Monday, October 7, 2013

Resist the Urge to Explain

I assume I’m going to like every book I read; why else would I have bothered with it in the first place? I can’t keep up with all the things I want to read as it is; why waste time on unnecessary risks?

Of course, some books disappoint despite my highest hopes; I fail to finish about ten percent of the books I start. (That may seem low to some, but remember: I didn’t even startl if I wasn’t pretty sure I’d like it.)

So why don’t I finish the books I out down? Rarely is it bad writing; the authors I read have been vouched for by trusted sources. I can live with a weak plot; not an unbelievable one. I also have to care, at least a little, about the situation and/or at least one of the characters. Plausible dialog is important. Everyone knows about these, in one way or another. Something else that will pull me out of a book is overt explanation.

There’s a fine book titled Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, by Dave King (no relation) and Renni Browne. I make a point to at least skim it every couple of years to remind myself of what’s in there. These two paragraphs exemplify not only the kind of direct, practical advice they provide, but what may be the most important lesson in the book:

It’s more work this way, of course. It’s easier to simply say “Erma was depressed” than to come up with some original bit of action that shows she depressed. But if you have her take one bite of her favorite cake and push the rest away (or have her polish off the whole cake), you will have given your readers a far better feel for her depression than you would by simply describing it. It is nearly always better to resist the urge to explain (or, as we so often write in manuscript margins, R.U.E.)

This tendency to describe a character’s emotions may reflect a lack of confidence on the part of the author. And more often than not, authors tell their readers things already shown by dialog and action—it’s as if they’re repeating themselves to make sure their readers get the point. So when you come across an explanation of a character’s emotion, simply cut the explanation. If the emotion is still shown, then the explanation wasn’t needed. If the emotion isn’t shown, then rewrite the passage so that it is.

Best-sellers are guilty of this all the time. The authors (and editors, I presume) don’t trust their readers enough to understand what’s being said, or, even worse, to feel what the author wants them to feel. So they may show you, but then they’ll tell you, then probably tell you again. No chance will be left for you not to remember Erma was depressed. This is among the primary reasons I so rarely read best-sellers.

Lazy writing abounds with examples. “Katy, distraught over her mother’s accident, ran red lights, cut off other drivers, and was still late for work.” If the author has done his job, the reader will likely know Katy is close to her mother, and may be about to find out her mother has had an accident. The reader may then infer Katy’s driving, and tardiness, is related. The point may be reinforced later with added descriptions of actions or dialog.

John is talking to Jim and says, “How’s your wife, Mary?” as a way of introducing Mary’s character. Here’s the problem: unless Jim is a bigamist, he already knows his wife is named Mary. That was written as it was solely for the reader’s benefit, in case they weren’t smart enough to figure out Mary is Jim’s wife from his answer, which could only be because the writer wasn’t good enough—or conscientious enough—to work it in.

There’s another benefit of doing it right: you get to misdirect the reader without cheating. What if Katy’s doesn’t give a rat’s ass about her mother, but it’s in your story’s interest to leave an impression this is why she’s distraught? Maybe Jim is leading a double life and is a bigamist, but you don’t want the reader to know just yet. Lying is cheating; a little misdirection…? (As Delbert McClinton sings in his song, The Rub: “I might mislead you, but I wouldn’t ever lie/I said, ‘Hell, that’s the way it ought to be.’”) Don’t write yourself into a corner just because you didn’t spend the time to scope out the job first.

Give your reader some credit. By all means make sure they have the information they need to understand the story; don’t demean their intelligence to do so. It might keep you off the best-seller list—at least for a while—but you might also gain a devoted core of readers who respect you for treating them as equals.

At least that’s my plan.


pattinase (abbott) said...

Wish I could be at that launch!~

Dana King said...

I guess we'll have to wait for Bouchercon to meet, then. :)