How much telling is too much telling?

In the Writers Workshop of Horror edited by Michael Knost, Brian Yount lists “too much telling” as his number one submission flaw that “drives editors nuts.” He argues that, “this creates a story that is more about the teller, than the tale” (243).

I take this to mean that too much telling renders the act of telling visible (not ideal) and, as such, calls the reader’s attention to the teller and his/her special knowledge.

I think this is a helpful observation and an important point to remember. Seriously, if you don’t have Writers Workshop of Horror, I’d suggest you buy it. It’s worth it.

Similarly, in her piece “Dumping the Info Dump” by Maria V. Snyder in Many Genres: One Craft edited by Michael A. Arnzen and Heidi Ruby Miller (another invaluable book), Snyder writes:

As a writer, you want to avoid jolting your readers from your story world. But, you say, my characters are living on Planet Futon and I need to explain how the strong gravity has turned them all into squat warthogs! Wrong! You only need to include it when the information is critical to your plot and is necessary to avoid confusing your readers. (39)

Something is clearly rotten on the planet Futon, but it isn’t hard to understand the temptation Snyder describes. Right? We’ve spent a lot of time sitting on the bus thinking about our high-gravity planets and their proud warthog peoples. So, shouldn’t the reader (be forced) to appreciate our daily logical slog?

Of course not. We all know this. Deep down. However painful it might be to relegate all that prewriting to hard drive limbo, we know it must be done.

Ok, so why do we still do it? Why does this make number one on Yount’s insanity-inducing countdown?

One reason I’m tempted to do it is my years of experience sitting in writers’ workshops. I think some of my bad habits come from all the (not so great) critiquers who, feeling that it’s been too long since they’ve chimed in, decide to go full journalist on me and scribble who, where, what, and why all over my shiny new manuscript.

“Ok, so there’s a bloody thumbprint on the window. How long has it been there? Did it rain? Why isn’t he calling the police right away? How does he know it’s blood? Is he an expert? Is he really certain it’s a thumb? Why?”

At some point, it becomes difficult not to preemptively defend yourself against the journalists in the group (to disastrous results).

That’s my more pleasant excuse –more pleasant because it involves blaming somebody else. The other motivation for being too telly, for me at least, is just plain old self-doubt. Specifically, the fear that my readers won’t understand. That they’ll miss the point and turn their backs on my story out of confusion.

It’s a real fear. But, I often combat that fear by asking myself how often do I really put down a book or story because there is such a paucity of information that I find myself totally without a footing?

Not often. In fact, I can’t think of a specific example.

Much, much more often, I find the reverse to be the great generator of disinterest. I find that I get tired of learning about how the magnetic airlock manages to let in ships without letting out oxygen. Don’t care. High-tech future. Got it.

Stories need to be about people. Well… beings to which we relate, I guess I should say. The technical details might be important for the writer to know. Maybe. But I’m beginning to think that readers and editors are much more willing to fill in some blanks on their own than to endure an info dump. I am.

With a little practice, I think we can all learn to remember that it’s tension and empathy that keeps the pages turning. Explanation in the service of combating disbelief/confusion or establishing the writer’s understanding of (insert field of learning) rarely serves to create a compelling story.

So, let’s all just stop it. Problem solved. You’re welcome.

2 thoughts on “How much telling is too much telling?

  1. Good point about critique partners turned journalist. I have been prompted to explain more, more and more. But in answer to your challenge. I do have a book out there that is lean and mean. One reviewer says: “For some this story might seem jumpy, and at first I did. Once I got the hang of Ms. Ayala’s writing, I recognized it for what it was, A fast paced journey leaving out the fluff and sticking to the meat.”

    • I think another part of the problem may be that we all have favorite exceptions -the Tolkiens of the world. Masters like him make the fluff seem like meat.

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