A friend wrote me recently, and she commented on a book she was reading. She indicated the book was difficult to get through because the author didn’t understand RUE: Resist the Urge to Explain.
When an author explains the dialogue or actions of his character rather than writing strong action and dialogue that needs no explanation, and when he strays from a strong point of view, he ends up talking down to his audience. The authors of Self-Editing for Fiction Writers compare RUE to a playwright running on stage in the middle of a scene to explain what is happening.
That would be annoying, wouldn’t it?
So let’s look at an example of an author running onto the page to explain the scene:
“Mary,” Tim stood with his mouth open as Mary walked down the stairs, “you look beautiful tonight,” he said in awe. He knew she would be self-conscious in his sister’s hand-me-downs. Sarah had said she'd given the dress to Mary.
Mary looked to the floor, unable to meet his gaze. “Thank you,” she said, hoping if he recognized the dress as the one his sister had given him, that he wouldn't make fun of her.
Tim held out his hand. The little lines on his face crinkled when he smiled. “Shall we go,” he said expectantly.
She took his hand in hers. “I can’t wait,” she said breathlessly. Obviously, he didn’t recognize the dress.
Do you see the author on the page, explaining every little detail, weakening the story with adverbs and excessive explanation, and switching points of view, telling the reader effectively, “I don’t think you’re smart enough to understand, so I’m going to tell you what’s going on here.”?
Resisting the urge to explain requires the author to work a little harder to establish point of view and to show rather than to tell what is happening in order to provide a clearer picture for the reader. The concept also calls for the author to give the reader credit for being able to follow the story.
So, how would our short little scene unfold if we operated under the admonition to RUE:
“Mary,” Tim could barely keep his mouth from hanging open. He took a deep breath to steady his nerves. “You look beautiful.”
She was always stunning, but tonight with her hair tied back and curls escaping to frame her oval face, her beauty would rival any woman at the Cumberland Opera Fundraiser. Anyone who said that money could buy beauty had no idea of the true meaning of the word.
Mary’s gaze fell to the floor. “Thank you, Tim.”
Tim smiled and held out his hand. “Shall we go? I can’t wait to show off the most beautiful woman in town.”
Mary fingered a soft curl, and the rose color of her cheeks accentuated her lovely features. “Yes, I'm ready.” She ran her hands down the front of her gown as she looked up at him.
Tim winked and slipped his arm around her waist. He led her outside to the car and opened her door for her.
Mary sat inside, her hands folded in her lap.
Tim leaned forward and kissed her. “Don’t worry, Mary. You own this dress. It looks more beautiful on you than it ever could my sister.”
Tim shut the door softly and hummed as he strolled around the car. Yes, sir, he would marry this girl one day. She was as frugal as she was beautiful.
The point-of-view character in this scene is Tim. Everything the reader experiences is through what Tim does, sees, thinks, and hears. Tightening point of view is one way to paint a clearer picture for your audience.
Allowing the audience to experience the scene with the character requires the author to work a little harder to show not only action, but thought and dialogue.
When self-editing, authors should look for telling signs of author intrusion and explanation. Focus on eliminating adverbs and dialogue tags that try to explain what the dialogue should show. If the dialogue, action, or thought isn’t strong enough, punch it up a notch.
Examine the point of view. How close is the reader to experiencing the story through the eyes of the main character for that scene? Look for telling phrases like he knew, he saw, he realized, he thought and eliminate as many as possible. Often it is as simple as leaving off the phrase and changing the tense of the sentence. Other times, it might mean rewriting the entire sentence to show how the main character knows, sees, realizes or thinks.
And always remember to RUE.