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.