As You Don’T Know, Bob

The fanfic I’ve read lately has been a bit too heavy on the old “as you know, Bob” deal, and it started to irritate me. So, here’s a few thoughts and examples on getting the information out without telling poor Bob all about something he already knows about.

You all know the drill. Somewhere in the story there’s a need to convey something that really matters to how things are going to work out, some basic information that a crucial plot point rests on. It’s not been exposed to the readers before, but if it isn’t explained, said readers are going to be wondering what the heck is going on – if they don’t introduce your story to the horrors of the recycle bin.

So the inexperienced author has Alan say to Bob, “Well, as you know, Bob,…” and explain to the readers while pretending to explain to Bob – who, to give due credit, doesn’t immediately say, “Try telling me something I don’t know for a change.”

This method of clueing the readers in is usually a chunk of character exposition, with Alan explaining away until the whole thing is covered enough to handle the upcoming plot point. Sometimes Bob joins in, explaining to Alan the next bit of whatever Alan was explaining to Bob.

The next step up requires Bob to be a bit clueless. This works if Bob has already been established as kind of clueless, or failing that not terribly knowledgeable in whatever the plot point happens to need. Alan still gets to exposition all over the place, although with this method Bob doesn’t help, but might ask stupid or clueless questions, like in the rather sad contrived example below.

“Alan? Why do we have to set off the bomb at the bottom of the dam?”

Alan pinched the bridge of his nose as if he was trying to ward off a headache – or minimize one. “Bob, the dam wall is made of rhubarbum. It won’t even shift if we hit it directly with a nuke. A bomb at the base won’t be picked up by the sensors monitoring the dam wall because they’re all positioned midway up or higher, and the bomb won’t touch the dam wall. It will break up the foundation work and loosen the ground underneath the wall, and that will cause small leaks.”

Bob frowned. “But we’re trying to break it.”

“The small leaks will get bigger until the ground fails and takes the dam wall with it.” Alan said a bit more sharply than was necessary.

See? It’s still mostly Alan lecturing.

A better method is to run a brainstorming session between Alan and Bob that lets the information out as part of the conversation, without one character lecturing another. Again, the example is pretty pathetic. It’s late, and I’m sleep typing – there’s not going to be any sparkling prose happening here.

“Hey Alan, you know that job with the dam? I was thinking, maybe we can’t break the dam wall itself but we can take out the surrounding rock wall in the gorge.” Bob sat down at the paper-strewn table and rummaged for the dam schematics. “Ah, here. The ground or the cliff walls would be the best option, don’t you reckon?”

Alan leaned over to look more closely at the diagram. “We can’t place anything too far up.” He tapped the image. “That sensor layout gives the enemy near total coverage from halfway up.”

After shuffling through a pile of satellite photos, Bob laid a single image beside the dam schematics. “Yeah, they reinforced it pretty solidly.” He made a sour face. “We’d have to crawl up the river bed to the base, maybe drop the ordnance about here.” He pointed to a location at the base of the dam wall, where the original river had once flowed.

“That could work.” Alan grabbed a pencil and started scribbling on the nearest piece of mostly-blank paper. “We’d need a yield of… It is pretty soft there…”

This method actually leaks quite a lot more information – but it also takes longer to write and needs more thought, but at least Alan isn’t lecturing Bob about something he already knows – or should already know.

The picture is Midnight and Westley supervising me. Very closely.

28 comments

  1. But it’s so fun to play with!
    You get to flesh out Bob, Alan, and introduce the larger scale topic that underlies the minutia Alan is focusing on. (Or even that Bob has a habit of talking to himself.)

    Just because a trope is often abused, doesn’t make it bad.

    1. Oh, no argument there. I’ve had my share of fun inverting and twisting tropes, but it does get irritating watching people mindlessly abuse the things.

  2. I’ve had fun with a character going to an archive, and reading all sorts of things, or having another character say, “Here, you need this,” tosses/hands book and leaves. Character one then reads, observes, mutters things like “Well, that’s a stupid way to heat water. Why use magic when you can just turn on the stove?” and so on.

    And the ever-popular in humor “Oh great, Bob, you hit her play button! We’ll be here all week!” as the droning lecture ensues. [See the economic history of the Smoot-Hawley tariff in _Ferris Beuler’s Day Off_ for details.]

    1. An additional flavor is the “make a suggestion so that people can turn funny colors and explain to you why that’s a really, really bad idea.”

      “Hey, of that window cleaner didn’t work, why don’t we try this shower cleaner?”
      “…dude, that’s ammonia based window cleaner, and the shower stuff has bleach in it.”
      “So?”

  3. If you ever have someone try to tell you that nobody talks like a tedious infodump, point them in my direction. 🙂

  4. Oh, you can give out lots of information necessary to the plot by working it out for the reader’s benefit in a conversation between two or more characters – but as you say, it takes a bit of imagination and time, and you have to dribble it out in usable bits and bites, not a solid indigestable wedge of lecture.

    1. IMO Randall Garrett did a good job of it in the Lord Darcy stories.

      IE Making sure the readers knew that magic exists in the Lord Darcy stories but Magic couldn’t have been used to commit the crimes (or to help the murderer to commit the murder).

    2. Indeed so. And dribbling it out is a lot more fun, too, because it’s ever so much easier to seed red herrings and other entertaining bits of misdirection that way.

  5. (insert mock wounded tone here) Hey, my Sunday snippet wasn’t *that* bad of an “as you know, Bob, here’s how to lace up a corset”, was it?

    1. 😉 Not that I should rule out “knowing how to lace up a corset” being a Very Important Plot Point later on, umm, but no, I think that was just you making an outstanding introduction, rather than disguising a data dump.

      1. Ah, but it was a data dump… on how to lace up a corset. Cleverly disguised as dialogue in an introduction.

        I have an allergy to infodumps even in small amounts, so work hard to disguise them even when they’re not plot-critical, just being used to introduce characters and the different ways they view the world.

        1. And you are very successful!!! I have copies of all your published stories and I can’t remember a single infodump, even in Going Ballistic where there is a LOT of tech behind the scenes. I have no idea what engines those suborbital birds have but it wasn’t important for the story, so I never missed it.

    2. Before reading that, if a lady had asked me to lace up her corset without giving directions, I would have started in the middle and worked outwards. Like torquing down the cylinder heads on a V-8.

      Hey, it would have seemed logical to me! 😛

    3. Nah, it was a nice introduction to the fine art of corsetry. And an even nicer intro to lacing up a corset. Very well done indeed.

      Besides, I’d said in the post it was inspired by a few too many “As you know Bob” infodumpuses in fanfic, so you’re definitely in the clear.

  6. Not to mention that few men of that setting would actually know how to do that, so totally plausible.

    1. So would very few male readers (and no few female ones). The look on my Calmer Half’s face the first time I asked him to lace up my corset…

      Very bright. Very good sport. Very willing to take directions. Very flummoxed by the masses of loops of lacing

      1. A typical male would probably start at the bottom and work up, not from either end to the middle. Like lacing a pair of boots.

        Some few, though (probably not I, if faced with it cold), would realize that the objective is to compress what is in the middle.

  7. Ah, as you know, Bob. . .

    There’s a play by Aristophanes where one guard starts to talk another about what they guard, and the other one gets very annoyed until the first points out that I know, and you know, but THEY don’t. points at audience

    Then they do it.

    1. Well, that’s kind of deliberate breaking of the fourth wall, which is a different technique altogether (and not one an inexperienced writer should try – heck, I wouldn’t dare try using that technique). Most of us aren’t Aristophanes. Or Shakespeare. Or…

      1. It was a combo. They broke the fourth wall to poke fun at their as you know Bob dialog.

  8. And sometimes it’s just as well to do a brief dump and then just get on with the story, instead of trying to disguise it with an inane conversation.

    1. Yes, it is. Which is where a standard debrief/lecture can be used – you don’t even need to preface that with “As you know, Bob.”

      You know, everyone assembled prior to moving out, and whoever’s in charge is going, “Team 1, move quietly to the target and place the ordinance at this location. Stay low to avoid the sensor net starting 2 meters above ground level.” Etcetera.

      Or just have the point of view character describe what’s going on as he’s doing it.

      If you know multiple ways to get the information out, you can pick the one that works best for the story at that point. If you’ve only got one technique, you’ll use that one all the time whether it works or not. Kind of like when the only tool is a hammer, everything starts looking a bit like a nail.

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