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.
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