"As You Know, Bob..."
© 2011 Andi Marquette
Greetings, all! I hope everyone's having a great beginning to 2011. Nothing like the present to buckle down and get some writing in. And speaking of writing, let's talk about an aspect of "show, don't tell" that you might not have heard referred to in this way: "As you know, Bob…" (or, as abbreviated here: AYKB)|
Bob? Bob who? Let's find out.
Bob is the imaginary guy who an MC/narrator seems to be explaining things to as a way to convey information in a narrative. Problem is, doing so detracts from the pacing and flow of a story. Pretend you're the MC in a novel and you're in the middle of a tense scene with another character. As you and the other character hash things out, you suddenly stop, turn to the audience (the reader), and explain some bit of back story. Or, you tell the other character information that he or she already knows because you're trying to reveal this info to the reader—info that you could reveal through dialogue or a few thoughts here and there during the course of the narrative.
I bring this up because a few months ago I read a novel (fantasy) published by Ace, a mainstream SF/F publishing house. I liked the characters, the dialogue was snappy, the story was quirky, and there was some nice humor in it. But this novel drove me crazy. Why? Because every other paragraph, it seemed, the main character stopped to explain something to the reader.
The book is written in the first person (link below if you don't know what that is), so the MC basically addressed the reader, and lectured him or her on background info that completely throws a reader off-track. Here's a made-up example to give you a sense of what I'm talking about:
I picked up the tankard and took a sip and hoped the shadows in this part of the room hid my features. The last thing I needed was the Royal Guard knowing I was back in Regis. The Royal Guard under King Jer had become even more sadistic than the previous monarch's reign. Jer was known for being a little crazy, and his Royal Guard reflected it. Too bad Neldip, the previous king, had died in battle. Jer wrested control of the kingdom and now everyone had to pay.
Can you see what the issue is here? We've taken side trips into things that don't really have relevance to the story. This type of AYKB appears in sci fi and fantasy more than other genres, probably because the writer wants the reader to know the rich and varied history of the world he or she made up. The problem is, it interrupts the story. There are ways to introduce this kind of info that don't interrupt pacing and flow. We don't want to hear the history and culture of the area. Why? Because the MC is obviously trying to hide from the Royal Guard. We'd like to know why, and we'd like to know who the MC is. Detailed side trips into the history of the Royal Guard and the ethnic background of neighboring diners doesn't tell us anything about that and instead we're bogged down in details that don't matter.
I set my tankard down and glanced at the next table. A scrawny Rindiglian was gnawing on a large bone. The kingdom of Rindiglia had fallen prey to hordes of goblins who swept down from the neighboring mountains in the upheavals following Neldip's death. Many Rindiglians were thus displaced, and ended up in cities like Regis looking for work.
The book I read was full of details about royal dynasties, conspiracies, wars between siblings in royal families, specific information about the types of spells certain types of magic practitioners use…all at the expense of the pacing of the story. In action scenes, the author described, say, an attack by non-human soldiers and then explained what ruler these soldiers serve and why they might be attacking. Tip: when you're under attack, your first order of business is to get away from the attackers. Not to tell the reader what the attackers' background is.
So basically, I think of "As you know, Bob…" as a tongue-in-cheek reference to an info-dump. In most cases, the AYKB is evident when one of your characters suddenly busts into a lecture in order to convey information. Usually the character is lecturing another character, but in some instances, I would argue that the character lectures the reader, especially if the story or book is written in first person POV (from the "I" POV). We see that above, when the author lectures the reader. How does the AYKB look in dialogue? Kind of like this:
"Jim, we've been stuck in this elevator for over three hours and no one's responded to our cries for help or to the firefighter alert. [As you know], everyone in the building left long ago because both of us were working late and the cleaning crew is long gone. I hate to tell you this, but I really have to pee."
The "as you know, Bob" moment is thus supposed to serve as an info vehicle. But what it ends up doing is interrupting the pacing of a story, and it ends up creating road bumps in a reader's experience of the story. The Science Fiction Writers of America have this to say about "As you know, Bob..."
"Well, Roger, I suppose we can open the doors just wide enough for you to do that. But [as you know], we've tried that and those doors are heavy. In fact, we tried three times, if you remember."
"A pernicious form of info-dump through dialogue, in which characters tell each other things they already know, for the sake of getting the reader up-to-speed. This very common technique is also known as "Rod and Don dialogue" (attr. Damon Knight) or "maid and butler dialogue" (attr. Algis Budrys)."
So it's an info-dump, telling and not showing, and it interrupts your pacing. So let's de-AYKB our two examples to see how that works:
I picked up the tankard, took a sip, and hoped the shadows in this part of the room hid my features. The last thing I needed was the Royal Guard knowing I was back in Regis. Those sadistic bastards would carve me up good. All they needed was King Jer's permission and if the rumors about him were true, he'd not only give it, he'd join in.
Do you see the difference? How that passage leads you to the same conclusions as the AYKB passage, but with fewer words, and without the lecture? There's enough information for a reader to fill in the blanks, and the mood that's evoked is kind of tense and brittle. The focus stays on the MC trying to avoid the Royal Guard - the MC is surveying his/her surroundings, and provides just enough info for the reader to evoke setting and mood, but keeps a sense of anxiety up front. So how about our guys in the elevator?
I set my tankard down and glanced at the next table. A scrawny Rindiglian was gnawing on a large bone. He looked a little rough, probably from escaping the goblins that overran Rindiglia last fall. Well, we've all got hard times to get through. I just hoped I lived through mine.
Roger fiddled with the buttons on his shirt again. He licked his lips nervously and looked at Jim. "It's been three hours. I hate elevators, but I've been in this one for three freakin' hours."
In this case, we used more words, but the characters convey to a reader that they're stuck in an elevator through dialogue with each other and they didn't resort to a lecture about it. The reader still knows these guys are stuck in an elevator, they've been there a while, they're going to continue being stuck, and Roger has to pee. But we used a mixture of dialogue and action tags to convey that, which allowed a more flexible narrative and a smoother flow.
"Don't think I don't know it, man. I'm sick of yelling and my throat hurts. Go ahead and try the rescue button again. But if nobody's responded by now, I doubt they will 'til morning." He shrugged. "Hell, the cleaning crew's probably long gone by now."
"I have to pee, man."
Jim sighed. "Fine. Let's try the doors again. Maybe this time we'll get 'em open a crack."
Roger nodded, though he knew it might be futile. They'd tried three times already.
Whew. So there you go. Bob isn't necessarily a writer's best friend, so it's okay to give the guy a beer and send him on his way.
Andi Marquette is the author of published short stories and five novels, including three New Mexico-based mysteries with Regal Crest: Land of Entrapment, State of Denial, and The Ties that Bind. She also writes a space opera series through Bedazzled Ink Publishing. The first two are Friends in High Places and A Matter of Blood.
You can find her at www.andimarquette.com.
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