Writer Wednesdays: Don’t Overexplain

One issue a lot of writers seem to have is overexplaining. They describe a situation, they describe the character’s expression, they tell us what the character says … and then they tell us why the character has that expression and why he said what he said.

Something like this:

Joe sat next to his mother’s hospital bed, watching the trace of the heart monitor slow. Occasionally the smooth trace would disintegrate into a snarl of odd beats.

He set Mom’s hand down on the bed and went to the waiting room. Anne’s heart sank when she saw his face. His eyes were glistening, and his jaw was clenched tight. He tried to speak, paused for a deep breath, and finally said, “Mom’s heart … it’s not recovering.”

Joe was sad because he loved his mother, and he knew she was dying. How would he ever live without her?

Honestly, did I really need to tell you that Joe was sad, or that he loved his mother, or that his mother was dying, or that he was going to miss her? Could you really not have gotten all of that from his expression and words?

Another issue is when a writer tells you what someone says and describes the character’s expression, and then the writer adds one of those handy little adverbs.

His eyes were glistening, and his jaw was clenched tight. He tried to speak and paused for a deep breath before continuing. “Mom’s heart … it’s not recovering,” he said sadly and walked quickly into the bathroom.

This is why so many editors/agents say “NO ADVERBS.” Seriously, some publishers do not allow any adverbs. Ever. First, do you need me to tell you “sadly”? Really? He’s trying not to cry, he having trouble speaking, but I had to tell you his voice was sad? If you really want something better than “said,” how about an actual effective verb: wimpered, whispered, sobbed, cried. Why would he walk quickly? Why not hurry, run, stagger, rush?

Don’t assume your readers are idiots and over-explain everything. It insults their intelligence, wastes words, and –the biggest issue of all — it allows some all-knowing narrator to intrude into the reader’s experience. Just having that extra “person” there in that experience pulls the reader out of the story. Which is always my biggest bugaboo. Pulling the reader out of the story is never good writing. Use description and dialog to present the scene, and let the reader infer the why’s and wherefore’s. They’re not stupid.

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About alisaacarter

I am a writer of young adult novels, wife, mom of three, lover of animals, former magazine editor, reader of anything paranormal, and coffee fanatic.
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