Resist the Urge to Explain

By Geoffrey C Porter

There is a textbook I have used repeatedly in school called, “Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, By Browne and King” and in that book they talk about R.U.E. Resist the Urge to Explain.

We get so many stories where it starts out, and the narrator essentially steps forward and starts explaining stuff. It's always very important stuff to the story, but it's not what we're looking for in our magazine. We crave scenes. We want to be shown things in the form of scenes.

Granted, sometimes a tiny bit of explanation is going to be better than piles and piles of description. When the explaining becomes more than one or two sentences in a short story, it becomes unbearable.

A fine line exists between lightly feathered in exposition and explaining. Exposition can be very necessary at times, especially to keep a story under a word count and to keep the plot flowing, but too much is bothersome.

Explaining things in a story is a kind of tell, and we prefer show.
An Example: The Diggers are Hell bent on conquest. They revel in torturing weaker species. Conquering planet after planet, they strip natural resources and massacre native people.

Sure, I've made it very clear what the Diggers are doing, but wouldn't it be better if I provided more detailed description? If I painted it in the form of scenes? Those three sentences above could be shown in thousands of words. It could also be done up in a gripping single scene with a Digger torturing or murdering a member of a less technologically advanced species on some backwater planet.

In a novel, you almost always have some tell. It's pretty inevitable. In a short story, it should be kept to a minimum. I'm going to save show&tell for another blog though.

If I encounter a short story and the narrator is explaining things, I get discouraged really quickly. It's like the writer is expecting me to have a 3x5 card handy, and I'm supposed to write little shorthand notes about the things that are being explained. When you show me the same details in the form of a powerful scene, I don't need a 3x5 card. I don't need to take notes. I get it through the imagery and the action.

One pitfall is dialog. Just because two or more people are talking back and forth, they could still be explaining things. The worst is when two characters will explain things to each other, information they already know, for the reader's sake.

Another pitfall is the ending. We see a lot of endings where the writer essentially explains the ending to the reader. Sometimes they will cut to a news broadcast. These types of endings are downers for the reader.

There is a tendency for fiction to read like non-fiction when there is too much explaining.

Ref. Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, How to edit yourself into print, by Renni Browne and Dave King, available on Amazon. Buy Self-Editing for Fiction Writers on

Open for Submissions Since September '09.
We hope to reopen in 2017.