Why You Should RUE: Resist the Urge to Explain

RUE (i.e., resist the urge to explain) is a brilliant yet common-sense concept from Browne and King, the authors of one my favorite editing resources, Self-Editing for Fiction Writers: How to Edit Yourself into Print. Importantly, this is not just a wise warning for fiction writers but a principle to be observed by nonfiction and academic writers as well.

What resist the urge to explain means is (hopefully) self-evident, but the grounds for RUE may be less so. There are plenty of reasons to avoid unnecessary explanation, but let’s skip the mindless enumeration and take a look at an example of R.U.E. in action.

Last night I watched Hidden Figures, a nonfiction-book-based film1 that follows three female African-American mathematicians working for NASA during the Space Race with the USSR and, importantly, the U.S. Civil Rights movement. Let’s explore R.U.E. using my favorite line from the film, a simple yet powerful response delivered by Octavia Spencer’s Dorothy Vaughan, an acting computer supervisor who is repeatedly denied an official promotion and the corresponding raise. After a brief but icy exchange that follows weeks of sharpening tension, her immediate supervisor, played by Kirsten Dunst, stops Spencer on her way out of the newly desegregated ladies’ room:

“Despite what you may think,” Dunst says, “I have nothing against y’all.”

Spencer stops. Turning to look at Dunst, she says, “I know you probably believe that.”

Bazinga! Simple, yet powerful. As Spencer exits (leaving behind a thoughtful Ms. Dunst), I’m grinning like a buffoon and throwing a million mental high-fives in Spencer’s direction from my beanbag.

But what’s this got to do with R.U.E.? Let’s explore another take of this exchange:

“Despite what you may think,” Dunst says defensively, “I have nothing against y’all.”

Annoyed by the fact that Dunst clearly doesn’t get it, Spencer stops and turns to face her. “I know you probably believe that,” she says ironically. “Maybe you think you’re not racist, and maybe you aren’t consciously, but if being Black means that I’m less fit to be a supervisor than you, then I’d say, yes, you’re holding something against me: my skin color.”

Dunst was bewildered by Spencer’s accusation. She stood in stunned silence as she watched her leave.

Okay, I added a bunch of rubbish here, but hopefully I made my point. Not only have the explanations (of emotion, manner, and the meaning of the utterance) insulted our intelligence by assuming that (a) we wouldn’t have been able to figure it out on our own and (b) our imaginations wouldn’t have been able to fill in the blanks, the exchange has also completely lost its bazinga! factor. By adding “defensively,” I’ve intruded upon your interpretation of Dunst’s character and her statement. I’ve made it one-dimensional and “boxed it in” by limiting the way the readers’ imaginations may have played the scene out. Furthermore, we certainly didn’t need clarification that Dorothy’s statement was ironic or that her supervisor’s cluelessness really ground her gears.

In the case of fiction and creative writing, Browne and King’s discussion of RUE specifically addresses the naming of the emotion behind a character’s behavior or language, as in the addition of defensively and ironically to the dialogue tags and the description of the emotional states bewildered and annoyed. The trouble with descriptions like these are connected to the Show, Don’t Tell rule:

[The] tendency to describe a character’s emotion may reflect a lack of confidence on the part of the writer. And more often than not, writers tell their readers things already shown by dialogue and action. It’s as if they’re repeating themselves to make sure their readers get the point. So when you come across an explanation of a character’s emotion, simply cut the explanation. If the emotion is still shown, then the explanation wasn’t needed. If the emotion isn’t shown, rewrite the passage so that it is. (Browne & King, 1993, p. 17)

In nonfiction and other genres, writers have to be cautious to avoid providing unnecessary explanations (like my addition of the meaning behind Spencer’s original line). Yes, of course, you should explain concepts or arguments that won’t be clear to your readers otherwise, but every reader can be assumed to have some level of critical-thinking ability, so don’t think for them.

A final quote from Browne and King on the work of a writer who managed to RUE throughout her novel. Although they’re still talking about fiction, the principle applies equally to all genres of writing:

Also, by never explaining her situations, by trusting her readers to keep up her, [the author] pays her readers the compliment of assuming them to be intelligent. And that’s a compliment any writer would do well to pass along. (Browne & King, 1993, p. 37)


1based on the autobiographical novel by Margot Lee Shetterly

Now Reading: The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood

The characters and circumstances in Margaret Atwood’s The Heart Goes Last creeped and crawled under my skin, and I both loved and hated the roller-coaster ambivalence I felt toward Atwood’s dystopian near-future and the people in it. It served as a gorgeous example of how powerful it can be to avoid describing a protagonist’s character or qualities and, instead, to let your reader be the judge.the-heart-goes-last-for-the-love-of-the-story

As I eavesdropped on the lives and thoughts of Charmaine and Stan, I assessed them as I would a stranger on the street and projected my judgements onto them—only to have these projections blown away by the unexpected bits of darkness and light lurking beneath. I empathized as often as I shuddered in revulsion. The protagonists and their choices were surprising, and there was absolutely no guessing the twists and turns awaited me on the next page. It was terrible, naughty, and deliciously perverse.

What did you think? And who did you love-hate most?



Show, Don’t Tell: Anger, Nervousness, Fear (Example)

Anger, nervousness, and fear: These are the names we’ve given to poignant and complex emotions that can overpower even Zeno of Citium himself. As children, we experienced these emotions purely with neither the Freudian ego to reign them in nor the two-syllable words with which to label them. As we grow, we learn to recognize them in ourselves and others and acquire words for them: angry, nervous, scared. This is useful for communication in relationships, but in creative writing, these words are regrettably weak in capturing the intensity and texture of real human experience.

He was angry. I was scared. Show, Don’t Tell!

Think of the last time you had the misfortune to witness the raw, unfettered wrath of a red-faced toddler when Mummy said no: tears, saliva, fists clenched, a shriek that makes your blood curdle, and violence to boot—teddies and small fists are flying. There is not a word soothing or firm enough to penetrate the deafening shield of rage that pulsates around him. Think demon possession. And well… he’s angry.

This is what anger looks like before we learn to control or be embarrassed by it. Although we learn to deal with the emotion as we mature, what we feel in response to an unfair accusation or an act of betrayal is just as brutal. It can take over us; it’s blinding. It’s difficult to think clearly and nearly impossible to communicate effectively or fairly.

Regardless of where on the scale of intensity your character’s emotion falls, say, slightly miffed to murderous rage, there’s much to show for it beyond the woefully insufficient label “angry.” Describing these nuances reify the emotions in a way that simply naming them cannot. What does anger really feel like? What sensations are there? In the skin, face, finger tips, chest? What unreasonable thoughts or imagined scenarios of revenge pop up in our minds? If it’s expressed externally, what does it look like? Instead of telling us that your character is angry, use sensations, behaviors, or train of thought to show us.

Textual Mentor: How to Show Angry, Nervous, or Scared

So let’s let Stephen Kelman show us how he approached the expression of anger, nervousness, and fear in a scene from Pigeon English. Eleven-year-old Harri and ginger-haired Dean are intercepted by an intimidating gang of bullies. In a first-person past-tense narrative that uses screenplay-like attribution and internal dialogue, Harri’s responses to the unpleasant encounter invites us in to feel with him.

X-Fire wouldn’t let us past. They were waiting outside the cafeteria. They were all standing in our way and they wouldn’t move. You didn’t know if it was a trick or for real.

Dizzy: ‘What’s up, pussy boys?’

Clipz: ‘I heard you failed the first test. That’s weak, man!’

I wanted to be a bomb. I wanted to knock them all down. That’s what it felt like. I kept waiting for him to laugh but his face was still hard like he meant it. Like we were enemies.

X-Fire: ‘Don’t worry, Ghana. I’ll think of something easier for you next time, you’ll be alright. What you got then, Ginger?’

Dean went all stiff. My belly went cold.

Dean: ‘I ain’t got nothing.’

Dizzy: ‘Don’t lie to us, man. What’s in your pockets? Show me.’

We couldn’t move. He had to show them or we’d never get past. It wasn’t even fair.

Anger: Harri’s anger is illustrated by an urge (i.e., to be bomb, to knock them all down). We benefit from the ideas and images that bomb evokes: to burst, to explode, destruction, strength, blinding light, victory, revenge. But it’s even more complex than this; it wasn’t even necessarily unadulterated anger. He was angry, but he sought confirmation that he should be angry, that it wasn’t a joke. He reads the anger or disappointment on Clipz’s face and shows it to us though visual description (i.e., hard) and the implications (i.e., we were enemies).

Nervousness/Fear: Simply and effectively, Harri shows us Dean’s fear through body language (i.e., Dean went all stiff) and his own fear through sensation (i.e., My belly went cold.) He could have merely told us that they were nervous, but it would have greatly diminished its effect on us.

Kelman’s choices provide imagery that informs us that Harri is angry and that he and Dean are scared—both without once using either emotional label. This is what writers should strive for. Instead of telling us that your character is angry, show us. How? Start by stripping away names of emotions and revising until the emotions are evident without them.

Know of a good textual example of these or any other emotions? Please share!