Tuesday, January 10, 2012

As you know, Bob.

"As you know, Bob." Are you familiar with this phrase? We (agents and editors) use it a lot as a shorthand. It's a first cousin of a phrase that we're all taught beginning in elementary school: "show, don't tell."

One of many things novelists have to watch out for, when it comes to good ol' show don't tell, is not to drop in a big block of background information in one (or, heaven forbid, several) paragraph(s) of narration. You have to find more artful ways of giving your readers the information they need to follow the story. This is especially tough, as a number of you can attest, when you're writing in an "alternate world" situation like sci fi or fantasy, because there's so much worldbuilding that needs to happen. That's part of what we love about reading stories in those genres: the immersion in a world that's not our own. The staircases at Hogwarts move on their own.

But you as the writer put in a lot of time crafting the details of that world. You probably have a "story bible" that's longer than the manuscript itself, explaining all the nuances of how different the gravity is on the planet where your novel takes place. That's GREAT. As a reader and as an agent, I want you to know all of those things about your work. But what I don't want is for those details to get in the way of the actual story. I don't want the plot to grind to a halt while you detail the etymology of a word you made up. If I really have to know that in order to "get it," you as the author have to find another way to explain it to me.

(Likewise historical fiction: you've done an incredible amount of research to make sure your novel is as historically accurate as possible. It's easy to want to "get credit" for all that time in the library by shoehorning one too many facts into the novel. The story suffers.)

"I know," you're thinking. "I'll put it into dialogue. That way it doesn't count as a big block of exposition, and I've escaped the 'show don't tell' pitfall."

Well, maybe. There are at least two things you have to watch out for, in the exposition-as-dialogue scenario.

First of all, and this is kind of obvious, but based on some of the submissions I get, it's worth mentioning: you can't put quotation marks around a paragraph of exposition and call it dialogue.

Secondly, if you're going to put these details into a dialogue format, it has to actually work as dialogue-- meaning it has to consist of things that one character in the novel would actually say to another. This needs to sound like a real conversation. You can't have Character A feeding all the information to Character B, when Character B's part of the conversation reads like this: "Oh. Mmm hmm. What do you mean? Can you say more about that?"

And now we come to "As you know, Bob." This term refers to a specific subset of dialogue-as-exposition, where both characters already know all the information being explained to the reader. "As you know, Bob," points to a conversation that's really obviously fake: if Bob already knows everything Jane is about to tell him, why would Jane bother explaining it?

Does your manuscript bear signs of "As you know, Bob?" What techniques do you have for ferreting out those moments in your work? Do you have any pointers for providing those crucial world-building details in a more subtle and non-plot-derailing way?


Delphine Dryden said...

LOL! I was talking with some folks about this just yesterday on the twitterz. Plot changes to my ms all bottlenecked in one Mighty Exposition Chapter of Dooooom! I managed to disperse most of it (I hope) but at a certain point I was realizing, even as I was writing it...AYKB. I think the telltale was having more than one paragraph break in the middle of a speech, within the course of about six pages. And also having to scan the page more than once to find where I'd put some sort of dialog tag so I could remember who the frak was talking :-D

What I always try to do when this happens is redistribution - disperse the relevant facts back into the manuscript leading up to the AYKB point, either in the narration or description or somehow, but in smaller doses. Basically knocking the top off the AYKB high point.

Robin said...

How does Bob feel about this saying?

MomentEye said...

Bob doesn't mind seeing as we were in the war together and saved each others lives so many times. He can handle pretty much any saying unless it reminds him of the girl that came between us and nearly ruined our careers as secret agents in the Colombia.

Courtney Miller-Callihan said...

Robin, I asked him and he said he hates when people tell him things they already know he knows.

Anonymous said...

I learnt this a few years ago, but I did not hear the catch-phrase for it. I notice movies sometimes resort to this with Character A asking, "Tell me again. Why are we doing this?" Character B can then get the audience up to speed.

Margo Kelly said...

As you know ... GREAT POST! :)

Thanks for the reminders.

Aaron Niskodé-Dossett said...

Late to the party here, but I always thought sci-fi author Vernor Vinge was the best at this. The worldbuilding was done very naturally through dialouge and first-person observations in a way that made it part of the story and not just something bolted on.