Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Killing Your Story With Words

Any writer will point at their word count for the day or week, stick out their chest and proclaim with pride how many words they were able to churn out. But sadly, not every word is worth the same as the last.

While I will probably never claim to be an expert, I have picked up a thing or two. One new writer failing is the well known info dump. However, it has an equally story-derailing sibling called the over explain. In either case, the writer kills any interest in their otherwise brilliant masterpiece with too much information, too much explanation and just plain too many words.

While info dumps are talked about often enough and should be well known, I think the over explain is less visible. An over explained segment can be too much visual detail, too many internal thoughts, too much dialogue, trying to drive home a point, or just about anything done to excess in an attempt to explain beyond the needs of the story. Impossible to avoid on a first draft, these extraneous bits need to be excised like the cancerous growths they are.

A character does not have to “think” about heartbreak for the reader to “see” the heartbreak. They can act out in a fashion that clearly shows the manifest destruction of what they hold dearest—which engages the reader instead of boring the reader. This is an example of where the rule of “Show, don’t Tell” is imperative. (See my review of Greyfriar for more.) The prose will be more powerful if the reader sees that reaction and makes the connection themselves.

A recent re-read of Game of Thrones showed me that George R.R. Martin is an excellent example of a writer that does not waste or mince words. What he says, needs to be said. He does not over explain. He rarely info dumps. The scarce affront in his prose hardly mattered, because at that moment I was too interested in hearing more to care. And perhaps that is a BIG point: To have an effective info dump, it must come at a time where the reader is desperate. Not from exasperation at a lack of understanding, but from immersion. Or you need to make it entertaining, or you need to make it invisible, or you need to split it up and put it at the appropriate places, foreshadowing each event as you need the detail so that it is present in your mind when you hit the moment of need. I think that is how Martin accomplishes his magic. That said, I never felt his writing suffered from over explanations. He wisely chooses to trust the writer to draw the conclusions that he is artfully laying throughout his story.

David Farland is a very different writer from Martin. While I enjoyed much of his first book in the Runelords, book 2 (Brotherhood of the Wolf) is full of info dumps and over explanations that made reading it a chore. Perhaps this is an unfair comparison, as Martin’s long experience writing for the small screen has given him an edge on keeping concise. Or perhaps it merely points out the merits of screen writing as an applicable skill set for a novelist.

I hesitate to say that over explaining will always break the rhythm of your story, because it also seems that you could use it to change mood and draw attention to, or away, from something. However, if it is a tool, it is a dangerous one; and like any phrase or word used too often, it can derail your prose.

For more, check out an article by Caro Clarke that does a great job talking about over explaining and even breaks down why we (as writers) do it. For the love of our story, and for the love of our characters.

So very true, Caro. So very true.


  1. I overexplain in real life, too. I use 100 words when 20 will do...

  2. Well, if you have people dropping away uninterested 1/5 of the way through your conversation, then you have a problem. If you can somehow manage to keep them intrigued for the other 4/5's then you may be over explaining, but you are apparently doing so in a very amusing/interesting fashion.

    Which is a sort of exception I think in writing.

    Perhaps I'm misremembering, but I think The Name of the Wind, at times, over explains a bit of history, or character, or something, but Rothfuss manages to do so with such mirthful and riveting finesse that it kept me intrigued.

  3. Over-explaining is probably the biggest thing I point out in critiques. It can be the big dump, or small, like showing an emotion through action and then 'naming' the emotion to boot, just to make sure the reader 'gets it.'

    I tend to be a sparse writer (sometimes too space), but I am always on the look out for RUE (Resist the Urge to Explain).

    Angela @ The Bookshelf Muse

    Angela @ The Bookshelf Muse

  4. Thanks to the illustrious Angela Ackerman for chiming in. Your Thesaurus tools on http://www.TheBookshelfMuse.blogspot.com are awesome.

    I like the acronym, because I certainly RUE the day that I over explain in my prose. My wife is not really into fantasy fiction (beyond Harry Potter), but she sure helped point out to me a proliferance of offensive prose. I think it is impossible to avoid in a first draft (unless you really plan out your story in advance), but it needs to die quickly in a 2nd draft.


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