As You Know, Bob, When Henry VII Founded the Tudor Dynasty . . .

One of the biggest pitfalls which can befall the historical novelist is what has been called the  “As you know, Bob” syndrome. This is where the writer, needing to give the reader some necessary information, has one character impart it in a conversation with the other character, as in “As you know, Edward, in 1485 Henry Tudor defeated Richard III at Bosworth Field, thereby beginning the Tudor dynasty.”

The main problem with this sort of device (which I’ve been guilty of using myself) is that too often, the character being addressed doesn’t need the information: he knows perfectly well what happened in 1485. It’s the equivalent of one modern-day American adult telling another in casual conversation, “As you know, Dave, in the 2008 election, Barack Obama became the first African-American president of the United States by defeating John McCain . . . ”

“As you know, Bob”  often crops up in first-person narratives. I recently gave up  on one novel where the author forced one character to give the listening character about fifty years’ worth of dynastic information in three or four paragraphs: the result read more like a genealogical table with quotation marks added than a dialogue between two human beings. Third-person narratives, however, are by no means immune to the syndrome. One of the most egregious examples I saw was in a third-person narration set during the Wars of the Roses where two young women, who had known each other for years and who saw each other regularly, were made to recount about ten years of recent history to each other, as if both had recently emerged from comas.

There are some instances when “As you know, Bob” can sound natural. One is when the character being addressed is ignorant of what’s being told him, for instance, where a child is being given a history lesson. (This can get dull for the reader awfully fast, though, if not used sparingly.) Sometimes the speaker can be made to have the habit of stating the obvious, thereby putting the dialogue to double duty as both a means of showing character and of informing the reader. At other times, the character on the receiving end can be made to protest, “Well, I knew that already. What do you think I am, a fool?”

A close cousin of “As you know, Bob” is the “your father, the King of England” syndrome, as in, “Mary, you know your father, the King of England, would not approve of these measures.” This can work in some contexts, such as where the characters are speaking very formally or where the speaker wants to emphasize the gravity of the situation, but too often it’s employed just to let the reader know, or to remind him, that Mary is the king’s daughter.

Both the “As you know, Bob” and the “your father, the King of England” syndrome  in historical fiction arise, I think, from the admonition to authors to “show, don’t tell.” The dread of being caught in the act of “telling” means that instead of using narration to give the reader information, the author makes the characters do the job in dialogue. Of course, all the author is doing is making the characters do her dirty work for her.

The key to avoiding these syndromes, and the other literary sin of extended exposition, is to weave the historical background into the story unobtrusively as possible. This is by no means easy, as I can certainly testify; as I said earlier, I’ve been caught as-you-know-Bobbing myself. I’ll keep trying to avoid it. In the meantime, to get it out of our systems, perhaps writers should take a cue from “Talk Like a Pirate Day” and have an “As You Know, Bob” day. What about it?

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10 Responses to As You Know, Bob, When Henry VII Founded the Tudor Dynasty . . .

  1. Robin says:

    I have certainly had instances in novels where I find myself thinking “I’m sure that character doesn’t need to be told that!” One instance that comes to mind is in a recent novel where a child’s nurse seems to feel that she has to remind the mother how old her child is…

  2. Susan Higginbotham says:

    Hi, Robin! Yeah, I remember that one. That was pretty bad.

  3. Kathryn says:

    My absolute favourite As You Know, Bob dialogue of all time, from the first scene of one novel:

    – “Your uncle, John de Warenne, and your brother, Lynx, will soon be arranging your marriage.”
    – “Your shining silver-gilt hair and pale green eyes make a perfect foil for the sultry dark colouring I inherited from my mother’s Castilian ancestors.”
    – “That happened the year after your brother wed Sylvia Bigod, the queen’s lady-in-waiting.”
    – “Gilbert de Clare, Earl of Gloucester, is England’s premier noble.”

    :-) :-)

  4. Gabriele says:

    The heroine is named LYNX? :O

  5. Karen says:

    Well said, Susan! This drives me nuts as well! One of my favourites is this:
    “Your husband, Richard Neville, Earl of Salisbury, and your son, Sir Thomas Neville, along with Richard, Duke of York and his son, Edmund Earl of Rutland, have been slain.” and this was after a loooooong exposition about the battle concerned. I’m sure shock and grief can do many things, but make you forget the names of your son and husband? Not so sure.
    It’s particularly a pitfall of HF first personned by a woman. There’s either way to much clumsy exposition via third parties, or she’s hiding in a bush somewhere, or disguised as a boy.

  6. boswellbaxter says:

    Kathryn, that’s a classic, isn’t it?

    Gabriele, as I recall it’s either the hero or another male character who’s named Lynx, but that’s not much of an improvement. (The novel is set during Edward II’s reign.)

    Karen, that’s painful! And then there’s the old listening at a keyhole bit . . .

  7. Gabriele says:

    Well, if it’s a male character named Lynx, I’m pretty sure the heroine is named Amber, or Crystal or something. :)

  8. boswellbaxter says:

    Worse. If I recall correctly, her name is Brianna.

  9. Linda Chesson says:

    One way to avoid the “As you know, Bob” method is to employ what I call the “recall”. It is best employed where the story spans many hundreds or even thousands of years. Edmund Rutherford (for one) has used it especially well to weave a storyline over many years’ time simply by utilizing a particular characteristic which the reader sees on one person in 42 A.D and also in 251
    A..D., thus explaining (without the “As you know, Bob” device) that these two people are related, or whatever fact the author wishes to put forth.

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