Get The Romance Writer's Handbook -
Urge to Explain
Have you had the experience of reading a book and, while
there was nothing specific you could put your finger on,
the writing came across as clumsy and immature? Most
likely that writer had violated the Resist the Urge to
Explain rule. What do I mean? Read the following examples
and note the words and phrases in parentheses:
tight, Amanda set her mug down with such force coffee
splashed out on the freshly-cleaned counter. I
cant believe your nerve, (she said angrily).
Marilyn sat at the bus stop, her shoulders sagging, and
watched with disinterest people enjoying the spring day.
When was the last time it had mattered to her that the
sun was shining? (She felt so depressed.)
Susan had never laughed so hard in her life.
(Jerrys remark had been hysterically funny.)
What all these phrases have in common is that they are
explaining things the reader should have been able to
glean from context. The writer should have resisted the
urge to explain. When you explain emotions to the reader,
you are guilty of two sinslazy writing and
condescension. You are saying to the reader you
dont think they are bright enough to get the point
without having you tell them outright. In the first
example Amandas actions and words say it all (I
hope). If they dont, the answer is to rewrite the
scene, not tell the reader what Im trying to
conveythat Amanda is angry.
This is the problem with most ly
adverbstheyre meant to explain emotions.
Theyre telling words. Eliminate them and write
scenes that show. Let your characters body language
and choice of words convey the emotions. I want the
reader to think, Wow, Amandas really
angry, because of what Ive shown about
Amanda, not what Ive said shes feeling.
Another way writers explain too much is when they insist
upon elaborating on characters motivations. If you
do a good job creating your characters, the reader will
be able to extrapolate their motivations. Say youve
created Jason, a character for whom personal integrity is
rifled through his wallet looking for the dry cleaning
ticket. He frowned at the ten dollar bill there,
wondering how he had become ten dollars richer than he
should have been. The cashier at the deli where he had
just had lunch must have made a mistake in his change.
Jason had been talking on his cell and hadnt paid
any attention to the bills she handed him. He had just
stuffed them into his wallet. The poor girl would come up
short at the end of the day. It wouldnt be honest
to keep the money. He checked his watch and retraced his
Telling the reader that Jason doesnt think it would
be honest to keep the money is unnecessary explaining and
patronizes the reader. That whole sentence should go.
Heres a shorter example:
the sight of the masked men surging into the bank Rita
opened her mouth to scream. One of the men hauled Jeremy
away from her and pressed the muzzle of a gun to the
boys temple. One sound and I blow his brains
Rita closed her mouth instantly to protect Jeremy.
The whole phrase to protect Jeremy can be
eliminated. The reader will understand. Dont insult
them by explaining.
I first came across Resist the Urge to Explain in
Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, an invaluable little
book by Renni Brown and Dave King, professional editors.
They said they saw this problem so often they abbreviated
it RUE in manuscript margins. The problem is not unique
to romance manuscripts, but I see it frequently in the
unpublished manuscripts Im asked to critique and in
contest entries I judge. If youve found RUE on your
manuscripts, chances are good I judged it. If you handle
this weakness, your writing will tighten up immediately
and flow with a professional rhythm.
Readers are much smarter than a lot of writers give them
credit for. Trust them to grasp the meaning behind your
brilliant prose and get on with the story. Dont bog
it down with a lot of redundancies. Resist the urge to
you've written the book, does the hardest part seem to be
getting an editor to read it? Let award-winning romance
author Cynthia VanRooy, published in both print and
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