Bob Doesn't Always Have To Know
I bet you’ve read this somewhere. The story features two friends who meet at the local eatery on a daily basis to discuss life. In this iteration of the conversation one says to the other, “As you know, Bob,” then goes on to tell a vital piece of information that must be given to advance the story. Information that the other character obviously already knows.
Wait a second. Why do the two characters have to discuss this information if they both know it? This is the dreaded “As you know, Bob…” information dump. Writers, wanting to convey vital information about their story’s plot, will reveal it in a conversation between two characters who already know it. Not good.
There are ways to fix this. First, you could just removed the information from dialogue and put it in the narrative. Let’s look at an example:
Bob sat in his usual seat at Le Nouveau outdoor café. Seeing John approach he stood. After John was comfortably seated they ordered their favorite lunches.
John took a sip of tea and said, “As you know, Bob, the killer wore stilettoes.”
“Yeah,” said Bob, “so, that means Mary couldn’t have murdered him.”
“Right, Mary would break an ankle if she wore a pair of stilettoes.”
OK, so Mary can’t wear stilettoes and that means she can’t have been the murderer. If Mary is a major character in the story, this is important, but dumping information with “As you know, Bob…” dialogue is a poor way of revealing it. Lets try the scene again using narrative to reveal the information:
Bob sat in his usual seat at Le Nouveau outdoor café waiting for John. Since he had a few minutes, he took the time to review the stolen forensics report. He removed the sheaf of paper from his pocket and flipped to the relevant section and read. The killer had definitely worn stilettoes. He knew, like John, that it meant Mary could not have been the killer. She’d break an ankle in stilettoes.
This is a little better. The information is revealed in a more acceptable way—narrative. And, the clunky “As you know, Bob,” dialogue is avoided. But, what if you wanted or needed to reveal the information with dialogue? The answer is to introduce a second or third person that wouldn’t know the information. Let’s look at the café scene again, this time with a third party that has no knowledge of the vital information. Here goes:
Bob sat in his usual seat at Le Nouveau outdoor café. Seeing John approach with a man he’d never seen, he stood.
“Bob, “ said John, “this is Ted. He’s Mary’s cousin from Seattle. He came as soon as he heard.”
They shook hands, sat, and ordered.
After an awkward silence, John said, “Well, you gonna tell him?”
“Tell me what?” asked Ted.
“I got a copy of the forensic report.” Bob pulled a sheaf of paper from his jacket pocket and waved it in the air. “You didn’t hear this from me, but the killer wore stilettoes.”
John grinned. “Yeah, Mary can’t wear stilettoes. She’d break an ankle.”
This is a much better way to introduce the information that Mary is not the killer. Bob and John use their common knowledge to give the good news to out-of-town Ted about his cousin.
A way to reveal information in a dialogue between two characters that avoids the “As you know, Bob” problem is to have them compare notes on a subject that they both know but they realize that by discussing the subject a greater depth of knowledge may be mined. This occurs in conversations between professionals such as doctors, lawyers, engineers, etc.
In my new novel, The Peril Protocol, two detectives squat over a murder victim and discuss the findings they see:
Careful to not disturb the crime scene Foster and Montrose squatted on either side of the body to get a better look.
“Dump site,” said Montrose.
Foster nodded. He knew the lack of any blood at the scene meant that the woman was killed somewhere else and deposited here.
Foster noted bruises on the wrists and ankles. “Probably tied down before she was killed,” he said. Montrose nodded his agreement then pointed to a line of bruising on the skin just under her breasts as well.
This isn’t an “As you know, Bob” situation. The detectives talk about their findings to help confirm the information in the same way that two doctors may discuss a difficult diagnosis or two lawyers might talk over a complicated court case. For example, a web site for a tumor board, a meeting of doctors to discuss the best way to treat cancers, states the reason for doctors discussing tumors as follows:
“They each have a unique view of the best approach to treat and care for a patient. It is great to have different perspectives according to the different specialties. We all complement each other, share knowledge and offer recommendations as far as the best strategy for the patient.”
If your story involves two people discussing a subject on which they have common knowledge and they approach it with the above attitudes and goals you’ve avoided the “As you know, Bob” problem.
Avoid that awkward “As you know, Bob” scene to reveal information, and your dialogue will sound much better.
Don’t Dump That Information Here!
It’s a horrible rainstorm. The hero of your thriller has been captured by the bad guys and is dangling by a frayed rope over a swelling river in front of a dam that’s cracked. At any moment it will break spilling millions of gallons into the valley and drowning the hero in a Biblical deluge. You turn the page and the author plunges into a dialogue between two minor characters on water pressure and flow rates complete with formulas and theories to explain the dangers the hero is about to face.
Whoa. What just happened here? One moment you were on the edge of your seat wondering will the hero live or die and the next it felt like you were back in Physics 101 with Mrs. Johnson. You know, the teacher with the greying bun and orthopedic shoes.
You’re probably thinking by now, Hey, author, way to go! That’s how to take me out of the story. And your next move will be to close the book and put it on the shelf never to pull it down again, until its time to put it in a stack with other unwanted books for that long overdue garage sale.
Information dump is a great way to turn off your audience. No one wants to sit through a dry lecture on…well, anything. Either you start to doze off with the book in your hand or you’re reminded of class with your most hated college professor, the guy that gave you an “F” last semester. Face it, it’s no fun.
What is information dump? Its revealing important information in the middle of the story in a manner that feels awkward and inappropriate. Its like when your pooch takes a dump on your neighbor’s nicely manicured yard. It’s very necessary for you dog to go, but not right in the middle of Mr. Rigley’s freshly mown lawn. Here’s an example of information dump:
Detective Walsh looked down at what was obviously the murder weapon. It was a World War II vintage M1 Garand rifle.
“Hunting rifle?” asked Greg, his twenty-something partner.
“No, an M1, a combat rifle used by the U.S. in the Second World War. It has a muzzle velocity 2950 feet per second. Weighs 9.5 pounds. It was the first semi-automatic combat rifle used. Just load an eight round clip into the breach and pull the trigger to get off a shot and the gases automatically eject the spent shell and reload a fresh bullet. No recocking. It was unlike any of the other combat rifles of the day. The British Enfield, the German Kar-98, the Russian Mosin-Nagant, the Japanese Arisaka, they all were bolt action rifles. You fired a shot then had to pull back the bolt to eject the spent shell and push it home to seat the new round. The M1 gave our troops a distinct advantage in combat. Patton called it, ‘The greatest battlefield implement ever devised.’”
Unless you’re a World War II buff like me, this probably felt like a bit too much information and really, the little history lesson could have been left off with no loss of vital information for the story.
So, how do you avoid information dump? One way is to give the information in a more natural way. In my novel, Fatal Impact, one of the main characters, Jared Birch is a physicist. He has to explain quantum mechanics to other characters. He begins like this:
“Well,” began Jared, “quantum mechanics is the branch of physics that deals with the behavior of very small objects like atoms, subatomic particles, and photons. At that level, those things don’t just behave like tiny billiard balls rolling around a table….”
This is beginning to sound a lot like just information dump. But, what would be the natural response of your friends or acquaintances if you started into a long dissertation? This is how I tried to make this a more natural conversation. The discussion continues as follows:
“Wait a minute,” interrupted Sam. “This is way too much information. Bottom line is it’s complicated. Is that what you’re trying to say?”
“Yeah. I guess so.”
Being interrupted by your friends when you start into a longwinded explanation sounds more natural than everyone sitting around listening to your character pontificate for pages on some arcane subject such as the mating habits of pygmy rattlers.
Another way to introduce information is to entwine it into the story. This way it merely sounds like an expected part of the narrative. In my recent novel, The Peril Protocol, the heroine, Hope Allerd, a physician in training, is asked to explain the Protocol while on rounds:
As if on cue, Hope said, “The Protocol. She needs the Protocol.”
“Ah, perhaps there’s hope yet.” Peril smiled on hearing the titter over his pun. “Enlighten us, Dr. Allerd.”
Hope made eye contact with Marcia then turned to Peril. “The Peril Protocol,” she said, “consists of nanotubes constructed of condensed benzene rings containing molecules of the antibiotic cefotaxime. When injected into the patient they bind to a protein receptor on the meningococcus bacteria cell wall causing the release of the antibiotic which inhibits bacterial cell wall synthesis thus killing the organism.”
Medical students and residents on hospital rounds with the attending physician (usually a professor with years of experience) are expected to spout volumes of information in response to the attending’s questions, as was shown in an earlier part of the scene. So, Hope’s explanation fits right in with what is expected.
Avoid information dump at all costs. Your novel will flow and your readers will continue reading.
Next time I’ll discuss a subset of information dump: the dreaded “As you know, Bob” snippet of dialogue.
Last week I discussed writing more exciting dialogue. I’d like to continue discussing dialogue. Specifically, I’d like to review some of the uses of dialogue. As I mentioned in my last post, we generally take dialogue for granted. Most likely, it’s due to the fact that we use dialogue on a daily basis. It is, after all, the chief way we communicate. But, in creating stories, dialogue has many valuable uses beyond just the day-to-day casual function we are all accustomed to in our communications.
As I mentioned, dialogue has many functions in writing fiction. I have come up with five different functions (you may think of more):
“Don’t you ‘hey’ me you son of a bitch. Martha told me everything.”
“The late night meetings. The lunch time trysts in the local motel.”
“Wait, Jack, it’s not like that.”
“Having an affair with my wife is not like what?”
This sounds interesting. You likely want to hear more and learn why Ralph and Martha are having the affair.
“I am Death.”
“Are you coming for me?”
“I’ve already waked by your side for quite some time.”
“Are you ready?”
“My body is ready, but I’m not.”
This certainly sounds intriguing and if you don’t mind subtitles you’d probably continue watching until the closing credits.
Write Exciting Dialogue
We are all used to reading dialogue in novels and short stories. And the conventional wisdom is that dialogue is a cinch to write. After all, we use dialogue every day. We speak with our coworkers, family members, friends and acquaintances. We hear conversations between strangers all the time. Writing dialogue should be no problem. Right?
Wrong! Dialogue in fiction can be quite different from the dialogue conducted in real life. Dialogue used in day-to-day communications consists of incomplete sentences, fillers such as “um” and “er”, and nods and shrugs. In short, our regular conversations sound pretty dull and disjointed if written verbatim as part of a story.
As an example, take a little known movie about Charles Colson, one of Nixon’s henchmen who later became a Christian. Based on his book, Born Again, the script used portions of actual excerpts of the infamous Nixon Tapes verbatim for the White House scenes. In contrast to the rest of the movie this segment came across as stilted and artificial.
Just to illustrate what I mean, read aloud this excerpt from the actual Nixon Tapes. I bet you’ll come away wondering, what were they saying? Here it is:
Nixon: That’s right.
Haldeman: That the way to handle this now is for us to have Walters call Pat Gray and just say, “Stay the hell out of this…
this is ah, business here we don’t want you to go any further on it.” That’s not an unusual development,…
Nixon: Um huh.
Haldeman: …and, uh, that would take care of it.
Nixon: What about Pat Gray, ah, you mean he doesn’t want to?
Haldeman: Pat does want to. He doesn’t know how to, and he doesn’t have, he doesn’t have any basis for doing it. Given
this, he will then have the basis. He’ll call Mark Felt in, and the two of them …and Mark Felt wants to cooperate because…
Haldeman: he’s ambitious…
So, how is dialogue supposed to be used in your writing? I’ve got a couple of guidelines that can help you write more exciting dialogue: