Resist the Urge to Explain

Copyright Cynthia VanRooy - All Rights Reserved


Have you had the experience of reading a book and, while there was nothing specific you could put your finger on, the writing came across as clumsy and immature? Most likely that writer had violated the Resist the Urge to Explain rule. What do I mean? Read the following examples and note the words and phrases in parentheses:


Jaw tight, Amanda set her mug down with such force coffee splashed out on the freshly-cleaned counter. "I can’t believe your nerve," (she said angrily).

Marilyn sat at the bus stop, her shoulders sagging, and watched with disinterest people enjoying the spring day. When was the last time it had mattered to her that the sun was shining? (She felt so depressed.)

Susan had never laughed so hard in her life. (Jerry’s remark had been hysterically funny.)

What all these phrases have in common is that they are explaining things the reader should have been able to glean from context. The writer should have resisted the urge to explain. When you explain emotions to the reader, you are guilty of two sins—lazy writing and condescension. You are saying to the reader you don’t think they are bright enough to get the point without having you tell them outright. In the first example Amanda’s actions and words say it all (I hope). If they don’t, the answer is to rewrite the scene, not tell the reader what I’m trying to convey—that Amanda is angry.

This is the problem with most –ly adverbs—they’re meant to explain emotions. They’re telling words. Eliminate them and write scenes that show. Let your characters’ body language and choice of words convey the emotions. I want the reader to think, "Wow, Amanda’s really angry," because of what I’ve shown about Amanda, not what I’ve said she’s feeling.

Another way writers explain too much is when they insist upon elaborating on characters’ motivations. If you do a good job creating your characters, the reader will be able to extrapolate their motivations. Say you’ve created Jason, a character for whom personal integrity is paramount:

Jason rifled through his wallet looking for the dry cleaning ticket. He frowned at the ten dollar bill there, wondering how he had become ten dollars richer than he should have been. The cashier at the deli where he had just had lunch must have made a mistake in his change. Jason had been talking on his cell and hadn’t paid any attention to the bills she handed him. He had just stuffed them into his wallet. The poor girl would come up short at the end of the day. It wouldn’t be honest to keep the money. He checked his watch and retraced his steps quickly.

Telling the reader that Jason doesn’t think it would be honest to keep the money is unnecessary explaining and patronizes the reader. That whole sentence should go.

Here’s a shorter example:

At the sight of the masked men surging into the bank Rita opened her mouth to scream. One of the men hauled Jeremy away from her and pressed the muzzle of a gun to the boy’s temple. "One sound and I blow his brains out."

Rita closed her mouth instantly to protect Jeremy.

The whole phrase "to protect Jeremy" can be eliminated. The reader will understand. Don’t insult them by explaining.

I first came across Resist the Urge to Explain in Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, an invaluable little book by Renni Brown and Dave King, professional editors. They said they saw this problem so often they abbreviated it RUE in manuscript margins. The problem is not unique to romance manuscripts, but I see it frequently in the unpublished manuscripts I’m asked to critique and in contest entries I judge. If you’ve found RUE on your manuscripts, chances are good I judged it. If you handle this weakness, your writing will tighten up immediately and flow with a professional rhythm.

Readers are much smarter than a lot of writers give them credit for. Trust them to grasp the meaning behind your brilliant prose and get on with the story. Don’t bog it down with a lot of redundancies. Resist the urge to explain.


About the author: Cynthia VanRooy is an award winning romance novelist with eight books published by both print and epublishers. Her ninth romance will be released late 2005 by New Age Dimensions. She is also the author of etips booklet The Secrets to Query Letters That Work. Additional details can be found at Cynthia's website.

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