Delete the explanation

The other week in class, my writing instructor said, “When you get rid of the explanation, the emotion really comes through.”

That hit me, because I was like…this is truth. This is a life lesson.

Reveal something without directly saying it, and you make it much more powerful.

Watch how others around you reveal things without speaking.

Watch how the world reveals itself.

Learn to reveal yourself without feeling the need to JADE (justify, argue, defend, explain).

And if you’re a writer, learn how to make your writing do the work for you – if you show enough, it should minimize how much you have to tell.

Eilis realized it would be wise to stay out of Sean’s way for a few days. She threw a pair of shorts and a few shirts in her bag, along with her notebooks.

Leon lived in one of the few remaining sea shanties on the island. It had recently been repainted a light, feathery blue, and he worked hard to keep the invasive island weeds at bay. When she walked in, the kitchen smelled strongly of coffee…

This is from the book I’m currently working on. Eilis wants to avoid Sean for a while, so she goes to Leon’s house. I leave out how she gets there because that’s unimportant.

In some cases, what she brought with her wouldn’t be important – I could have just said she threw a few things in her bag. I specifically say she brings clothes and her notebooks because I want the reader to know that. It reveals something.

What I posted above was the original passage. Then I realized, I don’t need to explain that she wants to avoid Sean – I can demonstrate that in a way that increases the dramatic tension.

For reference: Sean lives in a large, two-story main house, while Eilis lives in a guest cottage out back, that has an outdoor shower. After arguing with Sean inside the main house, this is what happens:

Eilis retreated to the cottage, shedding her clothes and stepping into the shower. It never quite dried, always smelling a bit like mildew no matter how much she cleaned it. The pipes rattled and sputtered out water. She tried to relax, but a giant knot was growing in her stomach, making it feel as if she had swallowed a large stone. When she finished, she grabbed her towel and stepped out into the yard, taking a deep breath. The sky was overcast, the big house looking grayer than usual.
A sudden flicker of movement caught her eye. She looked up to see Sean standing at his bedroom window, staring down at her. They locked eyes, then he turned away, leaving only the swaying curtain behind.

That’s the point that she decides it’s time to leave for a while.

I rewrote this section because I wanted to make the scene a bit more menacing. Eilis doesn’t leave the house, she retreats – and even though she’s just ‘won’ the argument in the prior scene, she feels like she’s swallowed a stone. Sean then watching her shower, and making sure she knows he’s watching, is weird and unsettling. (They’re cousins.)

I made the sky overcast to match the mood of the scene, and because the bad weather is foreshadowing a hurricane, during which there’s another major incident between Eilis and Sean that changes Eilis; that change leads to the final showdown between her and Sean.

She retreats from a house that’s ‘grayer than usual’ to a freshly painted, light blue house. The details about the houses, and the juxtaposition between them, reveals to the reader something about the general character of the two men who own them, as well as sets them at odds with each other without them having to be in the scene together.

I deleted explanation, and now I’ve got a short passage that, on the heels of the argument the scene before, should ratchet up the discomfort level – which mirrors how Eilis feels at this point in the story. She goes to Leon for comfort, and the first thing she smells is coffee – what’s more comforting than walking into a pretty, freshly painted house and smelling coffee?

Let me show you how the second draft of this passage reads:

Eilis retreated to the cottage, shedding her clothes and stepping into the shower. It never quite dried, always smelling a bit like mildew no matter how much she cleaned it. The pipes rattled and sputtered out water. She tried to relax, but a giant knot was growing in her stomach, making it feel as if she had swallowed a large stone. When she finished, she grabbed her towel and stepped out into the yard, taking a deep breath. The sky was overcast, the big house looking grayer than usual.
A sudden flicker of movement caught her eye. She looked up to see Sean standing at his bedroom window, staring down at her. They locked eyes, then he turned away, leaving only the swaying curtain behind.

Eilis dressed quickly, throwing a pair of shorts and a few shirts in her bag, along with her notebooks. She grabbed her keys and, for the first time since she’d lived there, locked the door on her way out.
Leon lived in one of the few remaining sea shanties on the island. It had recently been repainted a light, feathery blue, and he worked hard to keep the invasive island weeds at bay. When she walked in, the kitchen smelled strongly of coffee…

This isn’t by any means brilliant writing. But it increases the tension not only between Sean and Eilis but also between Sean and Leon, and is a lot more interesting to read than my first iteration.

Whenever possible, delete the explanation. Do it in your writing, do it in your life.

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