5 Unnecessary Explanations to Avoid in Fiction Writing

Why You Don’t Want to Explain

While some small explanations may be OK here and there, explaining too much intrudes on the story and the readers’ experience.

Explanations can cause readers to feel

  • cheated that they weren’t allowed to piece things together themselves
  • annoyed, like “ok. I get it.”
  • insulted that author felt the need to spell it out

Most of the time if you need to explain something in order for readers to understand, then you need to rework your scene or your characters.

In other words, you shouldn’t *need* to explain. Trust that your readers will get it or realize that you need to more fully develop the scene or the characters or both.

 


Types of Unnecessary Explanations

Emotions

 

Emotions should rarely be stated. They should be shown.

This often occurs when you use a dialogue tag to state how the character feels.

Example:

“That’s it. I have had it,” he said angrily.

–This dialogue shows that he is angry so no need to state it.

 

If you do need the explanation because the dialogue doesn’t show the emotion, then you should show it in an action beat.

Example:

“I can’t believe it,” he said angrily.

–Here the words themselves do not indicate anger. But you could easily show this in an action beat:
Clenching his hands into a fist, he took a menacing step toward her, causing her to back up against the wall. He slammed his fist near her head and said, “I can’t believe it.”

 

Explaining emotions also occurs in the narration. Instead of explaining it, you should show it. (This will be covered in a later blog on Showing Instead of Telling.)

 

Telling what you just showed or what was already implied and made clear

 

Authors usually do this out of fear that the reader won’t get it. Trust your readers.

This can occur when you explain what the dialogue just said.

Example:

“I am sorry, Carol, we have to let you go.”“Uh . . . what? Um . . . ok. Do I get paid for this week and some sort of stipend? How could you do this? I thought we were friends.”

Carlos rubbed his face and without looking her in the eyes said, “Yes, you’ll get this week’s pay. I am not authorized to offer a stipend. This is completely out of my hands.”

Carol picked up her things without looking at her boss, who was her friend. She couldn’t believe Carlos would do this to her. At least she got her pay, but no stipend. No stipend. That is crazy! Who do they think they are?

–The dialogue already showed us that she and Carlos were friends, she couldn’t believe Carlos would do this, that she got her pay, and didn’t get a stipend. The internal dialogue is fine but the narration before it is explaining what the dialogue already said.

 

This also occurs in narration. You don’t need to explain what can easily be implied or what was already made clear from the text.

Examples:

She got too close to her and stepped on her sandals.

–Stepping on her sandals implies that she got too close to her.

He had saved up for months to buy Ned the action figure, the newest toy craze. All the kids wanted one.

–The newest toy craze implies that all the kids wanted one.

Sighing, she bent down and tried to repair the shoes. As she attempts to figure out a way to tie the torn straps together, a man stumbles over her.

–The text just stated she tried to repair the shoes, so no need to repeat it in the next sentence.

 

While sometimes you need to tell and other times you can show, you should never both tell and show the same information. Let the “showing” speak for itself.

Example:

Brinley’s hand shot into the air. The teacher looked at her hand, sighed, and looked around at the other students. After a moment, he repeated the question, looking around again. Brinley always answers the questions, so he wanted to give other students a chance.

–The first three sentences show that Brinley always answers the questions. No need to then tell us after you found a way to show it.

 

Explaining character’s behavior

 

It should be clear from the events, the dialogue, and the characters’ personalities, motivations, and desires why a character did what they did.

You can usually spot this one with the use of certain words: because, so that, in order to, like, as if, and since, etc.

Examples:

He called his wife to find out if it was true.

–If this appeared in a scene where he was just told his wife had lied and wasn’t home, then his reason for calling is clear.  

She saw him glance at the door. He must have heard the knock interrupting their fight, just as she had.

–If the scene just said that someone knocked, the reader knows why he glanced at the door.

Wanting to ensure her husband knew where she had gone, she left him a note telling him where she was and when she would be back.

–Why else would she leave him that note?

He wiped the gun down before burying it so that his fingerprints wouldn’t be on the gun.

–Pretty sure the reader can infer that was the reason for wiping down the gun.  

 

Viewpoint character explaining things they wouldn’t know

 

If the viewpoint character doesn’t know why a character would do something, then they shouldn’t explain it.

While a viewpoint character can certainly see others’ actions and that is one way to reveal motivations and emotions, the viewpoint character doesn’t need to explain what was already showed. This goes along with the last one.

However, sometimes an action doesn’t clearly infer the character’s emotion or motivation. For example, a character can sigh, and that could indicate frustration, annoyance, or contentment. If the viewpoint character interprets the sigh by explaining the emotion, this could be problematic.

How did the viewpoint character know that was the correct interpretation? If it is obvious, then no need to explain as the reader can infer.

If it isn’t obvious and the reader couldn’t infer it, then the viewpoint character wouldn’t know it either, so this is a POV issue as well as an over explaining issue.

Examples:

Paula sighed in frustration.

–If it is clear that she sighed in frustration from the context, then no need to tell us that. If it isn’t clear, then how would viewpoint character know that?

I remained sitting, but he got up and paced the floor. He couldn’t take it anymore and was remembering the last time the police had paid him a visit.

–How does viewpoint character know what he is thinking and why he is pacing?

 

Beating a dead horse

 

This one isn’t necessarily an explanation, but it is related.

Even if you show instead of tell, you don’t need to repeat the same details over and over. Whether or not it appears in dialogue, showing narration, or telling narration, if a point has been made very clear, it can annoy the readers if you keep including it.

Let’s say it’s important to know a character was abused as a kid and feels anger from it since that sets up his motivations.

If he reflects back on his past with anger every single time he hears someone raise their voice, or sees a kid cry, or witnesses abuse, the reader may feel annoyed.  This isn’t to say you couldn’t show the character reflecting on his past more than once. After all, we reflect on the same past incident many times. You just don’t want to overdo it.

So even if it isn’t done in the form of an explanation but rather showing scenes, it feels like explaining all the same since the reader already knows that information.

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