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Don’t Explain, Don’t Explain, Don’t Explain

March 3, 2015 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill
last modified March 4, 2015

I find myself writing don’t explain again and again on edits of fiction manuscripts.

Most of the time, there should be no need for obvious explanations.

So we shouldn’t need to write—

He ran away because he didn’t want to be seen at the fire.

He returned to the bar after hours in order to find his cellphone.

She confessed so that her baby sister wouldn’t have to go to jail.

He must be wiping up the blood stain so no one would see it.

If you’ve set the scene properly, readers will know exactly why a character behaves as he does. He responds because of some stimulus, some event or moment of dialogue. And because of his personality and goals and the circumstances, he responds in a particular way.

So if you’ve provided the setup, you wouldn’t have to—

tell readers why a character is running upstairs to get a gun if you’ve just shown someone breaking into a house

explain that a watchdog is barking because he must hear someone outside just after a page earlier telling us what a great watchdog he is

You wouldn’t need to write—

He shoveled the food in fast, as if some waiter was going to whisk it off his plate before he was finished.

He lifted his face to the sky, as if to peer into the heavens.

Much of fiction is a series of events and the responses to those events. So when a car blows up, the readers expect the owner of the car to react. When a child declares she hates her mother, we expect a response from the mother. When a character disappears from the middle of the street, we expect to see other characters looking around, trying to figure out what’s going on.

We don’t need the writer to tell us why the car’s owner is pulling out his hair. We don’t need an explanation that the mother is going for a teachable moment when instead of yelling back at her child, she sits her down and reasons with her. We don’t need to know why one character goes running off to find the local wizard when the café owner poofs out of existence, not when we’ve been treated to the wizard being called upon to fix other odd circumstances.

Inherent in each of the events are the reasons for other characters to respond. Inherent in each of those characters is a group of believable and likely responses that fits the circumstances.

Explaining why the character responds is simply overkill.

Readers are smart. They don’t need what amounts to author notes in order to follow the path of a fictional story.

Readers understand cause and effect, action and reaction. They know that emotions and honor and reputation demand responses from characters. They know that characters, like living people, respond when something unusual or unnerving or wild happens right in front of them.

Readers don’t need to have reasons for character behavior laid out with because and so that phrases. They simply need to follow the cause-and-effect events that you’ve logically laid out.

 

Showing and Telling

Explanations are a particularly unnecessary style of telling. It’s likely that you know by now that both showing and telling are necessary in fiction. But explanations are often the kind of telling that should instead be shown. Or even worse, they might be telling that has already been shown but is being told as well.

If you’ve shown the reason a character does something—typically in reaction to another event—then you don’t also have to tell why the character did it. The showing is sufficient. Readers will catch on. And if they see that you’re explaining as well, they will notice. They’ll notice you, the author, meddling.

Explanations are intrusions into the story world from the outside-the-world author, the author who is worried about the mechanics of the story. The author worried that the reader won’t be able to keep up. But instead of the author showing up to explain, characters worried about the events of the story should be the ones reacting in ways that declare their reasons for those reactions.

Characters treat events as real and respond accordingly. The author who explains is standing outside the story, trying to use real-world explanations for fictional-world events. Yet the author’s actions—the author’s presence—serve only to show that story events are unreal.

Such author interference is obtrusive and irritating. Keep you and your real world outside the fictional world rather than traipsing through it.

Leave such intrusions out of your fiction. Let the story itself—the actions and reactions of the characters—speak for themselves. If you’ve not made it clear why a character reacts as he does, then go back and repaint the scene. But don’t think that adding explanations will make a scene more emotional or lifelike. Explanations will weaken the fictional aura of a story, not strengthen it.

 

All Explanations Are Not the Same

Explanations can be subtle or blatant, but even the subtle ones can be noticed, and a series of explanations will build up, will have readers wondering why you don’t trust them to be able to follow the story.

Have confidence in yourself. If you’ve crafted a scene and the personalities of the characters correctly and sufficiently, then readers will be able to follow events and characters. If your setup lacks detail, fix the setup—character personality, motivation, or goals; character experiences and history; emotional level of the action event; or even the details of an event itself. So rather than trying to fix weak story development by adding explanations—which, admittedly, are quite easy to write—take the more difficult step of fixing the weak character development and/or underdeveloped scenes.

That is, fix what is really wrong before trying to apply a cosmetic to hide the problem.

A few more examples of unnecessary explanations when readers already know why the character is doing what he is doing or can guess why simply from what is going on or has already been said—

She watched Carl pull out his shotgun. He’d probably heard the voices in the woods, the same as she had.

Lucy covered the money box meticulously, draping the doily just as it had been when she’d tiptoed into the room. She needed to hide all trace of her presence.

Lillibet grimaced, as if the leftovers tasted bad.

He carefully camouflaged himself with leaves and moss, hoping no one would see him.

Wanda and Smithson cut out early, missing the encore, wanting to beat the queue funneling out of the parking lot.

These are the kinds of sentences writers include all the time, yet are the explanations necessary? Would the sentences be as acceptable, maybe even more dramatic, without the explanatory bits?

She watched Carl pull out his shotgun. [Which means he’d heard exactly the same voices she’d heard.]

Lucy covered the money box meticulously, draping the doily just as it had been when she’d tiptoed into the room.

Lillibet grimaced as she chewed.

He carefully camouflaged himself with leaves and moss. [Of course he’s doing it so no one will see him.]

Wanda and Smithson cut out early, missing the encore. [They’d arrived early for the same reason, Smithson going on and on about crowds, so it’s obvious why they left early.]

 

Mind Reading

I’ve talked about the impossibility of characters reading the intentions and the minds of other characters before. Some explanations are examples of that same kind of mind reading. Don’t hesitate to remove traces of mind reading. Allow readers to see what’s going on and draw their own conclusions without having to wait for another character to conclude what’s happening.

If the viewpoint character doesn’t know why another character is doing something, guessing why and always being right smacks of extrasensory abilities—the viewpoint character can’t always know and can’t always guess accurately and shouldn’t be guessing every other line. Let the viewpoint character observe, show what he sees, and then let the reader conclude what that second character is doing and why.

These examples are viewpoint characters reading the minds of other characters—

Pauly cringed, as if remembering just when and where he’d heard that voice before.

How does the viewpoint character know why he’s cringing or what he’s thinking about? It’s conjecture.

Shoshana was giggling. No doubt she was picturing Jasper covered in lime juice and salsa, just as I was.

The viewpoint character can only guess why Shoshana is giggling.

Gertie strutted down the alley, like she assumed we were watching.

Conjecture again.

I watched Gideon wash his face. He was probably trying to wash away memories of the past five hours.

How would the viewpoint character know for sure?

 

One-Word Explanations

Sometimes mind reading is reduced to only a word or two, and these short explanations can be hard to weed out of a story because they can easily go unnoticed.

A few examples, again from the viewpoint character looking at others—

Timmy hollered in pain.

Try the shorter Timmy hollered. The viewpoint character can’t be sure he’s hollering in pain. Maybe it’s frustration or fear.

Angela grimaced in sorrow.

Again, leave it with Angela grimacing. Unless the viewpoint character knows the source of the grimace, this is conjecture. Maybe Angela is grimacing because she got caught. Or she’s grimacing because she’s feeling guilty. Or maybe it’s because her sports bra is too tight.

The takeaway for this one is to be mindful of the viewpoint character drawing conclusions, even if those conclusions seem innocuous.

Look for verbs followed by in or with and an emotion—

In pain, in sorrow, in joy, in sadness, in hope, with excitement, etc.

The words themselves aren’t wrong or bad, but the inclusion of too many may be a sign of explanations run amok.

A few examples from the viewpoint character looking at him- or herself—

She reached out for a book and angled her body toward the wall, again hoping to delay the fight her husband had been hinting at since dinner.

She ran outside, needing a few minutes of alone time after the day she had.

He studied the puzzle on the desk, trying to discover a logical solution.

Again, these sentences may not seem terrible. And each might serve a purpose in a scene. Yet you never want to treat your readers as anything but capable of following your plot. You don’t want them saying, Well, duh. Of course that’s what she’s doing, hoping to delay that fight that’s brewing. She’s been hoping for that since he got home. Or That’s obvious. Of course he’s studying the puzzle to discover a solution.

Sometimes the explanations are subtle and don’t come across as explanations at first glance, but if they provide unnecessary clarification, you can safely cut them from your stories.

Let’s look at more obvious examples of explanation. These are from the beginning of the article—

He ran away because he didn’t want to be seen at the fire.

He returned to the bar after hours in order to find his cellphone.

She confessed so that her baby sister wouldn’t have to go to jail.

He must be wiping up the blood stain so no one would see it.

Are the reasons the explanations are unnecessary easier to see in these examples?

Rather than explaining why a character ran—if the reason is already clear—try simply showing the action.

He sprinted down a quiet side street as the fire engines drew close.

Rather than explain why a character breaks into a bar, the scene of an earlier crime, just show him doing it. When we already know he left his phone and can guess that the police will go after him when they find it, we know why he’s breaking in. Instead of taking the time to say why he’s there when that’s unnecessary, tell us something else instead.

He returned to the bar, watched the cops finish up, watched as Hadley locked the doors and double-checked them, and waited twenty minutes more in silence before he broke in.

I’ll let you imagine changes to the other two examples on your own.

 

Adverbs

Even adverbs can explain too much. Adverbs aren’t evil and you can use them, but use them sparingly. And don’t throw a couple into a scene to make up for weak writing, to compensate for inadequate character backgrounds or thin plotting. Adverbs can’t carry a story’s load—they aren’t meant to. Use them for flavoring, not heavy lifting. Fix weak story elements by strengthening them, not by attaching adverbs to try to pump up the emotional impact or action.

And definitely be wary of pairing adverbs with dialogue tags. Let the dialogue and the accompanying actions, not the tag paired with an adverb, create the emotional impact.

 

When Explanations Are Necessary

Would there ever be a time when explanations are necessary? Of course. Especially for vaguely sketched out secondary characters whose motivations are not fathomable, not even to the other characters. But in such cases, first try to have the characters explain themselves before other characters get in on the mind reading.

“Why would you do such a thing? That’s . . . It’s horrific and inhuman.”

“You don’t understand. I need to—”

“Of course I don’t understand. No one would understand why you destroyed the most valuable and beloved Christian relic in the world.”

You may also need a character to explain if his actions are contrary to the expected response.

For example, a character may have to choose from competing responses. Or perhaps the antagonist gets involved and forces the protagonist to make a choice he never would have made without interference.

 

Teaching

One egregious kind of explaining is to literally define what something is or how it works. You are not teaching readers, so don’t stop your story in order to teach. This doesn’t mean that readers can’t learn from fiction, but they don’t come to fiction for lessons. They come for story, an adventure unfolding before them.

If the forward motion of the story stops for a Wikipedia lesson, you’ve included too much explanation. One quick way to know if you’ve stopped the story to teach is if the characters are doing nothing while one of them starts spouting facts or how-tos. If you’ve literally stopped the action to present a lesson, rework the scene.

Another way to know which lessons need cutting or changing? Look at your paragraph(s). If there is only explanation of how something works, with all the proper names and parts, but no action or reaction from the characters, consider dropping or reworking those paragraphs. If the information included in the explanation has no bearing on the story—and readers won’t need to read the explanation in order to understand plot and character motivation—definitely consider cutting the explanation.

This problem is clear in my mind because I read just such an explanation in a book a few days ago. I skipped through the long paragraph—it was explanation of a scientific process and meant nothing to the plot. It was merely explanation of a process that will no doubt be unfamiliar to most readers, as it was to one character. But readers won’t have to know anything about the process to understand the story’s events. Either of the characters in the scene could have simply waved off the explanation and allowed the story to move on.

There’s no reason to include paragraphs of pointless details that readers are going to ignore anyway, ignore because the readers know they have no bearing on story events.

 

Multiple Languages

If a character speaks multiple languages, it isn’t necessary to have him or her repeat thoughts or dialogue in a second language. That’s blatant explanation.

I was reminded of this one the other night when many times one character in the book I was reading thought in one language, then repeated the thought in English, basically translating for herself.

But she had no reason to translate her own thoughts; she knew perfectly well what she was thinking. And I pretty much knew too. The translation to English was an annoyance, not a help.

If Ana speaks both French and English, there’s no reason to show her thoughts in both languages. Unless they’re practicing a new language, people don’t often repeat themselves in a different language, not in their heads. They often don’t even repeat themselves when they speak. That is, they’ll choose words their audience would understand. There is some leeway with spoken words, so a character might repeat dialogue in a second language. But you wouldn’t want to use this option too often. A character fluent in multiple languages would learn to speak the right one at the right time, if only so he didn’t have to keep repeating himself.

For thoughts, don’t include the thought in another language and then the translation in English—it’s too obvious that the author is translating. In others words, you’re explaining. Either don’t put that particular thought in a language your readers won’t understand or make it clear, by context, what the character is thinking or saying, even if readers don’t know the literal meaning of the character’s words.

Or let the words themselves explain. Many words can be guessed at, so use phrases that might look similar in both languages. Or use phrases already familiar to your readers.

The point is that if you translate your characters’ thoughts or speech, you are again inserting yourself into the story. But you and your translations don’t belong, and your intrusion destroys the strength of the fiction.

 

Words to Look For

It’s likely that you’ve picked up on some of the words that indicate that an explanation will follow. Such words include the following (as well as variations of each)

as if

because

for

hope

in order to

like (yes, some characters would use like where others would use as, so look for like phrase too)

must

need

on account of

probably

so that

try

want

 The use of these words isn’t wrong; they have quite legitimate purposes. But they can be flags, signs of unnecessary explanations. Any combination of these used too often may indicate too many explanations.

Also, while a handful of explanations across a novel-length story may not even be noticed, their effects can build up with repeated uses. You never want the reader feeling that you can’t trust him to figure out what’s going on without explanations from you.

If you’ve set the scene or a scene has just played out and the reader can easily see what has happened, you don’t have to punctuate a character’s reactions with a line of explanation as well. When you make a character’s responses clear from what’s happening in the current scene and based on what has happened before, you do away with the need for intrusive explanations. And you write more powerful fiction.

***

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28 Responses to “Don’t Explain, Don’t Explain, Don’t Explain”

  1. Mark Luyk says:

    What a wonderful article! It was very helpful, and I really enjoyed it.

  2. Great information. I call those first examples “talking down to your reader”. I see it a lot in my writing critique group. Knowing what to leave out is one sign of a seasoned writer.

  3. M.K. says:

    GREAT advice. I’ve always tried to TRUST my readers—perhaps the hardest thing a writer, especially a new writer, must do. We are determined to convey our stories exactly as we envision them, yet we forget that no matter how meticulous we may be with our work, every reader’s perspective adds a dimension we can’t control. Therefore, trusting a reader to draw his own conclusions and add her own observations brings them into the story.

    • M.K., you hit it exactly by mentioning the reader’s perspective. Every reader brings something different to a story, so it’s best for a writer not to be too rigid in what she describes. Allowing the reader to add a personal perspective makes stories that much more meaningful for readers.

  4. Haydee says:

    I’m reading–was reading–a book where the author uses multiple points of view as a way of explaining. It’s really irritating. I mean, I don’t need to know what the butcher’s wife thinks of the main character as he runs down to the pier, just so I learn that the main character is blond and wears ripped jeans.
    Creating points of view to explain is one of the worse things a writer can do. I’m not saying don’t have multiple points of view. I’m saying don’t have them just to explain something. This is an awful way of telling. I’ve come across many newbies who argue that unless they have a new point of view to explain why this or that happens, the reader won’t get it. I think it’s all about the author’s skill. A writer needs to be able to assess what it’s right for the MS. Learning to sacrifice is a must. If the magnificent scene about the damsel in distress has nothing else to offer to the plot or anything else, and you find yourself trying to arrange everything else to fit it in with no success, maybe it’s time to get rid of it or rewrite it with a different focus. If the quirky Mr Awesome character you love so much is awesome in one scene, but has nothing else going for him, give Mr Awesome a lesser role, or give him the boot. You can always reserve Mr Awesome for another story. Don’t force free-standing scenes and characters on your book, just because they sound great. The same applies to that profound and lyrical spiel or phrase you come up with. Yes, you might think that you hit the motherload of wisdom, but if it’s not plot/characteirzation-relevant, the phrase can come across as cheesy.
    A writer needs to allow readers to use their imagination, as well. Explaining too much takes that away. Of course, there are writers who have an extraordinary talent for explaining. Literary writers tend to have a knack for it. However, most of us, who write in more “commercial” genres can’t afford to focus on the poetical or philosophical effect of our words.

    • Haydee, good point about using different viewpoint characters to explain. “Learning to sacrifice is a must”—Exactly right. Choosing POVs and viewpoint characters means you have to leave out some details. That’s why choosing the right POV and viewpoint characters is a must. Only an omniscient narrator knows everything. For everyone else, there will be knowledge gaps. And that’s actually okay if the writer can figure out how to make those gaps work for the story.

      Lots of great points in your comment. I’m so glad you shared them.

  5. John says:

    Beth,

    Thank you for another informative article and your time investment in sharing expertise with the writing community. The examples are great.

  6. I do agree. It’s about leaving gaps for the reader to fill. There is nothing more irritating then a writer who leaves no room for your imagination.

    • Exactly, Scribe. Readers love to discover on their own—making discoveries in fiction satisfies us as we read. If we’re told everything instead, we become receptacles rather than participants. But readers are so much more than receptacles.

  7. MK says:

    I’m reading “All the Light We Cannot See” and am ENCHANTED by the writing. It illustrates beautiful exactly what you are writing about here, Beth.

  8. Beth,

    I will definitely see for these finer details when I read a fiction next time. Being an editor, these tips will definitely help me when I edit a novel next time around. Thanks so much.

  9. darkocean says:

    This:

    These examples are viewpoint characters reading the minds of other characters—

    Pauly cringed, as if remembering just when and where he’d heard that voice before.

    How does the viewpoint character know why he’s cringing or what he’s thinking about? It’s conjecture.

    I would say is also a pov violation and feels like head hoping imop.

  10. Darkocean, one way to tell that this thought is from the viewpoint character (someone who isn’t Pauly) rather than a head hop to Pauly’s viewpoint is the inclusion of the words as if. If this were Pauly’s thought—and a true POV violation—we’d say, Pauly cringed, remembering just when and where . . .

    A character wouldn’t have to think or say as if about himself. That is, he knows the reason he’s doing something. But the words as if and as though are giveaways of mind reading by the viewpoint character when he or she shouldn’t be able to read minds. This doesn’t mean that characters can’t have insight into other characters. But unless they actually can read minds, they can’t read them. Not accurately and not all the time. And even if the viewpoint character can guess what someone close to him or her is thinking, he or she wouldn’t be able to guess what everyone is thinking.

    A great point to introduce into this discussion. Thanks for bringing it up.

  11. October says:

    Great article. Loved many of your tips. However I have to disagree regarding the “mind reading.”

    Your example of mind reading:

    Pauly cringed, as if remembering just when and where he’d heard that voice before.

    The “as if” denotes that the POV character is only speculating. If the POV character meant it as fact they would’ve said: Pauly cringed as he recalled just when and where he’d heard that voice before.

    Your other example:

    Gertie strutted down the alley, like she assumed we were watching.

    Again the POV has only made an assumption, not a definite statement. And it is also true that people tend to act differently when they assume they are being watched. So someone strutting, and someone strutting like they’re being watched would be two very different types of struts.

    So I agree, mind reading is very bad in writing. But making an assumption that adds depth to an action can be useful.

  12. October, I agree wholeheartedly that some assumptions would be common for viewpoint characters—or even for other characters who speak their assumptions aloud. Yet my point here is that the viewpoint character shouldn’t be able to consistently make assumptions that are always correct. If used often or incorrectly, this is a heavy-handed way to show us inside the minds of characters who aren’t the viewpoint character.

    . . .guessing why and always being right smacks of extrasensory abilities—the viewpoint character can’t always know and can’t always guess accurately and shouldn’t be guessing every other line.

    Even a character who knows a friend well can’t always tell what that friend is thinking. More often than not, we’re wrong when we guess what others think. Yet in fiction, that guess is often perfectly accurate. The guess goes beyond the natural abilities of people to see inside someone else’s head.

    I find that in fiction these guesses are always accurate, never guesses that miss the mark.

    So we have John’s viewpoint thinking—Pauly cringed, as if remembering just when and where he’d heard that voice before.

    But what if Pauly was cringing because he was thinking of the way he’d just gone off on his boss? because he’d just stepped into dog doo? because he had a headache?

    The point here is that John is taking advantage of the writer’s need to relay information or to link the characters or to raise the tension or emotional level.

    These “as if” guesses in fiction are always accurate—they zero in on precisely what the other character is actually thinking. And that’s an impossibility unless the viewpoint character—in our case, John—actually knows what the other character is thinking. When this happens again and again, it’s a cheat to show what Pauly is actually thinking. If his thoughts are so important, the writer should use other ways to show them. Use methods that don’t rely on John’s ability to read minds.

    So while there’s nothing wrong with the occasional accurate guess, the writer shouldn’t use a viewpoint character who has no special ability to read minds to actually read minds. And maybe occasionally the viewpoint character should be shown to be wrong in his guesses.

    I’m not suggesting that one character can’t try to guess about another’s thoughts, only that he shouldn’t do so frequently, shouldn’t do so as a means of the writer showing us what the character who isn’t the viewpoint character is truly thinking on a consistent basis, and shouldn’t always be spot-on accurate in his guesses.

    ———
    Thanks for adding to the conversation. Going in depth on a point is always helpful.

  13. Phil H says:

    He was looking up through the redwoods, trying to find the sky.

    Now nowhere in the scene has the loss of heavenly visibility been mentioned. It was written more to place the character for his response to a question that he’d been asked.

    “…Sometimes we can’t even find the sky when we know where it is.”

    Is that acceptable? Or are you talking about straight up action modifiers/explanations like your examples. Sometimes we’re sloppy without being blatant.

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