As You Know, Bob—Cheating with Dialog

As You Know, Bob—Cheating with Dialog

I didn’t come up with this term about dialog so I thank whoever in my distant past introduced me to the concept.

What is an As-you-know-Bob? Sometimes, they’re easy to spot. As you know, Bob, I’m short and plump or As you know, Bob, I’m carrying a mysterious package. These are obvious and silly but they can slip into dialog in other ways.

As you know, Bob, my brother and I have not spoken for forty years and this is my attempt at reconciliation.


As you know, Bob, my daughter is really beautiful and attracts all kinds of unwanted attention.

Would this happen in real life? Wouldn’t you get Well, of course I know—why are you telling me again? The characters in your narrative should be no less sharp.

What’s so bad about dialog which is As-you-know-Bob?

Well, as sins of the world go, it’s not right up there. There are more egregious items just in the writing sphere.

Still, it’s a bit of a cheat. It is an economical but not effective way to communicate information the reader needs (e.g. relationship to main protagonist, history of the divorce) by pretending to remind Bob even though he already knows it. Otherwise, why say As you know?.

Avoiding As-you-know-Bobs

Let’s take the two examples from above and redo them to avoid the A-Y-K,B.

You: My brother called last night.
Bob: Really? How long has it been?
You: God, maybe going on forty years.
Bob: What did he want?
You: Trying to get back in my good graces, I guess.
Bob: So, what are you gonna do?
You: I dunno. Maybe try to meet him half-way.

Here, Bob knows the situation and can ask intelligent questions which the reader wants to know also. You can move the story forward without telescoping everything into an A-Y-K,B.

Second example.

You: I’m pissed.
Bob: What?
You: That jerk Dan keeps calling Jenny.
Bob: You don’t like him?
You: He’s just another one after her for her looks.
Bob: There’ve been a few like that, haven’t there?

Generally speaking, a more vivid way to portray a situation is to use a specific example from which the general conclusion can be drawn. You are pissed about Dan not just about young men in general. Avoiding an A-Y-K,B allows you to put more meat on the fictional bones.

Doesn’t this take longer?

Yes, and what’s your point? Again, the aim is not to get your reader to the end of your piece in record time, but to engage her in what feels like a real world.

As you know, Bob, this is what you want to do. The next post will walk you through identifying and fixing A-Y-K-Bs in your writing.

More on One True Thing


More on One True Thing

In the last post, I discussed Meryl Streep’s approach to acting, which she summarizes as ‘one true thing.’ If she can find one important aspect of the character she is playing that is true for her as well, she can use that one true thing to guide her choices when portraying the character. I think this has application for writers, although it’s not an easy road.

Struggling with one true thing

I suppose that if I were a better person, I would identify one true thing for every major character I write. But in truth, I only use it when I’m having trouble with one.

In my semi-autobiographical novel, Kimono Spring [add hyperlink], I struggled for the longest time with the mother character. It was hard not to overlay how I felt about her, what I knew about her in years beyond where the novel was set, and generally get out of the way of allowing her to be who she was going to be on the page.

I wrote and rewrote the mother’s scenes but she always seemed distant or mechanical or whatever. Wrong in any case. I wanted the reader to understand even if they couldn’t condone the character’s actions. I didn’t feel as if I was getting anywhere.

Then I sat myself down and seriously did the one true thing. An image came to me of a woman drowning. It clicked. When a person is drowning, they grab onto anything or anyone, even if they drag the person in with them. A woman drowning is too desperate to notice or care whom she is hurting. I had almost actually drowned when I was quite young. I could use that experience to inform how the character must feel and write from that. So, while technical skill is also required, I was still able to use the image to create a character which was closer to what I wanted for her.

Trying one true thing

We all occasionally have characters who are distant, elusive, or just feel wrong. Try using one true thing.

What is true about this character that is also true about you? There could of course be any number of things but here I think you are looking for the essence of the character, what makes him pivotal to your narrative.

Is it that he fears people will find out that he isn’t the good person they think he is?

  • When have you presented yourself under false pretenses?
  • Why did you do it?
  • How did that make you feel?
  • What were you thinking?

Let the emotion of your experience infuse your character so that he acts from that truth which you understand.

Similarly, you want the character to be a free spirit but everything about her is sodden and leaden.

  • Think about a time when you felt you could do whatever you wanted (whether true or not).
  • How did you feel?
  • Where did the joy come from?

Find the part of you that is also a free spirit and write from that place.

So, one true thing. Isn’t the only way to tackle a character, of course, but I’ve found it useful. And who knows, if we use it, we may become Meryl.

One untrue thing.

Meryl Streep’s One True Thing

Meryl Streep’s One True Thing

Have you ever seen Inside the Actors’ Studio? It was a long running show which interviewed actors about their craft. They have interviewed some greats, one of whom was Meryl Streep.

Is there anything the woman can’t do? She does drama to perfection, sings at performance level, and even though I was a bit doubtful whether she could move into comedy, was killer in The Devil Wears Prada.

Streep’s one true thing

To add insult to injury, she is exceptionally articulate about her craft. James Lipton, the host, asked how she could play unsympathetic characters, specifically an Australian woman in A Cry in the Dark, who was accused of murdering her infant daughter. In this biographical film, the woman was a Seventh Day Adventist who believed that showing emotion was inappropriate as it questioned God’s plan for her. This stoicism was read as unfeeling by the Australian public which turned against her. Thus, Streep had to play a seemingly cold and insensitive character.

Streep replied that when she prepared for a role, she tried to find the ‘one true thing’ which was true about herself and about the character. Once she found that one important thing, she could consult this one true thing within herself when she was making choices for her character. If it felt right for Meryl’s one true thing, it was also right for the character.

I think this is pretty damn brilliant and writers can take a leaf out of her book. Finding one true thing in our characters.

Applying one true thing

So, I have tried it with my writing. What I have found is that there is a spot in the middle of my chest, don’t ask me why, where that connection is made between me and my character. If I really get her desperation, why he would take such a big risk, who she is behind closed doors, then I can write from that spot because I feel what the character is feeling, even if the circumstances which I associate with the feeling might be different from the character’s.

If I can take into me the thing that is true for the character which is also true for me, I can write from that spot in the middle of my chest which connects me with the character in a deeper way than conventional methods.

For more, go to the next post, More on One True Thing.

Reality—‘This is How it Really Happened’–is No Defense


Reality—‘This is How it Really Happened’–is No Defense

Sometimes a writer will be told that whatever scenario he’s written doesn’t work to which he may indignantly reply, “But that’s how it happened!” and assume that reality is an acceptable defense.

News. It is not.

As we discussed in a previous post, Fiction is Not Life, story-telling has requirements which can be, and often are, quite different from real life. Without realizing it, readers expect the conventions of fiction to be followed even if they are unaware that they exist.

Why reality is not an adequate defense

If the world were fair, you’d just have to record your searing experiences and that intensity would be communicated to the reader. Sometimes that happens but sometimes it doesn’t.

Whether autobiography or memoir or even just a thinly disguised piece of reality in your fiction, you can’t possibly record every moment even if you could remember them. Bowel movements and grocery shopping are not usually the stuff of drama. Therefore, as a writer, you are constantly making choices of what to include, what to emphasize, what to ignore. It is in these choices that things can go off the rails.

An example

Say you want to write about the death of a friend in a car accident. There are any number of things you could choose to include in the account:

  • The road conditions
  • The condition of the car
  • The police report
  • The bystanders’ reactions
  • The time of day
  • The make of the car
  • The driving experience of the friend
  • Others in the car
  • The conversation in the car before the accident
  • The background to the friend’s erratic driving
  • How you met the friend
  • Your reaction to the news of his death
  • The condition of the car after the accident
  • His relatives’ reactions

I’ll quit now but I wasn’t even trying hard to generate the list. The list could probably go on for quite a while. You have to make choices of what to include in your story.

How do I make reality compelling?

Say you intend to focus on your reaction to the death. Then it’s possible that the first part of the list will not help you hone in on your story and will either bore your reader or make it feel more mechanical than you intend.

You need to pick the elements of the event which are dramatically interesting even, or perhaps especially, in a piece that is close to your heart. If you don’t, you will not be able to communicate its importance. As I mentioned at the beginning of the post, readers unconsciously expect writing to follow the conventions of fiction and are kicked out of the continuous dream if you don’t.

So use auto-biographical material by all means, but make sure you pick those elements of the event or events which are both dramatically interesting and which support your intent.

And quit saying, “But this is how it really happened!”

Fiction is Not Life


Fiction is Not Life

I know you know this but, in fact, good fiction makes you forget. Maybe it’s even its job to do so, to make you feel as if it is real life. That’s great for a reader but as a writer, you need to know the underlying conventions of fiction.

How fiction differs from real life

Lives have to be in crisis.

In real life, we want things to go our way. Disasters are, well, disasters and disruptive to our preferred way of living.

In fiction, a story without obstacles to overcome and crises to transcend— first, isn’t a story, and second, is boring.

The story has to be credible.

In real life, all kinds of incredible things happen. I remember watching a documentary where a Jewish woman escaped the death camps with the help of a Nazi responsible for sending people to them; she married an SS officer who knew she was Jewish; and was shunned by other Jews after the war because she had not gone to a concentration camp. Would anybody believe that if you put it in fiction?

In fiction, readers are loath to believe the inherently unbelievable. It strains their credulity (and breaks the continuous dream) if too many coincidences, strokes of luck, or people acting out of character occur. Even though all of these can happen in real life.

Readers expect a resolution.

In real life, life is messy. You’ll never know whose daughter Becky really is; or what possessed your best friend to marry the jerk. We accept that we’re not always going to know the answer or how things turn out.

In fiction, a narrative without a resolution is disconcerting for the reader. Sebastian Faulks (whose novel Engleby I adored) wrote A Week in December with a would-be suicide bomber character. Presumably I missed some deeper meaning but the novel felt unresolved for me because I didn’t understand why the character decided against bombing. Generally, fiction requires a kind of closure often not available nor possible in real life.

An ordered progression is necessary.

In real life, our conversations and arguments go all over the place. We repeat and diverge, recap and wander. The conversation can zig and zag but still fully engage.

In fiction, dialog which bounces around like real conversation is usually confusing and ultimately boring for the reader. Without realizing it, the reader expects that arguments will build on each other to some kind of conclusion.

Character’s actions have to be consistent.

In real life, we know people can be petty one moment and generous the next; caring one and callous the next. Nobody is totally predictable.

In fiction, a character which has opposing traits will kick the reader out. Hey, I thought he was selfish—what’s with sacrificing himself? Characters who aren’t consistent can be portrayed but you’d better be prepared to explain why.

See? The conventions of fiction are actually quite different from real life but we must adhere to them to give the reader the feeling of real life. Confusing, no?