Posted in Writing

Why You Should Never Have to Explain Your Fiction to Readers


In his 2000 craft book On Writing, Stephen King says,

Daily critiques force you to write with the door constantly open, and in my mind that sort of defeats the purpose. The pressure to explain is always on, and a lot of your creative energy, it seems to me, is therefore going in the wrong direction.

You should never have to explain elements of your story to your readers.

What Stephen King is talking about in the above quote specifically is how when it comes to workshop critiques, you might as the author feel the need to explain, explain, explain — especially with the other members of your workshop begin discussing an element of your work that confuses them.

Whether you’re a part of a workshop, or if you’re just talking to a person who read your latest work and wants to give you feedback, you the writer will always want to explain things that for whatever reason didn’t make sense. You will want to make it clear that the writing isn’t the problem, it’s the person who didn’t read your writing close enough.

Now sure, it’s possible that something you wrote will make sense for 99.9% of your readers, and that it just so happens that one particular person didn’t pick up on something.

But there’s about a 0.01% chance that’s the case, sorry to say. Especially when two or more people don’t understand something about your story.

If a part of your story doesn’t make sense to readers, don’t explain. Instead, do another revision.

This is why beta readers are so important. This is why workshops can be helpful most of the time. You can discover what a group of people don’t understand in your latest work of fiction and then you can figure out what you need to do next to improve upon it.

Again, don’t feel the need to explain to the readers what they don’t understand. I took ten creative writing workshops over five and a half years, and this happened all the time. For the most part the author wasn’t allowed to speak during a workshop, but here and there an author would chime in, and it was usually to explain something many of the readers didn’t understand.

The explanation might be a good one, and it often is! Twenty seconds of explanation, and all the readers say, ohhhh, okay, I get it now.

But this isn’t good enough. You know why?

If your story or novel gets published, you can’t always be there to give an explanation!

Your novel gets published, and when a reader sits down to read your book, you’re not there, like in a workshop setting. You’re not there to whisper explanations into your reader’s ear… so you better make sure your writing makes sense.

This is why revision is so important. This is why I always tell other writers not to stop at draft five, but to push yourself to draft ten or twelve or fifteen. To get your story or novel to the best possible place.

You don’t really have an excuse to only take your fiction 85% of the way. My feeling is that if you’re going to spend months and months and months on a project, why not do everything you can to make sure it’s 100% what you want it to be?

So ignore the desire to explain, explain, explain. Let your writing, always, speak for itself. And if it doesn’t?

Time for the next draft.

4 thoughts on “Why You Should Never Have to Explain Your Fiction to Readers

  1. I thoroughly agree with this, if the reader doesn’t get it, the writer needs to revise until they do. My beta reader was fantastic at telling me what wasn’t working in my novel, I didn’t see the point in arguing with her, she was telling me what I needed to do to make my novel better. She was amazed at how improved the novel was after I had made the changes she suggested. We need to listen to our beta readers, they have a lot clearer view of our work than we do.

  2. I agree with a lot of this. I’m a wattpad writer and I do enjoy writing with the door open. but I also don’t ever explain anything to readers, unless they specifically ask.
    I have a policy not to argue with critiques or jump in and explain what I was trying to do.
    Most of the time, it’s best just to listen to readers feedback, without reacting very much to confusion or critiques. Just listen and either use their comments to write the next draft or don’t. I believe in the ‘glass box’ style of critiques.
    I don’t really think it wastes creative energy though, since I don’t see creativity as a finite resource, but I do think reader reactions are valuable and there’s no good reason to explain yourself to readers a lot of the time. It’s disrespectful and ignores the validity of reaction. We can’t have creation without reaction. Spurring reactions is the point of creating.

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