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Monday, 26 April 2010

"As you know, your father the King..."



Do you recognise the title of this post?

I'm not sure if it's a commonly used phrase outside of scriptwriting circles, but certainly back when I was writing plays, we used to talk about this concept all the time. It's to do with expository dialogue, hence particularly relevant to scriptwriting, but also applicable to other forms of writing.

"As you know, your father the King..." is a conventional example of really bad dialogue. Not only is it never necessary to tell someone that their father is the King (well, except maybe Oedipus!), any dialogue including the phrase "as you know" should probably start ringing some warning bells!

I wrote about exposition a couple of months back, with a little exercise to show how much can be implied (and inferred by the reader) without resorting to a nasty infodump of expository text.

The whole point of "As you know, your father the King..." is to remind you that allowing the characters to spout exposition is just as bad - if not worse - than doing it in the narrative voice. Characters should never speak out of character; most of the time, that means they're not stating a load of facts.

Think about it. How often do you tell someone something they already know? And if you do have to tell someone a thing you think they should know, you're probably going to get frustrated.

I just re-watched Monsters, Inc. (a film I love) and was struck by the really awkward exposition in the opening scene. Even though the infodump is almost-justified in context by being addressed to some new recruits, it doesn't quite work, because the speech covers some things that everyone in the Monsters world should already know. It just feels stilted.

Films are full of bad dialogue, and if your eyes are open to it, you'll easily spot dozens of examples for yourself. It's a little bit harder to identify with books, but I find that reading the dialogue aloud (without the surrounding description) can help to make sure it flows.

If you get the urge to have your characters relate facts about their situation or their world, just remember to check: is this really for the benefit of the character they're talking to? Or is it a clumsy way of relaying information to the audience?

31 comments:

Lauren said...

Whenever I write, I get a bit paranoid about doing this "As you know, you're father the King..." thing. Lol. Sometimes I feel like my dialogue really stinks all the time, or that I write too much of it and not enough description. I've heard that agents and editors will put away a manuscript if they just thumb through it and see too much of either. The whole thing just really unnerves me.

Ronnica said...

I always laugh when a show like CSI or House has one specialist describe to another what something is...when obviously both characters would know it.

blueviolet said...

I feel bad, but I probably don't notice that stuff and let it go right over my head most of the time.

Hezabelle said...

I'd never heard that before, but it makes so much sense! Definitely something to think about. Thanks for sharing!

Bibliomama said...

So you don't have kids? :) Just kidding, although I do find myself telling my kids things they should already know several times a day (as you know, your mother, the chief housekeeper, prefer that you not tuck your banana peels between the couch cushions). I absolutely agree about bad dialogue, though -- I actually notice it more in books than in movies, which I have to work to watch critically.

Mary said...

It is sometimes an effort to bring folks who have not seen the prior episode up to speed. Other than that I can't defend the practice. You have the makings of a great teacher. I hope you are having a wonderful day. Blessings...Mary

The Blonde Duck said...

Oh no. I've got to go back and inspect all my dialouge now.

MargoPego said...

Thanks for the welcome to SITS on my blog. :) I haven't had a chance to really be busy there, but I still appreciate the welcome. :)

Yes, it was a lot of riding, but well worth it! :D

~Melody @ 6 Feet Over~ said...

Oh crap. Don't read my blog.

hehehe

I'm sure I do similar things all the time. I am super critical of movies, but mainly about the editing. I catch things like the actors hair being different or a button unbuttoned from shot to shot. People hate to sit next to me. I'm trying to be quiet in order to let them just enjoy the movie.

~melody~

rinth1989 said...

Hi Rachel --

Thank you for the good advice! I am an aspiring writer, so it's good to learn from people with more experience doing it.

Have a great week!

Kazzy said...

It seems like the only real use for a line like that would be if his mother, the Queen, was threatening him!

Heidi Ashworth said...

You hear a lot of this going on in T.V. shows. I have always heard it referred to as "idiot's talk" b/c the person listening would have to be an idiot not to know what's being said. However, the T.V. audience often doesn't. T.V. has gotten a whole lot smarter, though. There are many shows these days that do not resort to idiot's talk so you really have to pay attention. Thank goodness for my DVR so that I can instantly scroll back if I miss something.

JoeyRes said...

I'm good at spotting bad writing in films but I'm sure I would be guilty of perpetrating some bad writing on the world if I were in their shoes.

My favorite show with awful writing: Smallville. Does anyone really talk like that?

Of course I'm probably the only Superman geek that watches it!

Melissa B. said...

Stephen King talks about this a bit in his book, On Writing. Some pieces are just so darn wooden, aren't they?

Jen said...

Such a good post. As a writer I feel like I am too wordy trying to explain everything! I guess there are times we need to let our readers do some infering when reading our writing.

Now I have to go watch Monsters Inc too see what you're talking about!

Thanks for stopping by and helping me celebrate my SITS day!!

Jen

Heather @ Gerber Days said...

Wow this is some deep stuff, and I completely agree! I haven't really noticed this, but then again I wasn't looking for it. I guess a WELL written movie/book, wouldn't do this. It would take a lot more thought however. I like how you refer to it as LAZY, because really.... thats exactly what it is.

You are one smart cookie!

Mademoiselle Poirot said...

Isn't "As you know..." a bit like "No offence, but..." You know exactly what's coming next ;-) Great post, I'm not a writer and have to admit I don't pay too much attention to these things, but I love it when somebody points them out to me. Thanks for sharing, Love from London x

Louiz said...

Interesting point, and I'll make a point of noticing next time I'm watching or reading something and that happens!

ScoMan said...

I have to tell people stuff they know all the time. And I do get frustrated by it.

It's mostly my coworkers.

But I never start my sentences with "As you know", and I certainly don't end them with "your father, the King".. because if I did that I'd probably just confuse them.

Please don't tell me the Saw movies are full of bad dialogue. Don't take that away from me.

Also, don't analyse the language used in my blog (or my comments) too critically. Thanks =)

Kasia said...

That's a very good post - something I always find myself doing when writing fiction and always have to edit - which results in pages of what I call 'extra info' - things that I need to re-use in the narrative. BTW - can you recommend me some creative writing books? It's been ages since I've had any training in the matter and some revision wouldn't hurt :)

Debbie said...

In conversation, I can't stand the phrase, "No offense, but...". Seems to me that anything starting with that phrase is bound to offend me.

Writing Without Periods! said...

Great advice. I'd never heard that term before, "As you know your father the king." Ha.
Mary

Jeanne said...

I have a critique partner who's a Nazi about expository dialogue.

How lucky is that?

(Which is what I think most of the time, except when I'm sulking because I have to figure out how to relay the information without using the cheat.)

A 2 Z said...

As you know Rachel, the blogger, you always write interesting posts. I never even heard about it before your post. See, I knew blogging was "edumecational". Thanks for visiting my blog Rachel!

Michelle Faith said...

HI, great post...you must be a very bright girl. I'll have to check back for more tip. :) As you know, I'm a blogger with a blog I write on and need to keep in-line.
Thanks for stopping by blissful babble.

Double Wide Mom said...

What a wonderful tip. Thank you so much and I'm so glad SITS brought us together. I look forward to more writing tips, particularly for script writing.

The Mother said...

Not to mention unoriginal.

Chad Zahara said...

This entry is one of the reasons why I love your blog. What you say is so true. I had written an entry in my private journal about this a while back and another entry on how I am glad that I have the ability to turn off my mind and just enjoy some movies and books.

I am quite critical by nature. This can be very helpful when wanting to do something great, but also a major hindrance when trying to enjoy something that means to only entertain. James Bond films are a great example of this. Does it really matter that he has a car that can drive underwater with minor modifications? No. It matters that I am having fun. But this actually took some practice. I had a period where I did not enjoy "fun" films and books because I would be derailed by their flaws. It just took time adapt.

Anyway, now I am rambling. My point is: Great entry!

bellsknits.com said...

it's one of my pet hates!! Australian drama or comedy does this stuff a lot - it kind of assumes the audience is too dumb to pay attention and needs reminders. Ugh.

Holly said...

I find myself doing this is my first drafts or when I overthink what I am doing...it almost always gets edited out when I come to my senses. Some movie dialgoue is just awful.

Lauren @ Embrace the Detour said...

I guess I missed this post! Just reading it now. I think it's so cool that you give these writing tips. So important. As I'm trying to figure out what my blog will look like post Day #100, seeing how other writers are using theirs is really helpful (and fun!) Cool stuff.

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