Most Common Writing Mistakes: Don’t Drown Your Reader in Explanations
Readers have needs. Authors are supposed to fulfill those needs. One of those needs is knowing what’s going on in a story. So, naturally, the author’s response is to explainwhat’s going on. So far, so good, right?
Well, that depends.
Explanations, in whatever form (narrative, dialogue, or action), are essential to any story. But, when overdone, they can leave your reader feeling as if he’s drowning in a flood of wordy information. Let’s consider an example:
Too Much Explanation
Angie walked into the grocery store. At the door stood the old guy who was responsible for handing out carts, stamping stickers on return items, and guarding the exit from potential shoplifters. All the kids knew better than to mess with him. A few years ago, he’d tackled the star fullback on the high school team, just because he thought he looked guilty (he wasn’t; he’d only come in to buy a pack of gum). Angie passed the first checkout stand—abode of Mountain Dew-swilling Mrs. Walker—and offered a little wave in return to Mrs. Walker’s energetic one. “Hi, there,” Angie said and kept walking. She wasn’t in the mood to listen to Mrs. Walker’s latest bit of scandalous gossip. The last time she’d stopped, she’d had to listen for nearly an hour to whispers about balding banker Horace Wallace supposedly sneaking money out of his own vault. She didn’t have an hour to spare today. She was on a mission to save the stock boy, her best friend Rupert, from flunking math after missing another class.
So what do we have in this paragraph? At first glance a lot of explanation. None of our explaining here is essentially bad, but since the mean door guard, Mrs. Walker’s gossip, and the possibly compromised bank never show up in the story again, our explanations of the grocery store don’t move the story forward. In fact, all this extraneous info becomes a murky slough that the reader has to slog through to find the truly pertinent info. Let’s strip this down to bare necessities.
Just Enough Explanation
Angie walked into the grocery store. She was on a mission to save the stock boy, her best friend Rupert, from flunking math after missing another class.
Not only did we just reduce our word count to an eighth of its original bulk, we also streamlined the story down to the essentials of the plot and kept it moving forward, right toward the crux of the scene.
Over-explanation is highly subjective to its context in each story. In some stories, the explanation of the grocery store setting and/or the various personalities in Angie’s town might be crucial to the plot or even just worthwhile for the general color they provide. Authors have to make their own decisions about which explanations are necessary and which will force readers to tread unnecessary water. Always be aware of why you’re including a particular explanation, then reevaluate it to determine its value and don’t be afraid to chop it if it’s interrupting the information that’s of true importance to your story.