I hadn’t really planned to share another editing-related article so soon, but this topic has been on my mind lately (from an online writing seminar I listened to last week!), so … I hope you don’t mind two in a row! Have you ever thought about how writers and readers form a team? One desires to give information and the other desires to receive it, usually in the most pleasant way possible. Though writers carry the burden of responsibility, they can rely on readers to help. After all, readers want to understand the writers’ points just as much as writers want to convey it. And readers are intelligent, too.
Therefore, we must give our readers credit for being intelligent. R.U.E. Resist the Urge to Explain.
When I first learned this principle (in the book Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, which I would recommend except for some unfortunate choice of language and examples), it opened my eyes to all sorts of ways I could improve my writing.
Attention spans are short, and readers are searching for stories that thrill them and tell them things they don’t already know. When we bog down our narratives with information readers can infer for themselves, we cause some of the enjoyment they could have had to leak out … we bore them and make them subconsciously feel talked down to. The problem is not in lots of detail (strong, descriptive writing is essential!), but in the wrong kinds of details.
Consider these examples:
Wet footprints patterned the kitchen linoleum. Marla wondered how many times she had warned Tony about wearing his shoes in the house. She thought she’d better warn him again. Stomping into the den where Tony was, she growled, “Tony, if I have to tell you one more time to take your shoes off outside...!”
Wet footprints patterned the kitchen linoleum. That boy...! Marla stomped into the den and growled, “Tony, if I have to tell you one more time to take your shoes off outside...!”
Which one moves faster? Which one gives more information—or do they give the same amount? Which one is more enjoyable to read? If we see Marla reacting the way she does, we don’t need to be told what she’s thinking before she does it. And if she goes to the den to reprimand Tony, we can infer that Tony is in the den. And if we’re in Marla’s head, we don’t need to be informed that she “wondered” something or that she “thought” something. Free indirect speech or italicized thoughts will do. (Free indirect speech is when a character’s thoughts are part of the narrative without an accompanying “she thought.” “That boy...!” in my example is indirect discourse.)
R.U.E. exists on many levels. It’s part of the show-don’t-tell principle, where you show a person’s anger by describing his raised voice and what he said instead of explaining he “spoke angrily.” Resisting the urge to explain, along with showing-not-telling, engages a reader’s imagination and sucks her deeper into our stories. It gets us, the writer, out of the way and puts the reader in the middle of our characters and their experiences.
Here is one more example that falls under R.U.E. If you’re describing an object or a process that everyone’s familiar with, be careful. If someone unlocks his door, we already know he’s taken his key out to do it. You don’t need to explain, “He took his key from his pocket and unlocked his door.” (Unless this action is, for some reason, highly important to your story!) If someone shrugs, you don’t need to add “her shoulders.”
What other unnecessary explanations should writers avoid in their fiction?
Kelsey Bryant is an author, blogger, and copy editor who loves the Lord. She revels in many things: the beauty of God's Word, the music of English, the wonder of nature, the joy of creativity, the freedom of motion, the richness of literature, the intrigue of history ... and much more. To learn more about her, visit her website or blog.