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 should rarely be stated. They should be shown.
This often occurs when you use a dialogue tag to state how the character feels.
If you do need the explanation because the dialogue doesn’t show the emotion, then you should show it in an action beat.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Katie Chambers, owner of Beacon Point, is a nonfiction and fiction substantive (developmental) editor and copy editor for independent authors; content writer and editor for business professionals; and online teacher and tutor.
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