Wednesday, July 03, 2013

Writer's Wednesday: Resist the Urge to Explain (RUE)

PHS Editor and Harlequin Historical Author Michelle Styles  explains why writers should Resist the Urge to Explain or RUE

One of the things with craft is that you need to  think of it like a clock face. You start polishing and working on one bit and then you move on to the next. But by the time you have worked your way around, it is time to take a look again at the things you once took for granted.

One piece of advice I recently revisited was RUE or Resist the Urge to Explain. Another way of putting it is  1+1 = ½ or even trust your reader to get it.

Explaining isn’t showing. It is telling. And although an author does tell a tale, stories are much more vivid and exciting when  the author trusts the reader and shows what is happening to the character. Showing the action or the emotion makes the scene far more immediate for the reader.  It also gives you the opportunity to really make the character your own, rather than having a generic character.

Consider Henri slammed the report down on  her desk, sending papers and pens flying. She was very angry with Richard.   You don’t really need the She was very angry with Richard as the reader will get that she is annoyed.

Another problem when you explain is that you dilute the impact of the words. For example ‘I need help!’ Stacy screamed  takes away some of the immediacy.. Either ‘I need help!’ or Stacey screamed will get  the point across to the reader far more effectively.

It is very easy to have explanations creep in, particularly in the first draft. Or at least it is for me.  Telling the emotion can be easier than showing it. But the reader does not get as vivid a picture.

One way of finding out if you have a tendency towards this is to cut the explanation. Does the paragraph make sense without it. If it doesn’t make sense,  see if you can find a way of showing that emotion, particularly in dialogue explanations.

Repetition dilutes, rather than enhances. It shows lack of confidence on the author’s part according to  Self Editing for Fiction Writers by Brown and King (one of my go to books for editing)  Either the author doesn’t trust her writing ability or that the reader will get it (underestimating the reader’s intelligence) and so attempts to drive home the point in several ways. Rather than driving the point home, the author may inadvertently dilute the effect and have the reader start skipping. For example, I know I skipped the Rules in Fifty Shades of Grey after the first time as I had already read them and EL James had already made her point. I suspect the book was popular in spite of the repetition not because of it!

Another point to remember about this is when you use brand names, you are explaining something about the character. And if you are writing for a whole wide audience, the brand name might not mean anything so the explanation will be lost. Think of another to explain or describe what the character is doing so you get the right message about the character across.

First drafts are for writing. Subsequent drafts are for polishing. Once the words are down, see if you can find places where you don’t trust the reader enough and see if you can find away to finally trust them. There are reasons why I like to revise and my tendency towards repetition and not trusting my writing ability to get the point across are major ones.

Michelle Styles writes warm, witty and intimate historical romance for Harlequin Historical. Her next book Paying the Viking’s Price will be published in November 2013.  You can learn more about Michelle and her books at


  1. Fantastic tips, Michelle, thanks so much. (Lots of things I'm guilty of in there!) Love the tip about taking out the explanation and seeing if it still works.

  2. Charlotte If you haven't read Self Editing for Fiction Writers, do. There are a lot of useful tips. I am ever so guilty of RUE and all the rest, particularly on my first drafts!