Psst. Yeah you. I’ve talked to Bob, and you’re pissing him off. He thinks you’re a pretentious know-it-all, and people are leaving the cocktail party in droves. They didn’t come here to listen to the same old stories. Oh bloody hell. That literary agent just walked out. You have any idea how hard it was to get her here in the first place?!
Wait. You look confused.
Ok, I’ll back up. If you’re a new writer, it’s possible you have absolutely no idea what I’m going on about. That’s ok. Because you are precisely the person I’m writing this article for.
That’s an image of a HorribleWriteTip meme I created a while back and shared with folks on social media. It’s a joke, of course—see the smiling, slobbering skeleton?—but like most jokes, it’s pointing at reality. In this case, it’s referring to a very real error new writers are prone to commit. That error is called an “As you know, Bob….” And if you have absolutely no idea how to properly handle your back story or other expository material, you’re in danger of committing it.
Let’s take a look at some obvious examples, and then have a chat about possible ways to avoid it. But first, why are we at risk?
My Research Is Awesome
That’s what we all think, right? And in many ways it is. We spend an inordinate amount of time learning the finer details of a very narrow subject, all for the purpose of typing a single sentence in many cases. Sometimes a single word. While writing Necromancer Awakening, I spent about three days reading everything I could on medieval naval operations and modern fishing techniques, all so that I could properly refer to an object as a “purse-sein” net (a huge wall of netting used to catch large schools of fish en masse).
And guess what. That scene was ultimately cut before publication. [That’s ok. Don’t feel sorry for me. I swore that one day I’d write a blog article where I could tell people what a “purse-sein” is. And I renew my pledge. One day I shall write that article! Oh, wait…]
When we spend so much time and effort learning something, it’s natural to want to share it. After all, we’re fascinated by it! Certainly our readers will be fascinated too, right?
Sometimes. It depends.
I often speak about the concept of serving the story. If what you’re about to write serves the story, then yes, your readers will likely be interested. But that interest will be based heavily on how you present the information.
Let’s take a look at a caricature of what you might be tempted to do after spending days learning about fishing nets.
“All right, lads,” the captain said. “Drop anchor and get started. Bosun Jones, do you have a plan yet?”
“Well, captain, we have an array of purse sein nets. And as you know, they’re called purse seins because they’re comprised of a bunch of rings through which a purse line is pulled. Our purse seins close to a diameter of more than a hundred yards, though some purse seins are even larger, depending on the specific fishing operation. When we pull the line tight, it closes the net just like a purse, preventing the fish from swimming down to escape. Because of this, its use is heavily regulated. But since we’re more than seven kilometers off shore, we’re legal.”
<Sigh> I need a minute. I feel icky now.
Hopefully this example is so obvious that you’d never dream of writing expository information this way, even if you had no idea what an “as you know, Bob” was before reading this. But it illustrates a point. In this specific case, the term “purse sein” is loaded with specialized information that our average reader is unlikely to be aware of. What do we do with that information?
I’ve often said that back story and exposition is handled best through conflict. And I’m just as often asked what the hell I mean by that. Let’s take another stab at the above passage, but this time let’s try to push our back story as far to the back as possible, and let’s see if we can make the exposition interesting with a little conflict. In other words, let’s make our writing serve multiple purposes.
“All right, lads,” the captain said. “Drop anchor and get started. Bosun Jones, do you have a plan yet?”
Bosun Jones stroked his beard as he approached the captain. This was his shot. They’d managed to get some distance on the school of mutant, killer halibut, but that distance was closing fast. He had to get this right.
“The purse seins, Captain,” Bosun Jones said. “They’re our best—”
“We tried that already, you idiot!”
“No, sir. With respect, we didn’t!”
“What do you mean?”
“We tried the Danish because the XO thought we could outmaneuver them. I’m talking about laying down the purse this time, but we have to start now!”
The first officer had been staring over the port side rail, but turned at mention of his name.
“We only have one chance at this,” the captain said.
“Trust me, sir,” Bosun Jones said. “We’ll trap them in the middle, pull the line and zip them up, nice and tight. We won’t make the same mistake again.”
The captain glanced at the first officer, who nodded in response.
“Make it so,” the captain said.
It’s first-draft quality, but I hope you see the difference. The first version was sterile. It was as if we were attending a lecture on fishing nets and associated legislation. Great for university. Horrible for drama.
In the second version, you get the sense that something’s happening and failure comes at a price. It’s not the freaking net that’s important! It’s whether or not the mutant grandma-raping halibut are going to make their way to Oslo and eat the villagers! (Are there villagers in Oslo? I don’t know. But there are probably grandmas, and I doubt they’d take kindly to being raped by amorous fish.)
It all boils down to this: your back story/research is never as important as you think it is. It should be sprinkled in like salt and never overshadow the story itself.
BACK STORY IS NOT STORY.
If there’s anything you should repeat to yourself, or sticky on your monitor, it’s that. (And, as an aside, this will help you avoid the wrong type of prologue. But that’s a different topic for a different article.)
So remember. Whenever you’re about to have one character tell another character something THEY ALREADY KNOW, you’re about to commit an “as you know, Bob.”
As you know, I have a comments section below. [Couldn’t resist.] So drop me a line and tell me I have no idea what I’m talking about. Oh wait…that would sorta be an “As you know, Bob.”
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About Nat Russo
Nat Russo is the Amazon #1 Bestselling Fantasy author of Necromancer Awakening and Necromancer Falling. Nat was born in New York, raised in Arizona, and has lived just about everywhere in-between. He’s gone from pizza maker, to radio DJ, to Catholic seminarian (in a Benedictine monastery, of all places), to police officer, to software engineer. His career has taken him from central Texas to central Germany, where he worked as a defense contractor for Northrop Grumman. He's spent most of his adult life developing software, playing video games, running a Cub Scout den, gaining/losing weight, and listening to every kind of music under the sun. Along the way he managed to earn a degree in Philosophy and a black belt in Tang Soo Do. He currently makes his home in central Texas with his wife, teenager, mischievous beagle, and goofy boxador.
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Great bit of information!
Glad you enjoyed it, Sandra!
Great post, especially this line: your back story/research is never as important as you think it is. It should be sprinkled in like salt and never overshadow the story itself.
Massive back story dumps is one of the most common things I see from newbie writers in my critique group – and they’re usually in the first chapter! I think I’ve said a variation of that line dozens of times through my glazed over vision.
Haha! I know what you mean by that “glazed over vision”. My eyes glazed over while I was writing the first version of the example in this article. I think it took a couple of rum and cokes to get through it with my sanity. 🙂
Hours of research for one word–I’ve been there!
This problem is endemic in fantasy and sci-fi and is probably one of the biggest challenges of the genre.
Only slightly less problematic is a similar scene in which you’ve got one knowledgeable character and one clueless one, which some well-meaning writers seem to think gives them license for a pages-long infodump in the guise of a conversation, never mind that the hapless receptacle of this information might be unlikely to sit still for the entire thing.
I’ve always liked the metaphor of a meal for writing. Just as you can’t make a whole meal out of cheesecake even if you love cheesecake, you have to mix the back story up and approach it from a variety of ways.
I think one thing that’s lost on newbie writers is that sometimes the best thing you can do is just leave the exposition out altogether. Describe the action as it would happen for the characters, and let the readers figure things out on their own.
Spot on, Michael! It can be difficult to grasp at first, but it’s amazing how much better a story becomes without the “back story in your face” approach. Sometimes it just doesn’t matter to anyone except the writer. I tell writers all the time: show us an interesting person doing an interesting thing, and we’ll get on board. Don’t stop to tell us about the interesting things that happened “once upon a time” in your story world, unless it has direct bearing on the moment.
Well done, Captain! Thanks for the insight!
Haha! Thanks for stopping by. 🙂
Great post, Nat!
I wrote a post on my blog, https://johntmherres.wordpress.com/2013/02/08/writing-fight-scenes/ , where I relayed my own experience with doing extensive research to aid my story, just to end up not using it. As stated there:
“But I realized that, unless one who has also done that research, or has actually taken part in such activity, most of the terms would throw the reader off track, for they would have to do their own research to figure out what the heck I was describing.”
I know I don’t like, when reading, to hit a word or phrase I don’t know and am inclined to look up just to understand what’s written. I try to find a way to help the reader to at least understand the idea of the word so they can guess at the meaning without having to grab (or load) a dictionary. (The optimum word here is TRY.)
There are loads of situations I come up with in writing my “Barbarian” story, and a bit of it happened before this tale. A hundred years before this one. It has, in fact, reinforced the need to write a prequel in order to share how this story came about.
But, that’s a story for another time.
Thank you, John!
In Erindor, I’ve had to invent so much foreign culture (and associated terms), that I had to learn the art of helping the reader understand through context. You should read some of the early drafts of Necromancer Awakening. I shudder when I see all the times I actually stopped to define a term. Ouch.
Thanks for stopping by!
“As you know,” we all need to work on showing, not telling. ;>) Loved the post, Nat!
Haha! Thanks, Mitch!
As always, great post. I only have the one question: is the halibut going to eat or rape the poor people of Oslo? Or are they a cross between preying mantis and halibut? Wait – that’s it, isn’t it? That’s the mutation you were talking about! Damn…
They are going to both eat and rape the poor people of Oslo. However, it’s uncertain in which order they’re going to do this.
Nice example Nat. 🙂
Thank you, Martyn! And Thanks for stopping by!
As you know Nat, you are sharing gold.
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Very nice examples. They clearly demonstrate how research can be used effectively in writing and still be entertaining. 🙂
Many thanks! It can be hard to tone done the passion for our research, when it comes to actually writing about what we’ve learned. 🙂
You’re welcome. And indeed, it can be difficult to decide how much the reader needs and want to know. 🙂
Here’s a lesson you must learn
First you pillage, THEN you burn
Lovely piece 🙂