Resisting the urge to explain

Some years back I came across a book by Renni Browne and Dave King: Self-editing for fiction writers.  One of their running lines, you could call it a mantra, is “Resist the Urge to Explain.” And that indeed is a fault with many beginning writers, and even with some experienced ones, and it’s not confined to fiction writers. How many poets have you heard give long, rambling explanations of their poems, before or after they read them? My reaction is always to think (because I’m far too polite to say it), “Shut the f*** up! Your poems should be their own explanation. ” If the meaning needs to be explained, it has failed as a poem, as an act of communication between writer and reader. Basil Bunting said “Don’t explain. Your audience is as clever as you are.” I like Basil Bunting.

You also see it in bad historical (and other) dramas, where dialogue is forced to include the back story, because the author couldn’t bear to let the readers use their own imagination to fill out the story. Dialogue should (a) be natural, and (b) take the story forward. Here’s a thoroughly bad example:

“Lord Vader, is it not?” Admiral Quint queried.

“Indeed,” he hissed, “What is our present course?”

“We are following the rebels to their temporary base on Spondulix, having tortured the information out of our captives before throwing them to their deaths in the spice mines of Thromb,” the Admiral replied, assertively.

“Very good,” retorted the tall, black-helmeted fiend from Hell. “Let me know when you arrive at the outer fringes of the system. That will give me sufficient time to clean my teeth.”

“Certainly, my Lord. And …. Her Ladyship?” he asked diffidently, but with a hint of cheekiness.

“Enough!” Vader replied angrily, almost incandescently in fact. “You of all my minions know very well I always travel alone, ever since that incident with the trouser press in the hotel room on Betelgeuse 3. And wipe that squint off your face, Quint.”

“My Lord,” the quaking and now red-faced Admiral tremulously and apologetically murmured.

I rest my case.


About sunnydunny

Poet, publisher, gardener
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5 Responses to Resisting the urge to explain

  1. Jim Murdoch says:

    I’m afraid my answer to Basil Bunting has always been, “Er, no I’m not,” but that aside I think the writers of American TV shows – cop shows particularly – could learn a lesson from this book. I have learned so much about how not to write from watching shows like . . . Castle is one of the worst offenders at the moment and the same goes for The Vampire Diaries where they feels they need to summarise the plot to date in every bleedin’ episode for the benefit of those viewers who may have missed a show (and in this day and age, how likely is that?) or who can’t hold more than two factoids in their head at any one time.

  2. scribbla says:

    Best reminder/writing tip of the week. Thanks.

  3. Rachel Fox says:

    I love introductions – if they’re clever and interesting and give background information about things that the audience might not know (not when they are interpreting the poem but when they are introducing it in the proper sense). I like funny intros too but not everyone can manage those (bad/overworked humour is the worst!). Many of my favourite poets are as good at the intro as they are at the poetry business itself (like one H McMillan) – they are two separate skills but if you can get the two together I think it makes for a great combination. I would agree that if the poet is a bore (and that’s not such an unusual thing) then they should not warble on for ages in between poems. But then I’d probably not want to hear their poems either.

  4. Gordon Mason says:

    Perhaps the best preamble is what can be delivered in one breath and only to speak while still listened to.

  5. Gordon wrote: “… and only to speak while listened to.” This is the danger/beauty of a blog, I guess. One can ramble on for hours with the excuse: “No one’s reading this anyway.”

    I agree that at poetry readings intros should be kept to a minimum and should strive to be entertaining. But when it’s print and we can skip stuff if we’re not interested, I think it’s a different matter; I like to read about the background to how poems I like were made.

    I think the minimalism we see in many poetry collections is misguided. The poetry is meant to be able to stand alone, they say, Well that’s the New Crticism’s hegemony for you. Or maybe it’s just printing costs. Anyway I’d like to see an interview or an Ars Poetica or some intersting notes even accompanying the poems. This is where reading online is an advantage.

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