The Ten Commandments of Fiction Writing, Part Three

As a student of the art of fiction, there are several axioms and pieces of advice that I come across again and again; "show, don't tell", "write what you know", "don't trick the reader", etc. These aren't items from a single book, they're everywhere. Some of them surely originate with specific authors, but as ideas they've taken on a life of their own, becoming more than something one person said.

In this series, I will try to gather all those admonitions, encouragements, and adages into a single, definitive list; the Ten Commandments of Fiction Writing. Hopefully this will be as fun and educational for you as it is for me.


Commandment Three: Thou shalt not intrude upon the story

Author intrusion is one of the most common and irritating mistakes made by writers. And it's not limited to amateurs, or even to writing; if you've ever watched a movie and been annoyed by an incessant voice over explaining every little nuance of what's going on, you've been a victim of author (filmmaker?) intrusion.

Dave King and Renni Browne deal with this issue in Self-Editing, when they give the editor's maxim R.U.E - "Resist the Urge to Explain!" When an author intrudes on her story to explain something, she commits three crimes: a) she underestimates her own ability to show what's going on, b) she assumes her readers aren't attentive or intelligent enough to get what's going, and c) she assumes that the readers need or want to know every little nuance of what's going on. Let's look at each crime in turn.

First, if you're over-explaining because you lack confidence, either you aren't a very good writer, and you should take some time to hone your craft, or what you're writing is too complex. If you're falling all over yourself trying to explain it, maybe you should pull back and look at what that event's job is in your story. Can that job be done by a simpler event? If several things are happening at once, can you find a way to spread them out so you can write them more simply? Don't go beyond what's absolutely necessary unless you have a very good reason. And if you must, it's worth taking the time to break scenes down into their essential parts, and figure out the most direct way of putting them across.

If you're over-explaining because you're afraid readers can't figure it out on their own, complexity may still be an issue. But it might just be that you're not giving the average reader enough credit. Remember, readers are smart. Reading makes you smart. Writing down to your audience is a sure way to alienate them. To paraphrase Browne and King, resisting the urge to explain pays readers the compliment of assuming they're intelligent.

If you're over-explaining because you assume the reader wants all this information, I've got some news for you: they don't. By and large, readers (and movie audiences) prefer to have just what they need to understand what's going on. Deeper understanding usually comes only with repeated readings, which is a sign of commitment to a particular story. You can't expect everyone who picks up your book to commit to it in this way. Not everyone is going to turn into a fanboy of your work. By force-feeding the reader more detail than they want or need, you force them to become a fanboy just to understand the basics. It's like asking someone to marry you on a first date. (Like this quote? Click here to tweet it!)

Over-explanation is just one form that author intrusion takes. Purple prose, tangential narrative, excessive description, and ham-handed characterization and exposition can all be forms of author intrusion. In fact, anything that distracts from the story in order to serve the author's whims is intrusion. Any time you get in the way of your story, you are unwelcome.

So don't write fancier than you have to, just write clearly. Don't take detours just to show us some neat idea you cooked up; make the idea matter, or don't include it. When describing things, provide just enough detail to get the reader's imagination going, then get out of the way (my Inverse Coco Chanel Principle will help you achieve this). Don't dump mounds of backstory on your readers, let them get to know your characters and settings gradually, they way they do with real people and places. It isn't just easier to read, it makes your world seem more realistic. And for God's sake, don't base a character on yourself and then expend huge amounts of time on that character, it makes you look desperate.

That's what it all comes down to: author intrusion makes you look desperate. Which is understandable, to some degree. We write because we want to be known. If we didn't want attention, we wouldn't write. But overdoing it will drive readers away just like overdoing it in social situations drives potential friends away. Remember that you are part of everything in your story, and everything in your story is part of you (Like this quote? Click here to tweet it!). There's no need to put on a silly costume and dance for your readers. If they are reading your book, they are reading you.

Let them!