Writing Can Be Murder

September 24, 2007

Is there such a thing as too much explanation?

Filed under: Uncategorized — jenniferelbaum @ 7:39 am

The other day I had dinner with a writer friend and at the end of our evening we started talking about the Harry Potter books — NO SPOILERS, promise! —

She’s only read through book four so it wasn’t like we were discussing details about book seven, but I told her that I didn’t like it. (yeah, yeah, I know, I deserve to be flogged) Then it occurred to me that she would probably love it for the very reason I disliked it — it’s full of explanations.

This friend of mine wants the explanation to everything. That’s her personality. She likes to understand the WHY of everything and she’s very good at filling in the “why” when she writes.

I on the other hand don’t particularly like explanations. I like snapshots. I like moments. That’s what most movies, books, and plays are — little glimpses into lives.  And really, when you think about it, that’s what life is. We don’t know the intimate life histories of most people we know, we just know the tiny bits we see.

I think that’s why I don’t like explanations in books, they’re too easy.  In life I’m always guessing as to why a person does what they do (okay, most of the time I really don’t care why, I just care how their actions impinge on me).

Do YOU think there can be too much explanation in a book?



  1. Once again, we agree. I don’t like too much explanation – though I did like HP 7 – I find a lot of books have backstory dumps, extraneous information, morbid details of character’s lives [such as how they chew their food – LOL – my major pet peeve] or exactly what they’re wearing in every scene.

    I’d almost rather leave something out and let the reader put in the detail themselves, than put in too much and risk nauseating someone. That said, I won’t say I’ve never read a book and thought, ‘gee, I wish the author had explained such and such a little better’ – though that usually makes me want to buy their next book hoping for more information.

    Comment by Jennifer Colgan — September 24, 2007 @ 7:36 pm

  2. A little goes a long way. I’d rather be given some information and let my imagination fill in the rest. The book I’m reading now goes into these long paragraphs of description of the fantastical world it’s set in and I find myself skipping ahead to get to the action.

    When it comes down to it, I’m a doer–I don’t want to be bogged down with the hows and whys. 😉

    Comment by Kate Perry — September 24, 2007 @ 8:34 pm

  3. Jennifer — Must remember to swallow all food whole when around you

    And I agree that I’ll often buy a next book in the hopes of finding out more info, but that usually doesn’t leave me disappointed in the first book

    Comment by jenniferelbaum — September 25, 2007 @ 12:11 pm

  4. Kate — I too, am a notorious skimmer.

    I see descriptions and explanations as anchors. They rarely do anything to move a story along for me.

    Comment by jenniferelbaum — September 25, 2007 @ 12:13 pm

  5. Since you have used me as your example, I feel I must further explain. HA HA!

    I battle the info dump every minute of this story. I hope that I have so far been successful because, truthfully, I don’t want to tell everything up front. My main character only knows so much, so we only know what he is learning as it goes. But I do write A LOT (I mean A LOT) off-page so that “I” can understand my characters’ motivations and the events that formed where they are now, when the book opens. One of the other struggles I’ve had with this story is that it is a larger story than I have ever written. It may or may not be more than one book. There is A LOT brewing on many different levels. I try not to confuse my need to understand what is happening and why so that I can write the story with what the reader needs to know and why … they are two different things. But knowing what I know in my head, it does sometime pulse to want to come out my fingertips … and sometimes it does. But usually, mostly, I end up deleting it as I find the heart of the scene and move on. I tend to overwrite a scene a bit just to get it down, and mostly when I go back before anyone reads it, it’s tightening and deleting. When I read, I doo not want to be bogged. I want just enough to whet my appetite and want to read on. I do try to keep it moving. But I will admit that “I” need to know in order to write. Otherwise, I feel like I’m writing from a vacuum and not from my characters’ hearts. It’s how I connect.

    Thanks for the forum, Jen!


    Comment by Cyndi — September 29, 2007 @ 11:18 am

  6. Oh, I just wanted to add:

    I hope that all of that extra work off page bleeds through the consice writing that I try to do on page. I hope that it makes every word choice and every metaphor and simply everything work double time and mean something. It is a depth rather than a quantity of words to which I aspire.

    As a reader, I do not want long explanations either. Boring and after-the-fact. Though some explanation is not so bad depending on the story and how it is written. But I hope that what I do include in the story would not need lengthy explanation as I hope that those details were built in and inherent in what was written and read.

    The reader has already formed some kind of vision and diagram in her concscious and subconscious mind, that at some point, it all connects and pops.

    I can hope.


    Comment by Cyndi — September 29, 2007 @ 11:29 am

  7. Cyndi

    Hey, I didn’t say your book has too much explanation, I said Deathly Hallows did , but I thought you’d enjoy the very thing that I disliked so much. It’s a matter of personal preferences, just like I hate historicals and a lot of erotica, but lots of people love that stuff.

    And for the record: I definitely don’t think you info dump and I don’t think that there’s too much explanation in your book (or books as the case may end up being) but I do think you, as a writer, need to know all the “why”s whereas, I don’t. That of course leads to you writing the deep, textured tapestry of a story that I wish I could pull off(as I’ve told you multiple times because I always voice my petty jealousies, lol). I’m totally into your story at the moment, so send more pages!

    We’ll have to revisist this discussion once you’ve read HP7 so that I can defend my “too much explanation” position. I think that you will enjoy the explanations, but you may also see my pov that they do little to move the story along. Or maybe not.

    Comment by jenniferelbaum — September 30, 2007 @ 6:46 pm

  8. Hugs, my friend!

    I do know exactly what you mean. I’m hoping I’m not disappointed in DH, but it will be interesting to read it from this perspective and see. I can’t wait to talk about it!

    Comment by Cyndi — October 1, 2007 @ 8:23 pm

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