Writing Tip: Over-Explaining (Trust Your Reader)

Power of WordsMy early writings were guilty of over-explaining. As a teacher, I’m used to explaining instructions over and over again. Half the time, students aren’t listening; the other half, they aren’t focused. In my daily instruction, I’m sometimes asked to repeat the same instructions, in different ways, three or four times.

This does not translate well to writing.

Over-explaining in writing creates boring, tedious prose that makes a reader want to put the book down. Good fiction writing is the opposite of analysis. Points are implied or made indirectly, not blatantly stated.

When I first started writing, I wanted to make sure my reader got my point. I’d write things like:

Jane walked a lap around the track, narrowly missing the piles of goose droppings that always ended up near the high-jump mat. She shook her head and wondered why her school was the only one without a rubberized track to practice on. The other schools, with their fancy districts, had so much money that they bought rubberized tracks for the fields as well as field houses for the indoor season. During the winter months, Jane had to practice in the halls of her high school. She grimaced at her shin splints, something caused by the hard hallway floors. It just wasn’t fair that her school didn’t have the money for more proper equipment. This also meant her school could never host any track meets. It wasn’t like the other schools, which had fancy uniforms that seemed to be new every year. Jane’s school could barely afford shorts and jerseys that matched…

I’d go on and on. I wanted to make sure the reader understood that Jane was bitter about her district’s lack of money compared to the wealthy districts in the surrounding towns. As a young writer, I’d re-read the paragraph and nod my head—take that, wealthy districts! Jane hates you! And now all the readers out there will know it!

I never put myself into the mindset of a reader. What I failed to realize is just how wordy and full of “telling” (not “showing”) that paragraph actually is. “Telling” too much leaves little (or no) tension. Readers like the feel smart when they read. They prefer to be “shown” things and feel like they’re figuring things out for themselves. The dark secret is that a good writer works very hard so that the reader doesn’t have to. If a piece is well-written enough, the reader will feel smart, but it’s actually the genius writer who put all the pieces in place.

In the above scene, what I should have done is added tension somehow and shown how Jane felt about the other teams. Maybe I could place her at a track meet:

The 1600 was called for warm-ups, and there was only one heat. Jane laced her shoes. She bent to stretch, but she didn’t quite touch her toes: dried goose droppings caked the tips of her sneakers. Sprinting on the dirt track in back of her school was never a good idea during early May, but where else was she supposed to practice?

To her left, a trio of runners in shiny red shorts stretched in unison. Even their sneakers matched. Hell, even their bejeweled hair clips matched. Damn Southport and their money. One of the girls looked in Jane’s direction and giggled. Then she cupped her hand and whispered something to her teammate. The three of them chuckled. Jane followed their eye line to her shorts.  

Yes, they were the same shorts the boys’ team wore. Yes, her team had run out of girls’ shorts. So what if Jane was the only distance runner for the girls and came up with the short straw when it came time to distribute uniforms? The only thing that mattered was how anyone performed in the race, and Jane was about to show them all. She took off for a warm-up lap, leaving the giggling clones behind her.

By adding conflict and other characters, I’m able to show not only that Jane is bitter about her district’s financial situation, but also that she is not going to give up based on her condition. In fact, the end of this short scene suggests that Jane will use her circumstances as motivation for success. In any case, it’s a stronger scene, and it trusts the reader to pick up on Jane’s bitterness without explaining too much of it.

I’ve read too many books written by talented writers who then sabotage their own talents by over-explaining:

She shivered as he glared at her from across the room. She felt the edge of her pocketbook to make sure the can of pepper-spray was still there. She was terrified he might attack her.

In the above example, the first two sentences do a great job showing us how the main character feels: she’s obviously scared of the guy staring at her from across the room. We don’t need to hear that she is terrified; that’s already been shown through her shivering. The threat of attack is inherent in her reaching for the pepper spray.

Sure, there are times when it’s easier and simply more efficient to condense information into “telling,” but in general, “showing” allows more tension, provides better characterization, and increases reader interest.

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What do you think?