I pretty much never post on the craft of writing. I’m no expert by any means, but over the past few days, I’ve been doing a lot of critiques for fellow writers on #writeoncon and #pitchwars. I’ve noticed a trend: over-explanation. Now I’m not referring to a J.R.R. Tolkien-esque, two-page description of setting, because obviously there are plenty of places for that, like Lord of the Rings or probably Game of Thrones (which I couldn’t get my YA brain to read, not going to lie).
I’m talking about explaining something in several sentences, in slightly different ways, when really the point could be made with one example and one sentence. I think this is usually done to drive an important point home, but over-explanation just waters down.
I’ve picked a terrifying example from my first attempt at writing a novel. I started it at 17 and worked on it for a decade before I finally just set it aside. You must promise PROMISE not to judge. Check out this nugget of gold from my very first page…
Ari walked across the small, cramped room that was the Douglas-MacClannough family living space, her Companion tucked under her arm. She joined the rest of her family at the table for breakfast and set Max on her lap; she couldn’t forget to bring it to school again or her instruction autom might fry her. Her father glanced up from rocking her baby brother, Ryan, his eyebrows furrowed in feigned annoyance,
“We’ve been waiting for you for five minutes now,” he stated, doing his best to sound stern as he tenderly cradled Ryan in his arms.
“Sorry,” she muttered distantly as she stared drearily at the cold silvery tabletop her stomach weighed down with leaden worry. “I didn’t sleep well last night. Besides, breakfast isn’t here yet anyway.” She shrugged flatly. It was a lame excuse on her part, but it was true. After all, it was kind of hard for a girl to sleep knowing that it was her last night in her own bed with her family only a few feet away—when in a mere twenty-three Earth hours, she would be on a journey that would take her nearly four hundred million miles away. Her eyes fell to her lap, to her white-knuckled, clenched fists. Fear rumbled around in her stomach again, making her whole body feel weak and numb. Butterflies were what most people would call them, and Ari would too—if she had known what they were, that was. Ari swallowed, trying to force the burning sensation in her throat to go away. She wasn’t ready to leave her mom and dad! To leave the only place she’d ever known….
Her older brother David, being his stupid and immature self as usual, snickered. “True dat! I think we best be filin’ a complaint to the administrator’s office ‘bout how the food management and distribution units always be late when they deliver, the food’s always cold, and man, the taste! Whew! What’s this stuff jeebin’ on? I mean, I know it ain’t organic, but can’t they at least make an effort to make it taste real, or taste like anything at all for that matter? It’s crap!” He ranted, throwing in an English word to spice it up. At least his whining would get their dad off her case. “What is—”
OH MY GOD!!! Could you even get through all that? I bet you skimmed 😛 I had to force myself to actually read it. So many adverbs!!! So much body-part directing. And an exclamation point in narration? Not only did I over-explain, my over-explanation interrupted dialogue. That explains why that document has…wait for it…227,000 words!!!My analogy: it’s like writing with a dull pencil versus a sharp (COPYRIGHT). You can read what was written by a dull pencil, but it’s not as clear or as neat. Sharp pencil is better; it’s clean and to the point. No need to say: Her eyes fell to her lap, to her white-knuckled, clenched fists. Fear rumbled around in her stomach again, making her whole body feel weak and numb. Butterflies were what most people would call them, and Ari would too—if she had known what they were, that was. Just say: her stomach churned or something. Pick the one sentence or example that expresses it best and use that. KISS: Keep It Simple Silly (I’ll never call my writer friends stupid). Not only does it make it more clear, it can make what you’re trying to say more powerful. It’ll jump off the page.
Here is my quick and dirty re-write:
Ari joined her family at the table. She set Max, her Companion on her lap. If she forgot it again, the instructor autom might fry her.
“We’ve been waiting for you for five minutes,” Dad said as he rocked baby Ryan, forced sternness in his voice.
“Sorry,” Ari muttered as she stared at the dent in the metal tabletop. “Breakfast hasn’t been delivered yet anyway.”
“Do you have butterflies again?” Mom asked.
Ari rolled her eyes. What were butterflies anyway? “I’m fine,” she lied.
It was hard to sleep knowing that, in a mere twenty-three Earth hours, she’d be on a ship headed four hundred million kilometers from home.
“I think we should file a complaint with Colony Admin,” David, her older brother, snorted. “Food Dist is always late, the food’s cold, and they don’t even try to make it taste real. It’s crap!” He threw in an English word to spice it up.
This re-write gets all the jobs done of the original: reveals genre, introduces the characters, establishes they live in a colony that doesn’t have butterflies, shows English isn’t the main language, and hints at Ari’s inciting incident and how she feels about it. I also think the fact that she doesn’t know what butterflies are/is going millions of miles away strikes the reader more because those sentences aren’t buried in crap. When you throw in the English thing, the reader can piece together that she’s a human but not living on Earth. I don’t come out and TELL the reader that on purpose, I SHOW them with clues and let them reach that conclusion on their own while leaving them curious as to why and where she does live so they’ll keep reading.
So that rough re-write: 153 words. Original: 385 words. If that’s a representative sample for the rest of my novel, I could easily half if and get it to a still-not-reasonable length. Pop over to my last post to see what helped me get to where I am today with my writing.
That was actually pretty fun to do. Maybe I’ll go back to that story someday.
Anyway… Sharpen those pencils and KISS, writer friends!
To read my most recent, much, much better (I swear!) work, click here.
What’s one of the biggest lessons you’ve learned about the craft of writing since you wrote that first page of your first novel?