3.02.2017

Overexplaining

Understanding the intellectual capacity of your readership is no easy feat. Unless you are writing a literary novel, the spectrum of your audience can range from post-graduates to high school dropouts. Using the right level of diction is hard enough without a further complication, yet for many authors, writing brings out the inner teacher.

Certain elements of a novel do require instruction. A story often incorporates an aspect of our wide-ranging civilization that is little-known. That’s not to mention that readers love finding out about such stuff. It’s cool, and if it isn’t explained, the reader may not understand what is being discussed.

The necessity to expound on the unknown applies only to these realms, though. What I find fairly often is that a writer given to explaining abstruse matters also overwrites in general. This can take place on a simple level, as a matter of excess verbiage. “He walked down the length of the arched corridor. At the end he opened the door to the hallway.” The reader already knows he’s in a corridor, so what’s that “to the hallway” doing there? Does the door need identification?

More serious is a pedagogical style in general. Whenever a topic comes up that the author has researched, we get a little explanation about it. This can be interesting background information, say on a historical time period prior to the events in the novel. A few such pieces here and there are fine, even enjoyable. But if the book has to pause every time a character might have background that could be explored, the pacing get clogged up with all of the asides.

My concern ratchets to a higher level when background fills are only part of an overall narrative style in which the author tells the story from a hoary distance. So much information is crammed into the story, the characters become puppets with minds. Whatever action they take is described so summarily, in step with the informational waltz going on around them, that the reader cannot participate. In a word, the author is telling, not showing.

A novel is more like a symphony, with quiet interludes followed by crescendos. Information is quiet, to be dispensed during certain periods. Vigorous movement, even if only in the mind, is the loud part. You need them both.

Exercise: Review the manuscript with an eye for pacing. How many times are you delving into background information featuring research? If there are a lot, make decisions about which pieces really pertain to the story you’re telling. Is the aside nice to have or need to have?

“Research is formalized curiosity. It is poking and prying with a purpose.”
—Zora Neale Hurston

Copyright @ 2017, John Paine


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