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No Explanation Necessary

on November 11th, 2011 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill and last modified on November 13, 2011

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Baxter raced through Nashville’s wide streets, dodging the occasional drunk and the groups of youthful hopefuls who gathered on street corners after the bars closed. He spun the wheel to head north, only to reverse direction when he caught sight of his quarry heading toward him, racing as he did, through caution lights and over newly patched asphalt.

Damn but she could drive.  He leaned forward, peering into her side window when she approached.

Laughing. Head boppin’ to that crap music she liked, no doubt. She thought she’d gotten away. But she’d only slipped by Al.

Baxter had anticipated that she would.

He spun the wheel again and pulled up behind her. He checked the sidewalks and road ahead—empty of pedestrians. He accelerated until he was nearly locked to her bumper. Then he punched the gas again, knocking her forward.

She hesitated the barest second—amateur!—and he slammed her again.

Then she gunned her candy-assed, candy red ‘Vette and screeched down the street, the middle finger of her left hand pointing to heaven—and consigning him to hell—for just a second outside the driver’s window.

Maybe not perfect prose, but action that moves, that keeps readers involved in the fiction.

What if the passage read . . .

He spun the wheel again and pulled up behind her. He checked the sidewalks and road ahead—empty of pedestrians. He accelerated until he was nearly locked to her bumper. Then he punched the gas again, knocking her forward. But he only hit her hard enough for her to feel it and he was careful not to hit at an angle. He didn’t want her to spin out.

She hesitated the barest second—amateur!—and he slammed her again. He slammed her the second time because he wanted her to know who had the upper hand.

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How do you feel about stories that interrupt a great action scene with a line or two explaining the reason a character can’t or won’t follow a certain path?

Or, maybe you read a line that explains why a character takes a particular action.

Does it annoy?

It certainly can.

Readers caught up in the fiction, especially if they’re deep into an action scene or overwhelmed by the emotion of the moment, do not want to be interrupted by the writer—or the writer’s representative in the form of the narrator—explaining why something is or isn’t happening.

Readers want the fiction. They don’t want a little voice explaining the whys and why-nots of story events.

So don’t stop to explain.

Instead, write the scene so any explanation is either evident or unnecessary.

Luther, hacking and sawing, cut the ghoul’s head off. He did it so the perverted ghoul wouldn’t rise up and come after his family again. He lifted the head by the absurd ponytail at its crown and flung it into the street.

Have you already revealed that cutting off  ghouls’ heads would keep them from coming back to life? If so, no explanation is necessary. If you haven’t, why haven’t you? Why dump that info into the middle of the hair-raising action, destroying the fiction of the moment and the emotion you just induced in your readers?

Why interrupt the action for explanation that doesn’t need to be made?

Grinning, Pinkie ignored the phone call from her stepsister. She did it so Grace would be forced to come by. She leaned back on the couch, planted both feet on the coffee table, and turned to the clock, wondering if Grace would beat her record for travel from Mom’s house to Pinkie’s.

Is there any reason to explain Pinkie’s reasoning? Doesn’t the next sentence—which keeps the reader involved in the story—provide the necessary information?

I won’t say there’s never a reason to write an explanation. But if that explanation interrupts story flow or action or disrupts emotion, you have to ask if it’s worth including.  Is a tiny bit of information worth the disruption of the fiction?

It quite often isn’t.

And it’s usually the writer, not the reader, who feels the great need for an explanation.

Readers aren’t demanding to know why a character does a certain act, not when the story shows them why. Readers are smart. They’ve read other books. They know there are reasons for character behavior. And they’re good at guessing those reasons.

Now, if your character does something bone-headed for no reason, then you might have readers wondering what’s going on. But for action typical to your story and characters, readers will willingly go along without demanding explanations.

Just be sure to make actions logical for the character, the genre, the intended purpose, and the plot. If character actions and reactions make sense in terms of the story, readers won’t be confused, they won’t be wondering why your character did something, and you won’t have to stick in a story-stopping explanation.

Check your own writing for unnecessary explanations. They often sneak in where writers feel they haven’t given sufficient character motivation or when a setup for a story event was incomplete. Many times the fix is simple—add character motivation or an action setup earlier in the manuscript. The story will be stronger for having it there rather than plopped in as explanation just when it’s needed.

Think of weaving story threads through the whole of the story. Revealing information only when necessary makes readers think coincidence. Weaving information in before it’s needed makes for tight plot.

Words used in explanations include because, so, and since. You don’t have to rewrite all sentences with these words. Use them, however, to help you search for and eliminate distracting explanations.

Exception
There are always exceptions to every rule and every bit of advice. A clear exception to advice about not explaining concerns the narrator who always explains.

If the narrator explains as part of his personality, then let him explain. Don’t overdo, because this practice can still annoy, but let him toss out explanations as part of his asides and commentary.

Parenthetical Asides
A lot of writers add parentheticals as a way to add commentary without weaving that commentary into the body of a passage. So instead of showing a character’s response through action or dialogue, the writer adds an aside, in parentheses, to a sentence. Parentheticals are one common method for providing explanations.

But while parentheticals may be one way of revealing a character’s thoughts and personality, the practice also has negatives.

Any unusual punctuation in fiction stands out and slows the reader. If you want readers to lose themselves in the story, you don’t want them pausing over punctuation. Parentheses definitely stand out.

Also, these asides, a character speaking to the reader outside of the boundary of the story, are a clear breakdown of the wall between fiction and reality, between character and reader. Think of film or theatre actors speaking directly to the audience—as soon as they turn from story events and step out of character, they remind the audience that what they’re watching is not real. Writers do much to create and maintain the fiction of a story. Why destroy that effort by deliberately reminding readers what they read is unreal?

If you use first-person narration, you don’t need parenthetical asides at all. You’ve already invited readers into your character’s head, so they hear and see and feel with the character. Why insert distracting parentheses in an aside, as if whispering to the reader? There are less distracting methods to share the character’s thoughts.

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Resist the urge to explain.

When you absolutely feel that you must explain, maybe because you haven’t provided a motivation, make a note of that driving urge to explain and the reason for it. Then weave the missing motivation into the story at an earlier point so that readers have what they need when they need it and you won’t have to stop the story momentum with unnecessary explanations.

Let your characters be bold in their villainy or romance or do-goodingness. Don’t force them to apologize or explain to the reader. Don’t make them stop their lives mid-action to make clear something you should have already made clear.

Instead, make them proud in their thoughts and actions. They have enough to handle with the other characters you pit them against and the problems you write them into; don’t make them worry about pleasing the reader too. That’s your job. Let the characters be themselves without apology or explanation.

Keep them inside the fiction.

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Back story and info dumps are large-scale explanations. They come with their own rules and restrictions. We’ll save discussion of those rules for other articles.

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2 Responses to “No Explanation Necessary”

  1. J.P. Hansen says:

    “Instead, write the scene so any explanation is either evident or unnecessary.” So true. Writers need to subtly convey information, not stop the story for the sake of it. Information and explanation need to serve the story. If not, we don’t have fiction, we have psychology, a discipline that is supposed to explain.

  2. J.P., stopping the story always works against everything else we’ve done to keep the story moving forward. You’re right; why stop and pull readers out of the fictional world?

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