A Quick Way To Improve “As You Know, Bob”

I’ve been reading Abraham Merritt’s The Ship of Ishtar recently and this paragraph jumped out at me tonight:

“From here and there comes the food,” answered the Viking. “It is a ship of warlocks and a cursed one. Not long may it stop at any place, nor at any place is it welcome. Nay, not even at Emakhtila, which is full of warlocks. Where it harbors they bring food and gear quickly and with fear. Quickly do they give to speed it quickly away, lest the demons who possess it grow angry and destroy. They have strong magic—that pale son of Hela and the woman on the white deck. Sometimes I think her a daughter of Loki, whom Odin chained for his wickedness. And sometimes I think her a daughter of Freya, the Mother of Gods. But whatever she be, she is very fair and has a great soul. I have no hatred toward her.”

This is the line in particular that caught my eye:

“Sometimes I think her a daughter of Loki, whom Odin chained for his wickedness. And sometimes I think her a daughter of Freya, the Mother of Gods.”

To me, this is a classic example of “As You Know, Bob” with an obvious solution.

For those who don’t know, “As You Know, Bob” is used to describe a sort of clumsy exposition in which characters talk about things the readers need to know, but in a way that feels unrealistic as there’s no obvious reason a character would need to say something like that out loud.

Like, for example, a Viking feeling the need to add details about who Loki and Freya is to someone who’s already previously sworn by Odin.

Now, the idea of good writing craft might have changed some since Merritt’s day (The Ship of Ishtar was published in 1924) but if someone showed those sentences to their friends today, someone would call it out. Maybe not many – it’s a fairly innocuous example – but some.

If an author felt the need to make sure we were familiar with the Norse gods though, why not have the Viking make comparisons? Something like:

“Sometimes I think her a daughter of Loki; she is cunning enough to make Odin wish her chained up with Loki too. And sometimes I think her a daughter of Freya, for she is as noble and generous as the Mother of Gods”.

Those are clumsy unlovely sentences to be sure that possibly use the wrong comparisons – they’re the bad version of a good idea. But it is, hopefully, a good idea. The reader gets the information, and gets more information about the woman on the white deck, and the Viking, and it feels more natural and immersive. At least it would with good sentences.

People give extraneous information all the time. It is, even allowing for our expectations of drama not quite matching those of real life, perfectly possible to give a lot of exposition through character dialogue without invoking “As You Know, Bob” on a wide basis. It is just about finding the right reason to do so and where possible, sneaking in extra detail under the radar while we do it.

Hopefully that all made sense!

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