By Paul Goat Allen
Over-explanation in storytelling is always a big red flag—in large part because it reveals to the reader one of two (very bad) things: either the author doesn’t have confidence in their own writing ability, or they don’t think that their poor ignorant readers will understand the brilliance of their own multi-layered writing.
Over-explaining within the story itself is bad enough but even worse is when an author feels the need to include a preface or introduction explaining why they wrote the novel or clarifying what certain literary devices mean—political allegories, extended symbolism, motif, whatever.
FYI: Just to clarify, here are the differences between a foreword, a preface, and an introduction according to GreenLeaf Book Group.
• A foreword is written by someone other than the author and tells the readers why they should read the book.
• A preface is written by the author and tells readers how and why the book came into being.
• An introduction introduces readers to the main topics of the manuscript and prepares readers for what they can expect.
The worst, however, is putting a synopsis in the beginning of the novel. I recently reviewed a self-published release with an extensive synopsis that explained not only the social and political significance of the setting and the characters, but went over, in great detail, every single major plot point.
It absolutely ruined the reading experience for me. Why even read the book now?
In another novel that I read a few years back, the author—who took an obviously radical political stance—went off on a five-page introduction that essentially described the novel as a thinly veiled manifesto and went over the credos featured within, one by one. Again, all of this information not only didn’t add anything to the reading experience, it ruined the experience before I had even read one page!
Before going further, I want to say that there is definitely a place for forewords, prefaces, and introductions in publishing. These work incredibly well in nonfiction releases—most nonfiction releases have some kind of introduction—and also classic works of literature. For example, there’s a foreword in an edition of Walter M. Miller, Jr.’s A Canticle for Leibowitz written by Mary Doria Russell that is exceptional and unarguably made that particular edition (Eos, 2006) exponentially better than the others that I’ve reviewed. But this is the exception to the rule… the vast majority of these introductory bits in contemporary fiction releases are forgettable and largely unnecessary.
There are two obvious takeaways here, reasons not to ever over-explain your novel with introductions or prefaces or, God forbid, rambling synopses.
• Let’s be brutally honest for a moment. Most readers don’t care about your personal life, how many cats you have, what your hobbies are, where you worked, your political affiliation, or the reasons behind writing the novel. It’s not about you—it’s about the story. You want to say something? Say it in your story. All of this other stuff can go on your bio on your website.
As a reviewer, the less I know about a writer going into a read, the better. I want to read a novel and analyze that literary work with as unbiased a mind as possible.
• We tend to lose sight of this in the current commercial, corporatized publishing landscape, but a novel is ultimately a work of art, comparable to a painting, a sculpture, or a song. Art impacts people differently—and that’s the brilliance of experiencing works of art. At its best, art can give new meaning to our lives and change the way in which we perceive the world. The vast emotional range of experiencing art is part of what makes us human, right? Novels have made me laugh out loud and openly weep. They’ve terrified me and made me grateful to be alive. A good novel will stay in my head for days after the reading experience is over, compelling me to consider new ideas, philosophies, and/or provocative concepts. It’s an incredibly intimate experience—or at least it’s supposed to be.
Imagine this: You’re in a museum about to turn a corner to view a painting when the artist stops you and, in meticulous detail, explains to you the significance of the shapes, the colors, the symbolism—and then goes on to tell you exactly how they hope you will feel after viewing the painting.
I get paid to review novels, obviously, so making money is definitely a motivating factor. But the reason I got into this line of work in the first place is because of that intimate, untainted, almost “pure” experience that comes from reading a novel, regardless of who the author is. It’s almost magical—reading words on a page written by a total stranger that bring you to tears or make you feel the intense passion between characters or change the way you see the world…
I don’t want anyone—even the author—tainting that experience with tangential information about the novel. If you need to explain your novel to your readers—why it’s important, what the characters represent, what the reader should take away, etc.—you’ve already irrevocably ruined the experience for your readers.
Bottom line: Before including any kind of introduction in your novel, think long and hard about whether you really need it. If it doesn’t add anything to the overall reading experience, consider removing it.
Paul Goat Allen has been reviewing books for more than 25 years. In addition to BlueInk Review, his work has appeared with BarnesandNoble.com, The Chicago Tribune, Publishers Weekly, Kirkus, and more. He also teaches in Seton Hill University’s Writing Popular Fiction graduate writing program.