Caro Clarke ▪  novelist  ▪

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Explaining too much: why less is more

One of the usual mistakes beginners make is to explain too much. How much is too much? Deciding this needs a dispassionate eye, a sense of pace, and a sense of what is really necessary for the story. These come with experience, but a beginner can start developing them by recognising the problem.

The problem is love. You love your story. You love your characters. You love the world you've invented. You want your readers to see them, appreciate them, and understand them just as you do yourself. And since you don't want your readers to start with the wrong impression, you pile up descriptive scenes as soon as the story opens. Or you drop in a big lump of description right after that 'grabber' first line you know you're supposed to have, in order to steer the reader into your vision.

For instance:

    The car plunged through the barrier and over the cliff.
    Nadine prayed the airbag would save her, her generous mouth opened in a scream, her periwinkle blue eyes fixed in horror on the ocean below, her auburn hair, thick and luxuriant, streaming behind her, her elegant, long legs braced for the crash.
    Nadine had always been strikingly beautiful, even as a child. Her hair, less golden then, was always held back by a blue ribbon. In summer a few delicious freckles dusted her nose. Wide shoulders had led, in adolescence, to a bosom of graceful proportions. Her hands were elegant and beauticians often commented on her healthy nails, nails that were now digging into the car's upholstery....

and so on.

How to guard against the mistake of explaining too much? Rewrite your work, excluding every scrap of description. Now how does the story read? If a detail was not necessary, its absence will not be noticed. If you take out all the description of the Nadine section above, you would have a better story (it couldn't be worse). Personal appearance matters only when it influences a character's motivation or has an impact upon the story. If your protagonist thinks that her big nose makes her ugly and unlovable, she won't believe it when the boy next door says he's crazy about her. If a character plunges into a burning house to rescue a child, it is important that we already know he is disabled. It is not important that he has red hair. You'll be surprised how little description you actually need.

Then there is the problem of the lovingly-described setting:

Nobody came to the farmhouse anymore. It was a big square building approached by a long track. Built in the 1890s, when the valley had been opened up by pioneers, the house had a porch running about three sides, gable windows, and gingerbread that once had been pristine, but now was gaping here and there like teeth gone bad. The front door barely hung on its hinges and the front hall was full of little tumbleweeds that had trapped themselves and now rolled like dustballs over the rotting hall carpet. The parlour, once the pride of the house, was musty with the smell of decaying horsehair furniture, of wood and fabric neglected. Across the hall, the sitting room ...

And so on and so on through every room of the house.

Where description is necessary, avoid a solid, dull block of descriptive prose by integrating description with action, or by having the description filtered through the eyes of a character. The abandoned farmhouse should not be described in advance of its first visitor for ten years, but rather should be seen through the eyes of that visitor. Give the reader the fewest descriptive words necessary to convey the scene. Better to have one piercing sentence than three paragraphs of room-by-room description:

Harold stopped in the middle of the hall, breathing decay. He could hear the curtains blowing in every room. It was like standing inside an empty heart, desolate, familiar.

The emptiness of the house and the reason Harold is in it begin to come together. Later, you can add a scene, perhaps where he pushes the tumbleweeds out the front door or rubs the dirt off a faded photograph, to build both the atmosphere of a house long neglected and Harold's own personality.

More insidious is the psychological or background description, for this is often considered good writing:

Daniel came from a long line of copers. He had coped when his father had died, supporting his mother financially and emotionally, he had coped with his wife's illness and miscarriage and now, facing her across the table, he put on his usual smile as he sorted through the divorce papers. He never questioned why he carried the burdens or made light of his own feelings. It had always been his duty; he had done it for so long that it felt a part of him.

This might sound fine, but it is actually an info dump. What are you going to say next? How can the conversation do anything but repeat some of this information? Info dumps are never as compelling as action, and dialogue is the most compelling action of all:

    "What's this, honey?" Daniel asked, even though he could see the work divorce on the top paper.
    "Don't give me that smile," Joan snapped. "For God's sake, Dan, your life is falling apart."
    "Getting angry doesn't solve anything," said Daniel, pressing a blanket of calmness over his feelings. "We can sort this out."
    "No, Dan, we can't," Joan sighed. "Sometimes things just can't be sorted out. Especially this. You keep doing what you did with your mother after your father died, but I'm not your mother. I need more from you. Needed more."
    Why was she doing this to him? "Honey, I've done the best I knew how." As always.

By revealing the past within present action, you can let it resonate with the what is going on now, the one enhancing the other. You also avoid boring the reader by preventing the characters from becoming wind-up toys, doing what we have been told they do. It is better to see Daniel 'coping' when he is really doing it – or thinks he is.

A basic rule of writing is to have nothing that does not propel the narrative, either because it furthers the action, or because it illuminates character within that action. Two people rushing through the night to the hospital is action, two people arguing in the car as they rush to the hospital is character development within action. The fact that one of them is six foot tall with blue eyes is neither action nor illumination.

Advice for beginners: cut. And keep cutting until you think you have reduced your story to a skeleton. The skeleton is your story. The rest is blubber.