The Sneaky Secret Life of “As You Know, Bob…”

Just a quick heads up: I’m going to be taking a break from videoing for a month or two, due to some minor health issues. I’ll still be posting the text posts on Wednesdays, and you should be seeing the videos return by mid-spring. Cheers!

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Among writers, the “as you know, Bob” trope has become almost something of a joke. But let me tell you, this ain’t no joking matter. “As you know, Bob,” of course, refers to the clumsy technique of filling readers in on basic story details by having two characters who already know these details talk about them amongst themselves. The classic version is where one character says, “So, as you know, Bob, our mother just died, leaving us and our three sisters penniless orphans here in the unforgiving urban wastelands of New York.” Admittedly, this technique does a good job of sharing the details with readers. But it’s so laughably unrealistic that it always risks pushing readers out of their suspension of disbelief.

And about now, you’re probably all vigorously nodding your heads in agreement. “As you know, Bob” is something most of us learn to avoid early on in our writing—to the point, as I said, that we kind of just snigger at the whole notion. Who’s dumb enough to fall for that anymore, right?

But the “as you know, Bob” technique remains more prevalent and perilous than you might think at first. I often notice it in fantasy books, in which characters end up explaining the story world’s magic system to each other, sometimes without even much of a twist on the “as you know” statement. Some authors try to mix it up by throwing a little conflict in there. Maybe one character seems to be patronizing another character by telling him info, which then gives both characters an opportunity to spout off story details under the guise of showing how much they both really know.

But, I gotta tell you, this is a pretty weak avoidance of “as you know, Bob,” especially since the solution to this problem is often super-easy. All you have to do is remove the need-to-know info from its unrealistic context of dialogue and include it as straight—if hopefully subtle—narrative.

Tell me your opinion: How do you avoid obvious dialogue info dumps such as “as you know, Bob”?

the sneaky secret life of as you know bob

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. Firstly, I wish you a soon recovery. 🙂

    Secondly, that “as you know, Bob…” is a really annoying way to share information. It is one thing when a character says to another a thing of importance without meaning to be informative. Like they are talking about who’s coming for dinner and listing the names one of them is making comments. I use this in the novel I recently write. But it is not to describe THOSE people, on the contrary, the comments describe the one who says them. For example, they talk about a vicar and he says: “As you know, he is the only vicar I can listen to without feeling sleepy and disappointed in the church.” I believe it reveals quite a lot about the character and almost nothing about the mentioned preacher. But I might be partial with my work. 🙂

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      This is a good approach. But it’s also important to remember that “as you know, Bob” can also be a problem in having characters explain (directly or indirectly) traits of their own, which the other characters already know. If you can stick an “as you know” in front of the dialogue, that’s always a warning sign.

    • Siegmar Sondermann says:

      Hi Lora,

      imho the sentence would be much stronger without the “as you know”.
      A simple “He is the only vicar I can listen to without feeling sleepy and disappointed in the church.” states a fact and describes the character of the person saying it.
      Just like you intend it to be.

      As you know, dialogue in a novel is not dialogue in reality.

      • Hi!

        After reading this article, I checked the story. My charcter actually says that after hearing the vicar is invited:

        “‘I hoped so. He is the only cleric I know whose company is not a burden.’”

        So, it is more like the version you suggested. 🙂

        I just remembered that he does something like that “Bob-thing”, but fortunately, he does it better. XD

        Thanks for the tip!

        Lora

  2. Of course, it can’t be blatant. But I recently read a well-placed bit of soliloquizing which very successfully revealed some backdrop info that the reader needed to know. It can work.

    • It’s all about subtlety. If we can supply a reason for the characters to be discussing the info, we can get away with it almost endlessly (see Neal Stephenson’s Anathem).

  3. Siegmar Sondermann says:

    Get well soon!

  4. Hope you are better soon! 🙂

  5. The solution is so simple, but not always easy! I think the best way to reveal needed information is in bits, rather than long chunks of narrative. That’s harder to do, but so much more interesting. Plus, going through the process helps you to determine what information really isn’t needed. As writers, we think it’s all relevant and fascinating, but when push comes to shove, we don’t need all the details.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Absolutely. We can get away with breadcrumbs – but rarely the whole loaf.

    • I greatly prefer the “breadcrumb” approach. Little bits of unexplained background information can pique curiosity and (hopefully) get readers engaged with the story. Then, there is the satisfaction the reader can fell when one last breadcrumb suddenly makes the original reference make perfect sense.

      • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

        As a reader, I adore those “aha” moments where I feel all brainy for putting together the author’s clues.

  6. Paul Baxter says:

    I swear, I am going to do this in a story sometime just so I can have the other character interrupt him and reply “What are you telling me all this for? I KNOW all of this already!”

  7. Steve Mathisen says:

    Well, as you know, all of your fans will certainly respect your need to get healthy. We love your videos, but get well soon!!

    In other news, this method of leaking backstory into a story clogs up the flow of the story and is to be avoided at all costs. The trick is when and how to inject just the correct information in the correct spot so that the reader is not confused by what is going on.

    In both Star Trek and Star Wars, they did not pause to explain their technology, they just used it and let the viewers see what it did. Unless it malfunctioned, they you got a bit of a glimpse into the heart of it while they tried to fix it.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Movies (often) do a great job of letting readers fill in the blanks. I know some readers may want the lowdown on how lightspeed works, but, frankly, I couldn’t care less. Just get to the blaster fight already! 😀

  8. Well, I learned to avoid the “feather duster”early on. That sort of extended itself into all data dumps. I don’t know if I have a specific method of avoiding it. I just don’t do it. Whenever background info is needed (really needed), I make sure it’s handed off to a character who also needs to know, and doesn’t know it already. I guess I could make the argument that, if a character in the story doesn’t need the background info, then neither does the reader. We accept actions every day without knowing the background. I don’t think a reader will fall into disbelief if they don’t know why something is so. In Dreamlander, I would have easily accepted the fact that the hero’s father was a drunk without knowing the why. There’s lots of drunks out there. It’s acceptable. I suppose if your character went into a violent rage whenever he saw a yellow ’77 Camero, I might want some background. But something that odd would be questioned by the novel’s other characters, so easily remedied. Clear as mud?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      This raises a good point. Readers are much more likely to suspend disbelief over unexplained details if they’re able to fill in the blanks from their own experiences or knowledge. It’s only when we’re throwing the completely unexpected at them that they absolutely need a little assistance.

  9. Hope you feel better soon! I suppose this is obvious but the “As you know, Bob,” technique seems to be just another type of info dump.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Yes, that’s exactly what it is. It masquerades as subtlety, under the guise of legitimate dialogue, but the mask is so poor that it’s all the less subtle for even trying.

  10. I’m now enforcing a strict ‘no exposition delivered via dialogue’ rule in my writing. Instead of thinking to myself, “yeh, I can get away with this little bit of info in dialogue,” I now have a zero tolerance policy. As Ronald Reagan once said, “Just say no.”

    This forces me into coming up with creative solutions to exposition delivery. You can use all sorts of devices when you put your mind to it. As other posts have suggested, you can just leave it out and let the reader put two and two together.

    Another good method is to turn the information – and its withholding – into a mystery. For example, “Aah, my favourite vicar.” The reader now needs to know why, which you can fill in by implication or showing.

    An outrageously funny and animated vicar is too good a character to waste on mere exposition, so I would render his traits visually. Just have him turn up to the dinner party and set it alight. And have someone ask him if his sermons are this much fun, because he or she usually falls asleep in church. Remember: Show – Don’t Tell.

    Dialogue is too precious to waste on boring old information. If every single line of dialogue doesn’t sing then it’s been wasted.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      We should never underestimate the power of a mystery. Readers would much rather be tantalized with a secret than have the information dumped in their laps.

  11. 1.) As everyone else has said, hope everything is fine with your health.
    2.) I’m never certain how to feel about being named Bob. It seems like such an unexceptional name, but I see it come up in so many turns of phrase and writing. “Well as you know Bob” – when you can’t think of the noun for something you may call it a “thing-a-ma-Bob”, there is the movie “What about Bob?” – and it really seems like every stand up comedian I listen to has a boring, straight laced friend named Bob. I can’t decide how I feel about it. I’ve been scrambling about whether or not to use a pen name just for that reason. But obviously, this post wasn’t about that – but I just wanted a short tangent 🙂
    3.) Current work in progress is a murder mystery. A critical element of a mystery is that the reader stays clear on what clues and information the characters have and don’t have in order to stay invested and play along with the mystery. In doing my research for this, I even caught Dame Agatha Christie (the deservedly titled ‘Queen of Murder’) using this “as you know” dialogue through Poirot. I just finished a long summery and exposition scene where characters that have been separated share with each other the clues they found and it felt so long and info dumpy. I am wondering if you have any tips to avoid this time of info dumping and “as you know” explaining in that genre?

    • Hello Bob!

      Firstly, I like your name. 😉 I had a dog called Bobby, and I dare say in one of my drafts hiding somewhere I even have a character named so. And though it’s not the same, I can imagine that it is annoying ’cause something similar has happened to me. Not happening in daily life but embarassing enough. When we were learning Villon ballads… you know the one, The Ballad of Dead Ladies? Where it is not so pleasant to have your name mentioned as a famous Roman “working-lady”; especially not in front of a class of immature students… and in many other poems, too. 😛

      Secondly, I believe “as you know…” is quite okay in crime stories. I couldn’t imagine nicer than Poirot saying “As you know, Hastings…”

    • Hello, Bob! You may not know it, but in my family, we’re very fond of the name ‘Bob’, due to our memories of dungeon-crawling role-playing games. One person my brother used to play with regularly played a ‘Bobbite’, who worshiped Bob, the Party God; Bob required all his followers to drink copious amounts whenever possible, buy rounds for everyone at every bar or tavern they went into, and raise a toast to “Hail, Bob!” in lieu of prayer. For the past mumbldy-something years, we raise our glasses and “Hail Bob” at every family gathering! 🙂

  12. K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

    As a matter of fact, my dog Crazy Bob was named after the movie What About Bob? Plus, my two favorite uncles are named Bob–so I have a certain fondness for the name, this post notwithstanding!

    There comes a time in any story in which info dumps become almost unavoidable. The key is finessing it. Present situations in which the characters would logically be discussing or sharing the info. Inject conflict where possible by making one character reluctant to share the info or another resistant to hearing it. The only real rule here is: make it interesting! If readers are enjoying themselves, they couldn’t care less about info dumps.

  13. Most important take care of yourself. All your loyal readers will be sending good thoughts your way.

    My question- my main character is a 15-yr-old princess in exile training with her grumpy, old wizard guardian. They are secluded deep in a forest until she can return to claim her thrown. He is often lecturing her on the use of magic and the various properties of natural elements. She is practicing her skills as well as learning to fight and rule during these lectures. Is this type of info dump more acceptable in fantasy/sci-fi where the basis of the magic must be understood for the story to make sense? These are not strictly lectures. She makes quite a few humorous errors and is always trying to outwit the wizard. What are your thoughts?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      A certain amount of training is par for the course in fantasy. As long as the scenes are interesting, readers are learning important things right along with the characters, and, most importantly, the plot develops, you’re fine. However, I’m thinking of one fantasy in particular that ended up seeming like a college curriculum for its particular brand of magic. When the lessons end up taking up more room than the plot, that’s when you’re in trouble!

      • I think I should be OK then. This will only last for 2 or 3 chapters. There are other chapters showing a revolution occurring in her kingdom interspersed so this will be a small portion of the book. Thanks for sharing your wisdom.

  14. Get well.

  15. Prayers for a quick recovery!

    I try to introduce any needed info on backstory in narrative rather than dialogue, unless it could realistically come through in dialogue. And then, only in dribs and drabs when in narrative. I usually try to keep it to under a half page, and prefer a paragraph or two if I can get away with it. Sometimes it needs to be longer, but I try to avoid it whenever possible.

    • The best backstories are those readers can’t *wait* to learn, and, then, of course, we take full advantage of their curiosity by *making* them wait.

      • 🙂 Yep. I like to give a lot of hints, so the reader knows *something* happened, but never have it fully explained. Of course, I’m working on a novel right now which will have anywhere from 3 – 5 shorts preceding it, so a lot of the backstory is stuff that will be covered in more detail in the short stories. 😉

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          That’s fun! I like the idea of giving readers the “unnecessary” backstory in the forgiving (and optional) medium of separate shorts.

  16. Kay Anderson says:

    Good post! 🙂 I think sometimes I write more info of a character than what’s needed or I repeat something I’ve already written but in a different matter. I guess because I don’t what to confuse anyone.

    • First drafts take us so much longer to write than it takes a reader to read that we can sometimes end up feeling we need to stick in more reminders than we really do. This is one reason I’m such a big fan of the “50-page edit” (in which I stop to edit the entire book after each of the three major plot points): it helps me stay oriented in the actual flow of the story – instead of my own often incorrect perception of it.

  17. Katie–As you know, K.M,, first things first: take care of yourself.
    What always amazes me when I see this mistake is to realize how little attention the writer must be paying to real life. When speaking to someone he knows, does anyone repeat the other person’s name? The only time I do this is when I intend something ironic: A man I know named Bob asks me whether I like Limburger cheese. “Well, Bob, as I think you know, I’m not really into aroma therapy.” Etc.

    • Yes, that raises one of my biggest pet peeves: overuse of direct address. Authors would do well to delete all instances of one character calling another character by name, then going back and reinserting the names only where necessary for clarity or flow.

  18. First, I hope you get better soon.

    It’s funny, I just finished writing a scene yesterday where I had to slip some info in. How do you handle relationships? For example, my character runs into another one, but I have to get across she is the mayor’s daughter. I just threw in something like “it’s not easy being the mayor’s daughter. He has eyes and ears everywhere.” Does that seem to as you know Bob?

    What about when you have characters who are related and you want to get that across without being too obvious? (mother/daughter, grandmother/grandson)

    • Your snippet here sounds fine – both subtle and to the point. In most instances, it’s best to plain and straightforward about relationships (particularly simplistic ones) than to beat around the bush. If the MC runs across his dad, there’s no problem with our writing, “James’s dad walked up the drive.”

  19. P.S to Applause Reply: Get well soon, however minor you might claim the problem is. And stay safe.

  20. Doesn’t this go with the lesson of ‘show, don’t tell’? Sure, some info. needs to be told. It can’t be shown without making the story miles and miles long, but can’t most of it be shown instead?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Yep, definitely in that realm. But you’re right that stories demand some info be told instead of shown, and backstory and some story setup can certainly fall into that category.

  21. “As you know Bob” is my nemesis in writing. Ugh. It’s a constant struggle.

    In my current WIP, I’m trying something. I’m writing 1st person close and having my MC be an active narrator. I still try to avoid data dumps but it’s easier to slip something into the conversation.

    So far it seems to be ok.

    So far.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      When in doubt, ask the betas! Sometimes an objective outside is what we really need to tell if a technique is working or not.

  22. i tend to think that if you absolutely *must* use any type of “aykb” dialogue it ought to be the framework of an opposing statement. using the magic world example:

    “hey bob, i was just thinking, we take it for granted that when we use blah-de-blah-type spells, we always have to do this thing.”

    “yeah. so?”

    “wouldn’t it be faster/better if we do it this other way?”

    “can you really do that?”

    “that’s what i want your help finding out.”

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