The Ten Commandments of Writing #2: Thou Shalt Avoid Conversations Starting with “As You Know”

(Cross-posted on the WriteClub blog)

For the next few weeks in this series of posts, I will be focusing on things that you should not do in your writing. As a disclaimer I will add that you will always find examples of these in published work. Thus proving that if you bring in a huge profit for your publisher, you can pretty much get away with anything you want. But for unknown writers, trying to get a contract, there are just some things that will put an editor off. And these are the things that I want to share with you. The things that I have learned – generally the hard way – not to do.

The trope we are dealing with today is the situation of having two characters discuss something they both already know for the sole purpose of telling the reader about it. In my writing group we tend to refer to it as “As You Know Bob” syndrome or a case of “So tell me again, Professor, how your time machine works.”

Imagine, if you will, a novel that begins with the sentence:

“As you know, Prince Edward, your father, King Henry, has been at war with the neighbouring kingdom of Ilyria for nearly twenty years,” the prince’s aide said.

There is a lot of information here, but since it is all detail that Prince Edward (presumably a major character) already knows, this is a clumsy way of relaying it to the reader. If I were to read a novel starting with this sentence, I doubt I’d get beyond that first line.

The ‘TV Tropes’ website goes into more detail about this particular literary tool, giving examples from film, TV and literature that are guilty of it. Sometimes it can work, but generally it doesn’t, and it is one of those tired old tropes that has been used so often it would put a lot of editors off if they picked up something from the slush pile that uses this. There are generally better ways to get vital information across to the reader. Perhaps one of the easiest examples to pull from popular contemporary TV is Dr Who, where the Doctor’s companion generally plays the role of the ‘Watson’ – the character who is assumed to be less knowledgeable than the audience, and therefore is the mechanism used to allow the main character (ie the Doctor) to explain things, to both the other character and the audience.

To go back to the ‘Time Machine’ example, let’s think about one of Hollywood’s more famous time machines, Doc Brown’s DeLorean in “Back to the Future”. Imagine if the conversation went like this:

MARTY: So tell me again, Doc, how your time machine works.

DOC BROWN: Well, as you know Marty, it is the flux capacitor that makes time travel possible. Let’s go over once more how it works….

In the film, this is not at all how it goes. An ordinary teenage boy plays the perfect ‘Watson’ to Doc Brown’s intellectual ‘Sherlock’, giving him someone to explain everything to. The audience learn about the time machine at the same time Marty does, when he is summoned to the Twin Pines Shopping Mall one October night in 1985. We never find out exactly how the flux capacitor works, but we don’t really need to know – it’s enough to know that it is the magical gadget that makes time travel possible. And it works.

And so there it is, the second commandment of writing – Thou shalt avoid conversations starting with “As You Know”. Join me next week when we explore the third commandment, which is all to do with how not to end your story.

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