Explain It All or Let the Reader Figure It Out?

Someone asked me recently about where a writer should draw the line between explaining something in painstaking detail versus just glossing over a topic and letting the reader try to figure it out on their own. It’s a complex question, really, and there isn’t a one-size-fits-all answer.

What was really interesting, though, was that right on the heels of this question, I had an experience in my critique group that not only did NOT answer that question, but highlighted how there truly isn’t a right or wrong answer.

First off, let me say that I absolutely love all of my critique partners, and our times together are full of valuable feedback, learning experiences, and lots of fun. One of the elements that makes a good critique group, I think, is having a diverse group of writers who all have different writing styles, favorite genres, and writing experiences.

I had submitted a section of the next dieselpunk adventure starring my 1920s heroine Mrs. Jones, and in that scene she and her friends are playing a game of bridge. I kept the details of the game to a minimum (partly because the bridge game is not vital to the plot, and partly because I was too lazy to do detailed research for my first draft). Anyway, several of my critique partners either had questions/confusion about the scene or just glossed over the bits that featured the game, because they knew nothing about how to play bridge (and/or didn’t even know that there was a card game called bridge).

Another of my critique partners, however, happened to be an experienced bridge player. And despite my efforts to be vague with the details of the game, she pointed out several places where I’d made a mistake and had incorrect details.

So what’s the answer? What should I do in my revisions of this scene? Well, obviously I need to correct my mistakes, of course. But should I put in not only more detail of the game, but an explanation of what bridge is or how to play? Do I need to define the role of the dummy in a game, or what “no trump” might mean in a given game? Or should I just toss in a few (correct, of course) lines and let the reader figure it out?

The fine line comes in wondering if I’m giving my readers too little information or too much. The readers who don’t even know that bridge is a card game might enjoy more details and explanations of the game. The readers who know how to play bridge might be bored by tedious explanations of something they know all about. Since I have no idea how many of my future readers might be in either camp, no matter what I write I will likely have either too much or too little information.

And so, to answer the question that the title of this post asks, my answer is “I don’t know.” And that’s the answer I had to give to the person who was asking me about giving detailed explanations versus no explanation.

That’s why there isn’t a straight yes or no, one-size-fits-all answer. In a science fiction or fantasy genre, there will likely be a lot of in the way of detailed explanations, because the writer is building a world that no reader knows anything about. And regardless of the amount of explanations given, details and how-it-works bits should be sprinkled throughout a story in a manageable and realistic manner – no infodumps!

Generally, I believe it’s safe to err on the side of too little information rather than too much – unless the details are absolutely vital to the plot of the story. With good writing, a lot can be figured out from context. And if a reader really wants more details, there’s always good old Google.

I have some research to do before I re-write my bridge game scene, so that whatever details I wind up putting in can be correct. But I’ll probably leave out any explanations. Readers are smarter than we writers sometimes give them credit for. And there’s always Google.


2 thoughts on “Explain It All or Let the Reader Figure It Out?

  1. Mhm… for me, the story alway dictates what the amount of details you should include. If the story is moving in that moment, I won’t include too many details, unless they are vital to that particular action. Readers tend to be absorbed by action and becomes annoy with anything that gets in the way (I’m certainly this kind of reader). So when the story is moving, I tend to concentrate on the action alone and give pertinent details before or after the action itself (depending what’s better for tention).

    I tend never to add details which don’t relate to the story and don’t further it in any way.
    In your example, I would add details enough to show that the characters are playing a particular card games, so that the reader will have a chance at depicting the scene, but unless you’re using the rules and movements of the game as a way to reveal characters’ traits or to foreshadow the action, I wouldn’t add too much, because it would slow down the action without giving the reader any element that will be useful to understad the story.

    In the end, I handle details the same way I handle all the elements in a story. I always ask myself: do the reader need this to understand the story or the characters? If the answer is no, because the details are cool but they don’t add anything to the story, or no because what that detail add is already been offered elsewhere in the story, than I’m sorry, but those details have to go 😉


    • “Do the readers need this to understand the story or the characters?” That is a wonderful way to keep the details thing in perspective. 🙂 Thank you for sharing that! In the example I gave, the game of bridge is not important to the plot or the characters – it’s merely the setting for the characters to have an unrelated conversation which IS central to the plot. So you’re right – the details don’t really matter. I do want to put in enough details so that the setting of the scene is more dynamic than “They sat at a table playing bridge.” But yes – too many details can also slow down the pacing, as well as distract the reader with unimportant stuff.

      Thanks for your comment and your insight!


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