A Blog Post, Bob, As You Already Know

BOOK: That young man's very brave.
MAL (whatever): Yeah, he's my hero...
BOOK: Give up everything to free his sister from that... place... go from being a doctor on the central planets to hiding on the fringes of the system... There's not many would do that.
MAL: Suppose not.

-- from Firefly, Episode #2: "The Train Job"

This kind of dialog is known as As You Know, Bob. Where two characters discuss something both are familiar with, but in a way that anyone listening (i.e. the reader) will understand what's going on.

TV shows do it all the time. They have to so they don't lose channel surfers, viewers coming in after the commercial break, or new viewers who didn't see the previous episodes. (Or, in the case above, because Fox aired episode #2 before episode #1 so NOBODY knew what was going on).

Books do it too, but it's less forgivable.

"There it is, Piter--the biggest mantrap in all history. And the Duke's headed into its jaws. Is it not a magnificent thing that I, the Baron Vladimir Harkonnen, do?"

-- from Dune

AYKB dialog is a subtler, but no less lazy, form of infodump. The novice author knows he's not supposed to bore the reader with expository backstory, so they try to hide it with "action," which in this case means two people talking.

Although it's true that dialog is more interesting than exposition, this kind of dialog is about the same. Most readers can tell that something's wrong, even if they don't know what. The problem is real people don't talk like that. They don't say, "Remember your birthday party two weeks ago, where you got so drunk you danced half-naked on the pool table?" They'd just say, "Remember your birthday party?" and then "Yeah, that was awesome."

"All this 'You-Know-Who' nonsense -- for eleven years I have been trying to persuade people to call him by his proper name: Voldemort."

"But you're different. Everyone knows you're the only one You-Know- oh, all right, Voldemort, was frightened of."

-- from Harry Potter and the Sorceror's Stone

So how do you fix it? The same way you fix any infodump: with carefully-placed, telling details. Here's a 4-step program for you.
  1. Write the crappy As You Know, Bob dialog. All of it. If you don't write something, you'll never get anywhere.
  2. Cut everything that is extraneous information, that neither character would bother saying because they both know that they both know. (Paste it somewhere else, though, so you know it).
  3. Read the dialog again. If it would still make sense to a new reader, leave it.
  4. If there's information a new reader must have to understand the story at that point, find places to insert it. But keep the info-bits small and as realistic as possible.
You might have to invent reasons for the explanation. Introduce a character who must have things explained to them. Or drop the characters in a situation where the information is necessary to have, so the reader doesn't mind a little expository infodump (though not in dialog, unless it can be done realistically).

Sometimes the solution is simple: move it out of dialogue. So instead of:

"God, you're such an idiot. You're acting like I never went to that assassin school last summer."

Try:

"God, you're such an idiot." He acted like I'd never been to assassin school.

More often, the solution is even simpler, but we don't want to believe it: just remove the information. You'd be surprised how far a reader can go without all the backstory. And if they have a question, or get confused, well that's what beta readers are for.

8 comments:

fairyhedgehog said...

This is excellent advice. It's easy to find people who'll tell you to avoid "as you know Bob"s (and they're right!) but far fewer who'll tell you how to go about avoiding them.

Susan Kaye Quinn said...

Awesome.

As a reader, I like the little tidbits thrown in right where I need them. As a writer, I tend to use the move it out of dialogue approach to deliver it.

BTW I thought Rowlings' examples were the most artful.

Emmet said...

Dude, "Remember your birthday party two weeks ago, where you got so drunk you danced half-naked on the pool table?" is totally something I would say to someone, especially if they were introducing a new girlfriend to me. If the horse is dead you might as well kick it.

That said, I get the point you are making.

Matthew Rush said...

This is great advice, and something I do struggle with. You usually can't eliminate all of it, but using as little as possible really does make your story flow better, and the reader get less irritated.

Personally I think Rowling was a master of coming up with plot devices (like the pensieve) to avoid having to do this.

Adam Heine said...

Nice, Emmet. That's like an advanced version of the "introduce a character who needs things explained". I'm going to have to figure out a way to use that.

Dangerous With a Pen said...

Just found your blog. Loved this post! Now I have a name for that annoying device, lol. I hate when you're watching a crime show and the characters say things to each other like,

"So we used luminol, because it can show you where blood was that someone has cleaned up."

If one CSI-type said that to another, they'd win the "No ****, Sherlock!" award for saying something the rest of them already know, even if the audience may not. It's not realistic. Just show me the darn luminol doing its job. Unless you don't have the budget. Then... hmm...

But yeah. Now I can yell at books or tv in the proper lingo, "AS YOU KNOW, BOB..." I do need to keep this in the back of my head in my own writing, too. It's definitely the easier way to get info out there, but if it's not something they would really say because the other character already knows, there has to be a better way, Bob.

Adam Heine said...

Welcome, Dangerous! And too true about CSI, et al. My wife and I watch a lot of Friends, and the first line of every scene is something like: "I can't believe [insert plot summary]."

Darby Karchut said...

Oh, excellent post, Adam. I got out my weedwhacker and am cleaning up the dialogue in my WIP!

(I favor the weedwhacker over the delete key - it's so much more dramatic...)