Another trap that can be easily fallen into when writing action of any variety is the urge to have a character explain why they’re doing something. Now, this isn’t inherently bad, we may for instance have Character A interpret Character B’s actions and say to them, ‘I think you did this because…’ while Character B tells the reader, ‘Well, actually I did it because…’ Thus creating ‘dramatic Irony’, which basically means that the reader knows more than the characters.

Problems arise when characters, or the authorial voice (the third-person omniscient narrator who narrates from outside any of the characters), begins to tell the reader why they do everything. There are a few reasons why this is problematic; the first being that it leaves no space for the reader to interpret and create a story. Now, you might say, ‘but, Jesse, I’m telling them a story’ and in this case it would literally be telling them a story. Readers don’t generally like to be told everything, they like the space to interpret what’s happening even if their interpretation isn’t the one you intended. Think of mystery books where the reader tries to work out whodunit before the character doing the investigating. If in these stories the reader was told everything then there would be no mystery and the story would be less interesting. Whereas if we leave that interpretive space the reader can try to guess why a character did something based on who they think the character is. If the action is ambiguous then we can make the reader believe one thing before revealing that the motivation was something else, like a card trick.

Another problem over explaining action can have is that it slows down the narrative and can begin to mask the important bits. If we think about in the most literal sense of action would we want a character to say:

‘I punched him in the side because I knew a kidney shot would slow him down. It’s always good to aim for the kidneys…’

We might want something more like:

‘I punched him in the side.’

The first version would slow a fight down and give the impression of a long pause between punch and reaction, whether that reaction is crumpling after the blow or punching back. Another reason we don’t need the way is that, even when you’d never been hit in the kidneys, you know it hurts, even if we didn’t know this we know getting whacked in anyway hurts.

This doesn’t mean we’d never want the characters to explain their actions; they may be explaining them to someone else, debating it with themselves or perhaps even bluffing the reader. However, as with anything else it’s working out the time and the place for explanation and how much explanation we need.

None of this matters in first drafts because, often, in a first draft we’re working out why our characters do things and explaining as we write can help us figure this out. Trimming excess explanation can wait until editing when we know our story and our characters better.


For more writing advice see my Advice Page. For more on description see Finding Your Inner Editor or Finding the Characters.

NOTE: Each article series comes in five parts published between Monday and Friday. Check back tomorrow for the next part.

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