How Much Should You Tell?

There’s a fine line between telling your readers too much or too little. Novice writers tend to think they should explain everything, and it takes quite a long while to learn how to discern the right level of exposure.
I’m not talking about obvious spoilers – thanks to films and TV serials everyone knows about them – but to more subtle matters. For myself I have a rule, ‘Don’t give them everything on a plate.’ After all if the story or novel is overloaded with information the reader is left with little or no suspense, the flow of the action is slowed down or flows raggedly, and the characters may cease to be interesting or intriguing.

One example of giving too little is leaving out something I know in my head, because I’ve spent days or weeks thinking about it, but which I then forget to explain to the reader. I did this in my first draft of The Great Gifts. I’d written most of the explanatory material of the Appendices, but then forgot to drop a vital piece of the information which was there into the actual story. Thankfully Geraldine spotted this when she read it, and asked me to insert it.
You can only get this right by having the help of a trusted reader.

If I’m setting a story in an unknown world or even just a strange setting I don’t feel it necessary to explain or describe every single thing about it. The storyline should give the reader the clues they need as it goes along. The culture may be vaguely medieval, but unless a particular detail is needed for a crucial moment, I don’t try to describe every stitch of their clothing, or every piece of furniture in their homes. For me, one of the pleasures of reading a story which has been set in a secondary world is to build up my own picture of it as I go.

That’s the setting dealt with, but unusual or mysterious phenomena in a secondary world are also among the pleasures of reading fantasy or science fiction, so it isn’t always necessary to explain why the sun turned violet at the precise moment that it does. It may be explained in a ‘Poirot’ moment at the end, but equally it may be left as a mystery for the reader to ponder and puzzle over.
Now I realise that leaving readers with unexplained puzzles can be seen as just as much of a cop out as ‘It was just a dream’, so I do try not to overdo it. Making this decision is one of those moments when I turn to a friend and ask for a second opinion. ‘Would you be annoyed if I didn’t explain this, or are you happy to be left with an intriguing mystery?’

As with so many things in life, the best answer is probably to seek for a balance. Rich, descriptive writing can be a delight if it comes at the right moment, and if it adds depth and meaning to the whole, but a moment of mystery or an unanswered question can also make the reading experience rewarding and memorable.
It’s a balance which comes with practice and the advice of good friends.


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