Monday, May 18, 2015

Allow Me to Explain

Post by Jenny

I’ve had a couple of incidents recently that made me realize I’m an over-explainer. The first was at the dentist’s office, when I--not once but twice—gave him an overly detailed status update about my younger son’s orthodontia. The second was at a new dog boarding facility, when I felt the need to recount all of my dog’s completely unremarkable away-from-home experiences. Both times, I had pertinent information to pass along, but there was absolutely no need for the lengthy oral reports that caused the eyes of everyone within earshot to glaze over.

I told my husband, “I think I explain too much.”

“Well, maybe,” he said.

“I mean, I try to give too much information.”

“Uh-huh.”

“I keep talking after people are done listening. I go on and on and—“

At this point, my husband’s eyes began to appear distinctly glassy, and I realized that I was over-explaining my tendency to over-explain. It comes as no surprise that I have noticed this in my writing, too—using two or three sentences when one will do. And I’m not the only one. Apparently, we writers are no more immune to the “more is better” mindset than anyone else. We love our writing, we love our characters, and we want to give our readers their money’s worth.

Unfortunately, that desire can result in the opposite effect: writing that is a tedious slog to read. It can be so easy to get caught up in the joy of writing long, descriptive passages that showcase an amazing eye for detail and superhuman command of vocabulary. It’s a lot harder to forego info dumps by revealing information through your characters’ words and actions. That’s right: show, don’t tell. And trust that your readers are smart enough to figure things out.

But, just to make it complicated, sometimes more is better. I will assume that we all have read descriptive passages that are probably too long but are nonetheless breathtaking and make the novel better. So, how to know when to go big? Pay attention to the pace. Anything that pulls the emergency brake on the action should be trimmed or moved to a better spot. And be careful with word choice. A long passage is not an excuse to use weak or repetitive words. If it helps, print out two versions—the elaborate and the succinct—and have a few trusted readers give them a look.

How do you find the balance between pacing and description in your writing?

2 comments:

Patricia Stoltey said...

For me, knowing the intention of the novel before I start is the key. Dead Wrong was intended to be a fast-paced page turner so I had to keep the descriptions short and infrequent. Another novel I've submitted (but haven't heard back on yet) is historical and slower paced, so I've introduced description in many places and many ways. A tiny bit of advance planning (even for a pantser) helps set the pace and style.

Jenny said...

Good advice! Thanks, Pat.

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