Friday, June 8, 2012

An Explanation of Why You Shouldn't Explain

Today I began to reread Donita K. Paul's DragonKeeper Chronicles, which were, two years ago, some of my favorite books. As I read, I'm was more and more distracted by writing problems that I had never noticed during my previous reads.

In addition to the little things, which I won't mention for the sake of ye olde Donita K. Paul fans, Paul's writing had one major issue. It explained. All the time.

Let me set you straight, writer. Don't explain. If you are explaining something in prose, you must stop immediately. Why? That's what this post is about, of course.

First and foremost...explaining is telling. Completely so. Remember the old saying? Show, don't tell.

And telling is evil. Don't tell, my friend.

Explanation stops the story. It's a halt in the action where the narrator comes in and lets the poor clueless reader in on the little details. More than that, it also makes the prose feel more "omniscient" rather than in-character.

"But hold on," you might say. "Doesn't the reader need to know this stuff that I'm explaining?"

Half the time? No. Here's a clip from Donita. K. Paul's Dragonspell to explain what I mean. (Pun intended.)


The land immediately surrounding the walls had been cleared of all vegetation except for close-cropped grass.

Dar whispered an explanation. "Fortresses, walled cities, all have these clearings around them. The sentinels need an unobstructed view of anyone approaching."


So what's the problem with this section?

While there's nothing wrong with a verbal explanation, this one feels forced for a reason. The author felt that the reader needed to know why there was a clearing, so she used one of the characters to explain. In most circumstances, verbal explanation is okay, but this nevertheless fortifies my point: this halted the action to give us an explanation we didn't even need. The reason why there's a clearing never has any bearing upon the story; so does it need to be explained? No.

Here's another:


Shimeran nodded. "Risto is away. The guards have been drinking brillum all day. My kinsmen will cause a diversion, and we may sneak in through the main gate without detection."

Kale wrinkled her nose at the mention of brillum. The ale smelled like skunkwater and stained like black bornut juice. The mariones used it to spray around their fields to keep insects from infecting their crops. Grawligs drank it. Evidently bisonbecks did too.


This one was an in-prose explanation. All telling. We can tell easily enough what brillum is simply from Shimeran's dialogue; we didn't need a lengthy interruption for the author to tell us what it is. This explanation, like the other one, didn't have any bearing on the story afterward. So was it needed? Nope.

The point was not to critique Donita K. Paul. She's a great author, and I really like her books. My point is, dear writer: don't explain.

Now, there are exceptions to this rule. Sometimes there are places where you can explain for the greater good of the novel. Explanations are not allowed because they slow things down and are generally unnecessary; but if they are necessary and actually speed things up, then they're acceptable. Observe a clip from The Thirteenth Call:


....Brownbarr had said that he was eager to debrief Will and thank him for his work. The message had been short, terse, and satisfactory. The only thing that marred it was the bad connection that had made Brownbarr's voice metallic and grainy. But, Will thought with a shrug, he was probably off in some exotic location doing ASP work and would fly back to debrief Will.


Most of this was explanation; however, it was necessary to "recap" what had gone on between the previous scene and the scene that followed. Also, the "metallic and grainy" has importance later on in the story and thus foreshadows.

However, take a look at this before you agree with me:


Will glanced down at his comm. "Did Brownbarr call you to come pick me up?"
"Was the connection bad?"
"Yes." Immanuel's eyes widened. "You mean that—"


(That was edited, by the way, for plot details. Can't be giving away all of my surprises, can I?)

It's show vs. tell all over again. The explanation told my information, but the dialogue showed it. Now, my explanation is still part of the story; not necessarily because the reader needed the information, but because it helped foreshadow something later in the story.

In summary: don't explain. Most of the time, the explanation isn't needed. But if it IS needed, do your best to find a way to "show" that information in another way. You'll find it's easier than you think.

What do you think about "explaining"? There are many other facets of this discussion; can you think of one?

1 comment:

Eldra said...

Interesting you would do a post on this. I was (re)reading the Star Wars novel Darth Maul: Shadow Hunter by Michael Reaves, yesterday, and I noticed large paragraphs of explaining as well. Most of it was necessary, but I found myself getting frustrated at times; why couldn't the author have found a better way of transferring this information?

Funny enough, I read Michael Reave's latest Star Wars book, Shadow Games (which had fantastic, side-splitting dialogue), about a month and a half ago, and I quite enjoyed it. I'm convinced he's definitely gotten better as a writer.

Also, I can't wait to begin reading your stories about Will Vullerman. I'm thoroughly intrigued by his character. Let me know if you want an editor. ;)