As You Know Bob: The Art of Bad Dialogue

Writing teachers and editors are constantly harping on us writers to stop dumping information in our manuscripts. They urge us to show back story or exposition though dialogue. Well, there’s a sinister backside to this technique. It’s what I call: As you know, Bob.

Here is where the author simply dresses up the exposition with a few “he said” or “she said”s. In the end, it’s still an info dump. Often it starts with the phrase: “As you know (name)…”

I trolled the Internet for examples. Of course, this is the sort of dialogue that one forgets easily, so I went to the one source I knew had bad dialogue: Ed Wood’s Plan 9 From Outer Space. Witness and cringe.

Lieutenant John Harper: It was a saucer.
Patrolman Larry: A flying saucer? What makes you say that?
Lieutenant John Harper: You remember the noise we heard the other night?
Patrolman Larry: We were knocked to the ground, how could I forget?

The viewers have already seen the previous scene with the strange noise. There’s no need to bring it up again.

Patrolman Larry: But what about the blinding light?
Lieutenant John Harper: Well haven’t you heard? Many times a saucer hasn’t had a glow, or a light of any kind for that matter.

Here we have an obvious attempt to explain the functions of flying saucers through dialogue. Most scifi movies of the 1950s were loaded with this sort of info dump. Ed Wood only took his to the highest level.

You may be thinking that this kind of atrocity would never happen to you. But beware the trap. Slipping back story in to dialogue is an excellent tool, but make sure that the characters are speaking in a natural way. Take this for example:

“My mother just died,” she said.
“Your mother. You mean Jessica?” he asked.

Here, the author wants to establish that the mother’s name is Jessica, but no one asks this sort of thing. I mean, how many mothers do most people have? Does someone have to clarify with a name?

As you write, be aware of how obvious you are with your dialogue. Don’t crack your readers over the skull.

Tim Kane

About Tim Kane

Tim Kane is a writer of fiction.
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4 Responses to As You Know Bob: The Art of Bad Dialogue

  1. Ahh, the infamous Ed Wood, LOL! I loved everything about this, Tim. NICE! My post script is that the best way to avoid this is to read your copy OUT LOUD. Works almost every time. But then, you already know that! More hugs.

  2. Ana Hart says:

    LOL. Oh, this was great. I really can’t stand the blatantly obvious info dumps via dialogue (but I’m kind of a whore for well-written dialogue, so I suppose I’m a little biased).

    Great post!

    -Ana Hart from XOXO and All That Jazz

  3. Pingback: Top Picks Thursday 08-02-2012 « The Author Chronicles

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