As you know Bob – showing vs telling
I remember the first day I heard the phrase, “As you know, Bob . . .” I had just begun this journey into writing, into completing my first novel. I wondered why the first few paragraphs of copy where such rubbish. You see my novel was speculative fiction, it was alternate history. The thing about the genre of speculative fiction is that you cannot take reader knowledge for granted.
There will be something off about the world that you are presenting. Maybe your work is set in a world where the World Wars never happened. Maybe in a Nigeria where the Civil War did not take place, or the first coup was a complete and utter failure and the putschists were arrested and jailed.
But your novel is not about the world it is set in. At least it hopefully isn’t. It would be dreadfully boring if it was. Your novel is about people living in this world. So how do you, dear writer, show the reader this world without being too intrusive? How do you work in details without completely just taking over the narratives with chunks of information dumping?
I had come up with a solution for my book, which was an alternate history thriller, set in a Nigeria where the UPN won a run-off in the 1979 elections. I would have the characters talk about stuff from their past. They would discuss history the way my friends and I did when we argued. But the writing felt wrong. Something did not ring true. And I searched for why this was happening. I came across the phrase, ‘As You Know, Bob…’ The phrase describes a conundrum that writers face when they are world-building (how to communicate information to the reader).
In the case described by the phrase, two characters are having a conversation within the story, the subject of which will provide the author with opportunities to present information to the reader that is important for the story. But these two characters should not be having this conversation. They already know this stuff, so why are they discussing it? Hence the words, “As you know, Bob, yesterday I had to sit through the entire first half of the very boring play. I am quite angry this morning as a result, as you know.”
This is the trap I had fallen into. In a bid to not just info-dump on the reader, I thought I could use expository dialogue between characters. It was lazy, and especially naïve to have a murder detective and a forensic pathologist discuss details in an autopsy as if either did not attend autopsies as part of their profession. Why would they discuss stuff which they, with the years of experience they had, have perceived as inanities? I tried to find a solution after this. I hope I succeeded.
If you read fiction, and watch television and film dramas and comedies, you will note different ways in which writers—novelists and screenwriters alike—try to work around this problem.
There is the Audience Surrogate. A character whose entire inclusion in a given scene or an entire novel is to represent the audience. She asks questions on the audience’s behalf, and the answers keep things clear. Examples: Every patient relative in the TV series House.
There is the Convenient Idiot. This characters lack of knowledge serves only the plot. They are there only to ask a profoundly silly question, a question that someone of their pedigree should not have to ask. But the answers help the audience. Examples: (A) Dr. House’s attending physicians who run through several differential diagnoses that a first-year resident should know, if only so that the teleplay can illustrate how utterly brilliant Dr. Gregory House is. (B) The Army Major in Man of Steel who asks what ‘terraforming’ is. She is a Major in a science division of the US Army. The only reason she does not know what terraforming is, is because you, the audience doesn’t.
There are several more versions of this problem, which I must explain is more of a drama problem than one with prose. With prose, the author can remove all pretence and just explain what his world is. But it is a good problem to anticipate. And one which the writer must solve.