As You Know, Columbo,…

Harder To Spot Than You’d Think


Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

I’m not sure of its official name in the circles of writing craft coaches, but you might recognize it as “As you know, Bob”-syndrome. Essentially, editors and readers frown on writers feeding necessary (or unnecessary) backstory and world dynamics to the audience via dialogue between characters who already know what they’re talking about.

Sometimes it’s used to pass on some research the writer has proudly discovered. Sometimes it’s used to explain backstory the writer thinks is necessary to understanding the plot. Either way, it’s frowned on in writing craft circles.

Consider this: In order to understand the developing plot, the readers must know that Shelley’s father died in the Fire Swamp. To tell them this, the writer’s going to slip it into a conversation between two characters.

Shelley: “Sorry, Bob. I don’t want to go to the Fire Swamp. My father died there, remember?”

Bob: “Uh, Shelley? I was there. And he’s my dad, too. Or did you forget that?”

Shelley: “Man, I wish I could forget you’re my brother! You’re always telling me things I already know!”

Obviously, you want to avoid such cheesy gaffs in your own writing. However, it can be harder to pick out these moments than you realize. Sometimes, even something that looks like this mistake isn’t.

Which brings me to my real-literature example. Columbo is one of my favorite examples of a clever detective drama that relies on Columbo’s intelligence and observation to hoist the murderer on his own petard.

The episode “A Stitch in Crime” features a double-dealing doctor (Leonard Nimoy) planning to murder another doctor via his performance of the second doctor’s heart surgery (no spoiler; this is all laid out at the beginning of the episode). He will use dissolving suture, instead of the usual kind used for heart surgeries, letting the mend rip apart days later.

The nurse who assisted him in the surgery suspects him of wanting to harm the patient, and when she feels some of the suture, she confronts him, asking, “What is this?”

Obviously, she’s a nurse, and she should know exactly what it looks like. However, Nimoy’s character plays along: “Well, I believe it’s suture. If I remember right, it’s used to tie up internal wounds during surgery.”

Just like that, the non-medical audience is up-to-date on what this stuff is and what it’s used for, and they might have an inkling of what could go wrong.

The nurse continues, “I know what suture is; I know what it feels like, and this doesn’t feel right to me.” She instinctively knows it’s the wrong kind of suture.

Notice what the writer of this episode (Shirl Hendryx) did? These two medical professionals both know exactly what they’re handling, but in the moment, Nimoy’s doctor used his line both to condescendingly mock the nurse who suspects his murderous designs and slip the audience some necessary data.

Later on, of course, feigned-ignorance Columbo will be there to suck up all the little details about what can go wrong if you use the wrong suture, which is another good technique – a character who doesn’t know everything that’s being talked about and can be instructed with the audience. In this instance, however, the writer uses dialogue to feed the audience information they need to understand the plot and gets away with it because Hendryx simultaneously uses the conversation to heighten the conflict between the two characters.

As you can see, avoiding this “writing mistake” is a little more complicated than it might seem. While you should try to avoid it on principle, just remember: when used skillfully, subtly, and sparingly, this technique can be turned around to serve your story, advance the conflict, and improve the audience’s understanding of the plot.

A Stitch in Crime” is from Colombo Season 2, Episode 6.

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