, because I’ve got some straightforward tips for ensuring your story isn’t bogged down by over-explanation. Before exploring those, there’s one important question that needs to be answered.
Why do authors over-elaborate?
There are a few reasons authors provide too much information.
Did I explain that part well enough? What if they don’t remember it later? What if they don’t understand, or get the wrong idea? I could just add…
A surprisingly common problem for pilots is losing spatial awareness when they enter cloud cover. With the horizon lost, they worry about flying level and begin to make small corrections. These small corrections add up and many pilots have found themselves leaving cloud banks flying completely upside down.
The same thing happens to authors when they begin to doubt the adequacy of their explanations. They produce perfectly understandable, well-paced details and then begin to worry that future readers won’t understand. They add a few more details, accepting that slightly clumsier wording is the price of understanding.
It might be okay if the corrections ended there, but having given into the urge once the justification is created to do it again and again. The first correction acts as proof that no-one could have understood the first version, and if that’s true then people probably don’t understand the second either.
This slippery slope can transform one skillfully tailored paragraph into pages of rambling, desperate exposition.
World building is incredibly satisfying, whether it’s the internal emotional landscape of a character or the history of an entire civilization. It’s good advice to create a library of facts about every important facet of your story, a short history of every character and place, to ensure consistency throughout a story. But once you’ve gone to the effort of creating these unseen stories, the urge to include them can be overpowering.
It can feel frustrating removing details you enjoy but liking a passage isn’t a good enough reason to include it. Assign a concrete reason to every detail that justifies its inclusion, and if all you can come up with is that you like the way a sentence sounds then consider whether it’s really worth the sacrifice in pace.
3. Poor editing
There’s a difference between a draft being acceptable and being the best it can be. In the latter stages of a piece’s progress,the drafting process can be described as ‘whittling’. The aim is to shave off as many inessential features as possible, and that means every detail that isn’t essential to the reader’s experience.
How can you control your explanations?
While all of these mistakes can lead to over-explanation there are a few tricks to avoiding over indulgence.
1. Value pace
It’s easy to see pace as a by-product of writing when in fact it should be one of your main goals. Keeping your story moving at a healthy pace is important.
Temper the desire to hold the reader’s hand using descriptive passages with the need to keep them moving. Writing should never dawdle. Stories might dawdle, but even if you’re writing a piece where over explanation is part of the point there’s still a big difference between writing a seemingly indulgent passage that keeps a reader’s attention and losing the pace necessary to keep them interested.
Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves contains multiple narrators, one of whom seems to be purposefully frustrating for the reader. Danielewski uses Johnny Truant to interrupt key scenes and stoke the reader’s desire to return to the main ‘haunted house’ story. Despite Truant’s role in frustrating the reader, his sections are not rambling or oblique, in fact containing their own fascinating narrative. Truant presents a narrative frustration rather than an actual irritation: even when authors want readers to notice and deride the slowed pace of a story, there’s still a huge difference between acceptable dawdling in the narrative and irritating dawdling in the writing.It’s easy to see pace as a by-product of writing when in fact it should be one of your main goals.Click To Tweet
2. Don’t describe, evoke
The aim of explanation is two-fold:
- To aid your reader’s understanding.
- To allow your reader to picture their own version of events.
Authors often attempt to describe the details of a scene so that it is recreated exactly in the reader’s mind. Instead, authors should try to provide the essential details a reader needs to direct their own version.
Evoking the sense of an experience, person or location is far more gripping for a reader while allowing for pace.
In their magnificent series The Edge Chronicles, Paul Stewart and Chris Riddell begin every book with a chapter describing the world in which the stories are set:
Far, far away, jutting out into the emptiness beyond, like the figurehead of a mighty stone ship, is the Edge. Shrouded in mist and bordered by open sky, it is a place of forests, swamps and rocklands.
This short passage paints a powerful picture of the Edge, even evoking a sense of majesty through the metaphor of the stone ship. Exact details aren’t spelled out because they’re not needed. The writers keep true to the goal of providing only what will benefit the reader.
If you keep this philosophy in mind there’s less chance of your explanations overstaying their welcome.Evoking the sense of an experience is far more gripping for a reader while allowing for pace.Click To Tweet
3. Kill your darlings
This much repeated and often misunderstood advice is courtesy of William Faulkner, but has been widely embraced as essential by a great many authors:
In writing, you must kill all your darlings.
– William Faulkner
Though the meaning has been contested and warped over time, the original was an exhortation to mercilessly excise those parts of your writing which you most enjoy. If you enjoy a passage then you lose objectivity about its quality. Often those sections of their work which writers most enjoy seem clumsiest to others, as affection has prevented the rigorous reworking from which the rest of the narrative benefitted.
As Stephen King points out in his rephrasing of Faulkner’s words, this kind of approach to favorite passages is usually more about the writer than the passage:
Kill your darlings, kill your darling, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.
– Stephen King
Any section which fills you with pride probably isn’t as good as you think it is and with your objectivity gone the best course of action is usually to cut it. If the content was essential then find another way to deliver it, even rewrite the section, but the brave step to short-circuit the pride-before-a-fall is almost always the best way.
Although there are certain emotions you want your reader to feel these should be the result of accurate communication rather than direct manipulation. Make your reader understand why they should feel a certain way by refining your descriptions and establishing an appropriate pace rather than through what you feel are single, perfectly formed turns of phrase.If you enjoy a passage then you lose objectivity about its quality.Click To Tweet
Less is more
As ever the key to avoiding writing pitfalls comes down to an appreciation of economy and constant awareness of the reader. Write down the information you’re trying to impart and highlight those elements of a passage that aren’t pulling their weight.
Remember that drafting is whittling, not quality assessment. You’re not checking to see that a passage works: you’re searching for the parts you can excise.
One top tip is to go through your piece and cut out every word you can while still delivering the essential information. The result shouldn’t be your new draft (a little flab ensures the character that keeps readers coming back) but you’ll get a whole new understanding of what is and isn’t essential about your writing. Nothing highlights over-explanation more than having just read the bare bones version.
Long, detailed descriptions help a reader understand a story whereas concise, evocative descriptions help them experience it. By honing your descriptions to their purest state you can craft the kind of passages that leave the page and make a new home in the reader’s daydreams.Are You Killing Your Book With Too Much Detail And Explanation?Click To Tweet
For more tips on writing concise, powerful scenes check out our article on How to Write a Damn Good Fight Scene or apply the same logic to your characters with How Many Characters Should a Novel Have? and ensure a realistic, exciting cast.