Resisting the Urge to Explain
One of the most common sins we writers commit is explaining.
We do this in several ways. Since I already talked about attributions in my last column, I’ll begin there.
When we use attributions that explain what should be obvious from context – if we have written the scene well, we are patronizing our readers by explaining what they already know or can figure out:
“I wouldn’t do that if I were you,” he warned.
“Why?” she inquired.
Another way we explain is by telling not showing. Don’t tell your reader the protag is nervous, show it – have her wring her hands, or have her eyes darting about, or perhaps she stutters. You want your readers to feel a part of what’s going on, not be a spectator.
This goes for dialogue as well. Beats are great for this. Consider the examples below – the first have dialogue tags and the second have beats:
#1 “You’re kidding!” she said with astonishment.
#2 Her mouth dropped open. “You’re kidding!”
#1 “Don’t think of crossing me,” he said angrily. “You’ll regret it.”
#2 “Don’t think of crossing me.” He grabbed his partner by the shirt, his teeth grinding together. “You’ll regret it.”
Finally, we explain by telling the reader by what we have already told them:
Her fingers trembled as she turned the key and she gulped as the door creaked open. She stepped forward into the darkness fearfully.
Is that last word necessary? Do we need to be told she is fearful? If we’ve written a scene well, we don’t need to tell our readers our characters are happy, disgusted, angry, or afraid. They’ll know it.
Now granted, you cannot show everything – find a balance. However, if it’s an important scene, then show.
Now get to that manuscript and RUE!
originally published in The Sword Review 2005-12-26