I see so many writers commit this writing sin: over-explaining. They tell their reader every detail, elbow in every piece of backstory, unravel every intricacy of the plot. Sure, it’s your job to make sure the reader knows what’s going on; to create a vivid, detailed universe. But sometimes you’ve got to give your readers a little credit.
Provide too much detail and you readers are going to feel bogged down. The pace will slow due to all the static descriptions. The tension will diminish due to all the explanations. And you know what? Your readers will get bored.
Engagement is one of the pleasures of reading
There’s something quite unique about the experience of reading. Unlike watching TV or a film, where you’re essentially a passive observer, books are able to engage the mind in a different way. With a book, the reader can pause, reflect, study and interpret. If you over-explain in your writing, you’re robbing your readers of the pleasure of using their brains to work things out.
But I sympathise. How the hell do you work out how much information is too much information? After all, you don’t want to leave readers confused and frustrated by a lack of information, either. Here’s a guiding principle to help:
Use details necessary in the present moment
Scenario 1: The description dump
Have you ever elbowed in a description when there was no direct correlation between it and the action unfolding? For example:
Jeremy, who was six feet tall and had pale blue eyes, decided he’d better head home. His house was a typical terrace, with red brick walls and a slate roof. Coming in through the front door, which was painted green, Jeremy called out to his housemate.
Obviously this is a slightly exaggerated example, but you get the picture. In that moment, we don’t need to know how tall Jeremy is, or that he has blue eyes, or that his house is made of red bricks, or that his front door is green. Yes, these details help build a picture, but they’re also irrelevant details at this point in the narrative and they slow the pace, taking the reader away from the action.
Instead, reveal details through your characters, in the moment.
For example, you could describe the colour of someone’s eyes if your character was – at that moment – staring intently at someone. You could describe that the kitchen table was made of oak by having your character slam their hands down on its solid surface during an argument. You could describe a room while your character scans it, looking for someone.
Scenario 2: The info dump
Similarly, it’s easy to want to tell the reader all about a character’s past, or their psychological landscape, or to offer (in detail) an explanation for a character’s actions, or to provide an explanation for what’s about to happen, or what has just happened in the narrative, and what that means to the story. (Is your head spinning yet?)
It’s easy to over-explain this way because it’s hard to know how much information is too little. So the writer decides that it’s best to give the reader all the help they can get, just in case they can’t work it out. And then they end up shooting themselves in the foot.
But, again, there’s a way to minimise info dumping:
Reveal the past through the present.
(Are you sensing a pattern here?) Don’t just write a block paragraph about how Sandra witnessed her parents’ murder as a child and how this has affected her psychologically ever since.
Instead, show us her panic when her boyfriend comes home later than expected. Show us her mistrust of strangers and allow us to feel her disproportionate fear. You can weave in information about her past, but do it in drips, and link it to something unfolding in the present.
Not only does this allow the reader to work it out (which is satisfying, and therefore a good reading experience), but, BONUS: they’re able to also feel more strongly towards the character. Being told about an experience that happened in the past is not as powerful as feeling its effects in the present. And the more your reader cares about your character, the more they’ll want to read about them.
So, while you’re writing or editing your book, keep an eye out for moments of over-explanation. Think, instead: How can I weave this into the present, through my characters? Your book will be all the more engaging for it, and your readers will enjoy your writing that much more.