When I first started writing I had a friend who helped critique my writing. This was one of the best things I could have done, in my opinion. I was able to see the story I was writing from a reader’s perspective. There were many great tips that I received. However, one of them stood out among the rest. My friend pointed out several sections of my manuscript where I over-explained the scene. Let me explain what this is and what it does to a reader.
OVER-EXPLAINED: When an author/writer spells out exactly every detail of a scene so as to leave no room for a reader’s imagination to be sparked.
Let me give you a couple of examples.
Carla nervously paced back and forth in the kitchen with her arms crossed and her right index finger tapping her left arm. When the teapot started to whistle she reached up into the cupboard to the left of the sink with her right hand and grabbed her favorite red and blue coffee mug. She eagerly looked for her tan canister along the wall on the counter in front of her to grab a tea bag. Steam rose up into her face as she poured the boiling hot water into her mug and then proceeded to quickly dip the tea bag with her left hand that was holding the spoon she had grabbed from the nearby utensil drawer on her right side. (I could go on and on like this.)
This is probably how the writer saw the scene in his or her head. However, it is meaningless to the story or character profile unless the killer had been left-handed and liked tea. If there is no relevant reason for this example, don’t put it in the story. It’s boring! You leave no room for the imagination of the reader and it makes the reader feel cheated and thought of as stupid. Don’t tell me what hand the character used unless it’s important to show positioning of the scene, character development or relevant to the plot. Otherwise you could have just said, “Carla paced her kitchen and nervously made a cup of tea while she waited for the phone to ring.” Something like that… As an author/writer I need to give the readers the benefit of the doubt so that they can fill in the blanks, such as Carla grabbing a mug to drink from and a utensil to stir the teabag.
Carla sat down on the bed next to her husband. Placing both her hands on each of her thighs and leaning forward slightly, she sighed and said, “I need to tell you something important, Frank.”
Frank turned slightly to look at her as his eyebrows rose in anticipation. “What is it, Carla?”
Placing her left hand on his right thigh, the corners of her mouth curled slightly upward into a smile. “I’m finally pregnant with our first child.”
Frank’s eyes opened wide at the surprising news, followed by them narrowing quickly. “How can that be?” he asked as his face gave way to a look of anger. “I’ve had a vasectomy! So who’s the father?”
This example is what I like to call “Strike-a-Pose Writing.” I notice I’m guilty of this when I go back through my manuscripts for editing. There are many of the same elements of the first example, but with a specific pattern. There’s a need to set up each character’s movements and expressions before or right after speaking. Again this takes away from the reader’s imagination. Many editors will tell you that the dialogue should tell you what’s happening without you having to explain.
As a reader I am pretty sure that if Carla just told Frank she was pregnant, but he was unable to get her pregnant, it’s not a far cry to understand he’s mad and the simple “!” made that point known to me. Also the fact that Carla said she needed to talk to him about something important negates the need to know she sighed and composed herself prior to saying it.
The sentence could have read: Carla slowly sat down next to her husband and said… This conveys everything that I need to know about the situation. Carla’s not being flippant about the conversation she’s about to have without all the hand gestures and typical ‘Sigh’ that characters seem to make in books. On a side note, if people in real life sighed as much as the characters that I read in books do, I’d wonder if they were just trying to get attention or need their inhaler. Just saying…
Since I received a Kindle for Christmas, I’ve been doing a lot of reading lately and I’m truly surprised at the amount of “Strike-a-Pose Writing” there is. Especially coming from the large publishing houses, I expect a higher quality of writing, but that is not the case anymore. I am finding that the writing of smaller publishing houses is on the same level as the larger, more established publishers–and in many cases, better.
As authors/writers we need to keep in mind that the reader doesn’t always need to be led by the hand through a scene. Give the reader credit that they can understand and fill in the blanks when necessary. By doing this, the reader will become more involved and invested in the story, making for a better experience. – Blessings – Daniel L. Carter, author of The Unwanted trilogy