You’ve spent weeks, maybe months, thinking about your book, figuring out who your characters are, picturing the setting, and you’re finally ready to start writing. There is so much you need to tell your readers! That old adage, “Show, don’t tell,” has been beaten into your brain and you know you can’t write huge blocks of expository backstory. So how are you going to get all of that info out of your head and onto the page?
A lot of times, authors use dialogue to provide some of this necessary information to readers. It is more interesting than exposition and, if done right, the fact that you’re providing information is less obvious. Unfortunately, it is frequently done wrong, and we wind up with what is known among writers and editors as “As You Know, Bob” dialogue. Writing “As You Know, Bob” dialogue will peg you as a newbie and the result won't feel realistic to readers, so let’s find out how to avoid it.
As you may have guessed by its name, “As You Know, Bob” dialogue is dialogue where one character tells another character something he already knows. The information being provided is for the sake of the reader, not the character, so it comes across as unnatural. Take, for example, this line of dialogue from one brother to another:
“As you know, Bob, our mother died last year without a will and it’s been a hell of a year fighting over her inheritance with our stepsiblings.”
This definitely does the trick of letting your readers know what’s been going on, but no one would actually say that. Obviously, his brother would already know that their mother died last year. And if it’s been a hell of a year, the details are bound to be fresh in his mind. Why would his brother need to remind him of this? He wouldn’t. This dialogue is here just to supply readers with information and so it falls flat.
You may be reading that example and thinking, “Well, obviously, I wouldn’t do that. Sheesh, Erica, how stupid do you think I am?” But “As You Know, Bob” dialogue can sometimes be harder to spot. For example, take a look at this line of dialogue:
“So, Ellen, how is your husband, Brian, recovering from his surgery?”
Unless Ellen is 102 years old and having trouble with her memory, she probably knows her husband’s name. Her friend might refer to him as “your husband” or as Brian, but not “your husband, Brian.”
Similarly, we might want to write something like this:
“I have to get out of this town. We should go on another rafting trip like we did last year. Remember? We went to Colorado and rode those crazy rapids and you fell off the raft.”
At first glance, this doesn’t seem so bad. It’s just one character saying to another, “Remember that trip we took? Good times. Let’s do that again.” But if the trip was last year and she fell off a raft into crazy rapids, chances are she’d remember and her conversation partner wouldn’t feel the need to spell it out. A natural conversation just doesn’t include details that both parties already know.
So, what do you do if you have information that you really need to get to your readers and you feel dialogue is the best way to accomplish this? Can we get this info across without boring Bob by stating the obvious? Absolutely!
One way to accomplish this would be to have a character present who doesn’t already know whatever it is that Bob knows. This way you have a legitimate reason for providing this information. This can still start to feel like an info dump, though, so it is often better to just provide the information to your readers more subtly.
Let’s go back to our examples above and see how we could get the same info across without putting Bob to sleep.
Instead of: “As you know, Bob, our mother died last year without a will and it’s been a hell of a year fighting over her inheritance with our stepsiblings.”
You could try: “So, Bob, what did the lawyer say about the house?”
“It sounds like we’ll have to split the proceeds of the sale with Mark and Cathy. Even though Mom was estranged from them, it doesn’t matter. They’re her kids as much as we are, in the eyes of the law.”
“I knew it was going to be a disaster when she married Derek. I’ve never understood why she felt the need to adopt a couple of teenagers who hated her.”
“All I know is, first thing Monday, I’m going to my attorney and drafting a will. I am never doing this to my kids.”
Instead of: “I have to get out of this town. We should go on another camping trip like we did last year. Remember? We went to Colorado and rode those crazy rapids and you fell off the raft.”
You Could Try: “I have to get out of this town. We should go on another rafting trip like we did last year.”
“It’s good to know that you think me almost drowning is a fun vacation. Why can’t we ever just sit on a beach?”
In both instances, the reader gets all of the vital information in a way that seems natural. There’s no boring info dump and no awkward repetition of things everyone already knows.
Dialogue can be used successfully to provide backstory to your readers, as long as you’re careful to craft conversations that would actually happen in the real world. Trust your readers—and Bob—to figure out what’s going on when information is provided with a lighter touch.