Resist the Urge to Explain
What does that mean, exactly? Well, it describes what it says – writers should resist the urge to explain things. This may seem contradictory, since the writer has to explain things to the reader so that they understand the story, but in this instance, we’re talking about the urge to explain everything. There’s a fundamental difference between the two.
New writers, in particular, have an in-built habit of over-explaining things, simply because they don’t really know any different, and they assume that’s what the reader needs and wants. But that’s not the case. In this instance, less is always more.
From the first chapter, writers feel they have to explain everything, on the assumption the reader simply won’t get what’s going on. But readers are smart. They pick up on things very easily, so the need to explain is mitigated by the fact that they don’t need to be force-fed every morsel of information in order to ‘get it’.
That’s one of the main reasons why too much explanation – or exposition – leads to telling rather than showing. And while there isn’t anything wrong with telling – in all the right places – there is everything wrong with it in all the wrong places.
The reader doesn’t need to know everything about the story, the character and his or her background in the first chapter. It doesn’t have to happen in the second chapter or third. It can happen when the writer feels it necessary to impart such information.
The first chapter serves as the lure. It doesn’t need to contain everything. Instead, the proceeding chapters feed juicy snippets of information as the story unfolds.
The urge to explain things comes in many guises. Info dumping is another one of them. It’s expositional overload - a Nightmare on Explanation Street. Readers hate info dumps, as do editors and agents. They don’t want important information dumped over two or three pages in one huge, boring chunk. That’s a sure fire way of killing the story. The reader won’t bother to read anything else you’ve written, because they already know almost everything.
In order to keep the reader interested, and hooked, clever writers hold back information rather than explaining everything. This is a very deliberate ploy, and with good reason. That’s because we can introduce information bit by bit, when it suits the story and the plot, and of course, a character’s situation. That way, we retain some mystery, some drama, some tension and atmosphere and that most fundamental element – conflict.
The beauty of writing is that some things are worth holding back – the important snippet of information, that incident from the past, the significant revelation, that confrontation with the antagonist...it could be anything. But that ‘anything’ can be worth something later in the story. That’s because the reader doesn’t need to know everything there is to know about your main character or his/her situation in one go. The less they know, the better (and stronger) your story will be.
On the flip side, there is also a trend with writers to go for brevity in the mythological belief that the average reader has the attention span of a gnat. Some might have brief attention spans, but most don’t. Brevity is fine in very small doses, but the thing about brevity is that it has no substance, and if there is little substance, then there is little reason to read your book.
The need to explain things is rather like the Goldilocks effect. Not too much that it spoils the narrative, not too little that there is no substance and reader has nothing to read, but just the right amount, in the right places, at the points in the story that really matter, that makes the story so enjoyable.
Resist the temptation to write four pages of backstory in the first chapter. Resist the urge to explain the main character’s background. Resist the urge to explain why your main character is embarking on his or her journey. Resist the urge to explain why the villain is so villainous. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that the reader just won’t understand the story unless you explain it all to them.
Explanation has its place, but only when it’s the right moment. How else can you retain a sense of mystery or intrigue? How else will you keep your reader in suspense? How else will you tease and lure them?
If you want them to keep turning the page, never give too much away.
Next week: How to use similes and metaphors.