“Hush Now, Don’t Explain”

Billie Holiday

Click photo for “Hush Now, Don’t Explain”

When I read a vivid description of a particular disease or condition, I confess I start feeling a slight pain in the target spot, an itch, a touch of malaise, a sink of nausea. (All the while being perfectly healthy.) Face it, lots of us suffer from–to put a positive spin on it–this kind of excessive empathy.

That tendency seems remote kin to the feeling I have when I read “advice for writers.” No matter how awful the writing habit is, “I do that!” “My writing is full of it!” But when I ran across fiction editor Beth Hill’s terrific essay, this time, I really, really think she’s diagnosed something important to me. Her brilliant Editor’s Blog essay is “Don’t Explain, Don’t Explain, Don’t Explain.” Let me explain.

Hill says the problem of overexplaining comes up repeatedly in fiction manuscripts. Fundamentally, her common sense advice requires us, as authors, to trust our readers to understand what we’re writing about, without banging them over the head with a 2×4 of explanation. Hill says:

  • Inherent in our characters and the events they experience are (or should be) the reasons they respond to situations as they do. If responses aren’t clear, fix the set-up or the characterizations, don’t take the easy way out and just tell the reader why they responded as they did.
  • Sometimes we do a good job of showing a character’s response, then wimp out, feeling the need to reiterate why the character responded as he did–showing AND telling. No, no, no. Trust the reader.
  • Whenever we explain, there we are (voice of God), elbowing our way into the story. When we do that, Hill says, we are “using real-world explanations for fictional-world events.” That destroys the story’s fictional reality. As John Gardner would say, it jolts the reader awake from “the fictional dream.”
  • Unnecessary explanations need not be page-length, paragraph-length, or even sentence-length. They can be one or two insidious words. Hill’s examples include “Timothy hollered in pain.” Unless the point-of-view character is Timothy or unless she has ESP, she doesn’t know that Timothy hollered in pain. We can just say a character hollered or frowned or wept and trust the reader to figure out why, given the circumstances. (No “Angela wept as if the tragedy of the situation just settled on her” either. That’s still point-of-view character speculation.)

The second part of this summary will appear Monday, June 27.