Explaining the Obvious.

It’s been a while since I’ve had a good rant, and there’s something that’s been popping up a lot lately as I’ve been pulling myself into more reading, and that’s a particular pet peeve I have about authors who feel the need to explain the obvious. Perhaps it just strikes me more as an author myself, one who spent a good deal of her college education breaking down language in fiction, but it drives me absolutely bonkers. It’s the classic Trust your Reader situation, where you have to make sure you’re not over-explaining because you’re desperate to make sure that your points are understood.

Take these following paragraphs into consideration, which I happened across while reading The Tell-Tale Corpse by Harold Schechter, a book so far so beautifully written that this violation of the Trust your Reader rule stuck out like a sore, bleeding, throbbing thumb under the floorboards:

     ‘I’ve a favor to ask, Fordyce. Nothing difficult, just a little errand. As you can see, our friend Poe here is a tad, ah, under the weather. Needs a bit of bracing up before returning to the bosom of his family. A few strong cups of black coffee should do the trick. Be a good fellow, will you, and fetch a pot from Sweeney’s. Have him charge it to my account.’
     Situated on Ann Street a short distance from the museum, Sweeney’s was a popular neighborhood eatery and–as I knew from having dined there on one or two occasions with the showman–one of his favorite resorts.

Am I being a completely tyrannical editor type in thinking that the second paragraph is completely unnecessary? Has the idea that “blatant exposition is bad” been pounded too heavily into my head? To me, this description of Sweeney’s stops the flow of the conversion that was having merely to have the narrator explain something to the reader that could be entirely inferred from the previous paragraph. We know it isn’t far from the museum if Fordyce can walk there on a “little errand.” We know it’s an eatery or coffee shop of some type if the errand is to fetch a few cups. We can ascertain that it’s popular with the speaker if the speaker has an account there. There entire point of the second paragraph is to reiterate, in a very lazy way, what we have already learned, in a much more clever way, from the previous paragraph.

Or am I completely wrong? Is there are purpose to the second paragraph I’m missing, or am I correct in assuming that the author does not trust his reader to have picked up on the very clear (to me) details in the first paragraph?

Few things irk me as much as being pulled out of a scene to have something I already figured out explained to me. Surely, I can’t be the only one. Trust your readers! They’re not stupid, they don’t need their hands held through the story, and by following something up with a needlessly expositionary paragraph, you’re only robbing your reader of that wonderful pleasure of discerning things for themselves.


  1. I agree with your point completely. Having said that, the excerpt didn’t bother me in the slightest. I’ve seen some really bad ones that were more like “as you know Bob” violations.

    • Ugh, those are the worst. But, really, the example, to me, is only one step removed from that. Imagine if the paragraph has started with, “As you know, dear readers…” I guess the fact that it didn’t can save it a little bit, but it’s the same basic idea, just not as blatant.

      Perhaps I just noticed it more because it was surrounded by more than just that single paragraph, and the stepping back to explain it was a bit more obvious.

  2. While it’s true the paragraph was absolutely unnecessary, it didn’t bother me at all. I don’t think it would have pulled me out of the story. Multiple typos, serious comma errors, wrong word usage, and words left out pull me out of the story more than this. (Probably because I’m a proofreader, not a content editor.) I’m very forgiving of a story if it’s not boring. I read to be entertained, not to pick a story apart, and that’s why it kills me to be so picky about commas and typos. I wish I could turn that off, but I can’t. You would probably make a really good content editor if you’re bothered by things like redundancy. The main thing for me is to be able to escape from the world, so if a book keeps me on the edge of my seat or makes me feel real emotion, then I’m going to forgive a lot of things.

    • I think you really hit on it; I’m a content editor to the core. It’s just how I’ve been “raised.” And I’m really in love with writing as a craft. Nothing makes me swoon as much as a well-constructed sentence that just hits me like a punch to the brain. I like getting lost in a story, sure, but I like getting lost in the words more, I think. I like listening to a pop song, but I’m moved when listening to a professional classical orchestra perfect over years. When repetitions like this pop up in what I’m reading, I just feel ugh, disappointed, like, “That could have been written so much better.”

      Oddly enough, I’m much more forgiving about punctuation-type mistakes. They feel more like just mistakes, while word choice is…well…a choice.

      • I think you would make a GREAT content editor. I’m not saying bad content NEVER bothers me. There are times when it’s SO bad! But I’m much more forgiving of that if it’s not awful.

  3. I couldn’t say whether the second paragraph is unnecessary without more context of the story, I’m afraid. It depends on the personality of the narrator; if it’s a chatty, discursive narrator then over-explaining Sweeney’s doesn’t stand out. And a chatty narrator lets the author slip in something key as part of the expository rambling, without drawing too much attention but without cheating the reader. If the narrator is laconic, then the paragraph’s less useful.

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