A literary trope in a story is like a cliché with impunity. It’s a recognizable convention, but if the author knows what to do, it can be used to great effect. Any writer looking for ways to add useful details and situations to a narrative will find tropes helpful. As such, this series of posts analyzes the endless well of information that is TVTropes.org (from a literary perspective).
The Literary Trope: As You Know
TV Tropes defines the trope as follows:
Terry Pratchett refers to the fantasy fiction version as the “As you know, your father, the king…” speech.
This is one of those tropes that has few redeeming qualities.
My take on tropes throughout this series of columns has been that they are useful to learn because they can expand your narrative retinue. But, above all, you don’t want to just import them into your story from other stories; rather, you want to creatively incorporate them in a manner that suits the story and entertains the reader.
This trope is very hard to incorporate with any creativity.
Why You Need “As You Know”
Despite my dislike for this trope, I can’t deny its value.
Exposition and infodumps are killers. They can stop a narrative dead, bore a reader, aggravate a potential publisher. Despite all that, you cannot write a story without copious amounts of exposition.
“As You Know” is a way of adding necessary exposition through dialogue, thus freeing your narrator from being solely responsible for it.
The problem with as you know is that it’s the kind of trope that can only exist in story world. How many times have you walked up to your parents and said things like: “As you know, you are my parents, and…” People just talk, they don’t do ‘as you know’ unless they are being snarky.
Nonetheless, there will come a time when you need to use dialogue for exposition. Chances are your reader will know exactly what you’re doing when you do this; you’ll feel ashamed, your reader will be embarrassed for you. It’ll all be awkward. Here are some ways to make it as seamless as possible.
How to Make Sure this Literary Trope Doesn’t Become a Cliche
Some overall ways it can work:
- Make a joke out of it. Perhaps a character is in ‘as you know’ mode, but rather than letting the listening character just take it and nod his head, make him annoyed at the exposition. Perhaps the as you know character is taunting the listening character with information he doesn’t want to think about again.
- Make it real. Sometimes we really do need to jog the memories of the people in our lives. People remind me of things all the time–namely, things I didn’t care about when I first heard them. If the listener forgot something because he doesn’t care then that can work (it’s no longer ‘as you know’ but ‘as you should know…but never care to remember…).
- Use sarcasm. Pratchett is right to call this the “as you know, your father, the king…” trope for fantasy writers. Those lines are difficult to stomach but omnipresent. When spun through the sarcasm machine, however, it can work: So you’ve been secretly spying on the court and selling our secrets to our enemies. Yeah, no one will care too much about that. Except, you know, maybe…um…your father…the KING.
What makes this trope truly deadly is that many others have already quite successfully used the above methods for escaping it’s badness, so that, for example, the ‘turn it into a joke’ method is almost a trope in and of itself. There are tons of examples of other writers using the ‘as you know’ as a knowing wink to the audience in order to rid themselves of the bad aftertaste that average uses of the trope leave. Here’s my favorite example (from, Monty Python, of course):
Psychiatrist: Er, nurse!
Psychiatrist: (whispering) Er, you don’t think you should make it clear that I’m a psychiatrist?
Psychiatrist: Well, I could be any type of doctor.
Receptionist: Well I can’t come in and say “Psychiatrist Larch” or “Dr Larch who is a psychiatrist”. Oh, anyway, look, it’s written on the door.
Psychiatrist: (still whispering) That’s outside.
Receptionist: Well, I don’t care, you’ll just have to do it yourself.
Psychiatrist: (goes “brr brr”, then picks up phone) Hello. Er, no, wrong number I’m afraid, this is a psychiatrist speaking.
This is the ultimate example of making it all a joke. But you can’t do something like this every time you need to get your exposition out there to the audience.
So each time you feel like you need to use this trope, go about it deliberately, with a definite plan. It can be done, just beware.
What are some things you do to keep your ‘as you know’ moments from becoming laughable (in a bad way)?
- Stuffed into the Fridge
- The Bechdel Test
- Disney Villain Death
- The Common Tongue
- Chekhov’s Gunman
- Mr. Exposition
- Cassandra Truth
- Bad Dreams
- One Dialogue, Two Conversations