Erotica Readers & Writers Association Blog

Monday, June 24, 2013

"As You Know, Jim"

by Kathleen Bradean


I watched the premier episode of Da Vinci's Demons last night. The historical inaccuracies drove me a bit bonkers, and I'm no history student, so you know they were obvious and bad. Don't even get me started on the bare chests and women's clothes that were about as period as a Klingon at Ren Faire. But if I approach the show as alternate history/ steampunk renaissance, I suppose I can forgive how sloppy it is. What I can't forgive are the multitude of "As you know, Jim" speeches. Whether its television or a novel, writers should do everything they can to avoid them.

So, what's an "As you know, Jim," speech? If you've watched any of the CSI shows, you've heard these. It's when a character says something along the lines of "As you know, Jim, I'm going to take this piece of crime scene evidence and try to find latent prints on it. I will do this by..."  But Jim isn't a sentient squid from outer space who has never heard of a finger, much less a finger print. He's another CSI tech and he knows damn well how evidence is processed because it's his job. So why is it being explained to him as if he knows nothing about it?  Because the other character isn't explaining it to Jim. He's really explaining it to the viewer/reader who presumably doesn't know (although, after how many seasons of CSI? if you're a fan, I would hope you know). On CSI, "Jim" usually responds with "Yes, and then you'll match any latent prints you find against our suspects, thus hopefully linking one to the scene of the crime," while in real life, Jim would say, "No shit, Sherlock. Want to explain breathing to me next?"

"As you know, Jim" conversations unfortunately happen a lot in science fiction and fantasy because there's a whole world with different rules, technology, politics, religion, flora and fauna, etc. that the reader needs to know about. A common way around this is to drop an outsider into the world so they can ask "What's that animal?" or "Why are those dudes in red livery shooting arrows at us?" without seeming like an idiot.

In Harry Potter, he's raised in a muggle household, so everything about the wizarding world must be explained to him. He has a muggle's reaction to the things he sees and frames them in a muggle POV  in the first few books. Later, as Hogwarts becomes his world (and the reader is just as familiar with it) the explanations drop away except when something extraordinary happens. (such as the tri-wizarding tournament). Hermione, in almost every situation, serves as Harry's interpreter. She understands his muggle POV since she comes from the same place, but because she's made a huge effort to understand everything about the world around her, she knows what's happening and why. Someone raised in the wizarding world wouldn't think of such things as extraordinary so they wouldn't know that Harry was unfamiliar with it, nor would they know how to explain it in terms he'd immediately understand. Hermione does. 

But what do you do if your characters are all from that world? How are you going to explain things without resorting to awkward "As you know, Jim," speeches like CSI? How do you stop your reader from shouting "Why are you telling him something he already knows?"

A great example of how to deal with a character who isn't an outsider is Doctor Watson from the Sherlock Holmes novels. He only explains the extraordinary, but the rest of the story he tells as someone familiar with his world and he seems to expect the reader to also understand it. He never explains what a hansom cab is, or what India has to do with England. But when Sherlock analyzes a chemical clue, Watson asks the same questions the reader would and reports the answers to the reader. Not everyone in a world knows everything, so an "As you don't know, Jim" explanation is fine if the information isn't common knowledge.

If the information is common knowledge among the characters (two CSI lab techs, for example), the best way to inform the reader is to show the character lifting prints from crime scene evidence and comparing them to the suspects' prints. (Everyone sing with me: "We need a montage") Show your world's second sun, the cryochambers on your spaceship, the dragons, or the elves. Show someone breaking a taboo and how the other characters react. Show the magic of technology and what it does. You don't have to explain how it works (unless that's part of the plot) since most readers are willing to suspend disbelief and trust that it does work if you show that it does.

But how does this tie to erotica? Instead of Hogwarts or the crime labs of CSI, imagine a story about bondage. (and yes, I'm aware of the amount of HP fanfiction that includes bondage.)

Case 1 - someone is doing a shibari (rope bondage) demonstration. This is the 'drop an outside into the world' scenario where it's cool to have the basics explained, but you don't want to write a how-to manual either. Show a few details, explain a few basics, but dwell on the emotional and physical reaction of your MC to the bondage. 

Case 2 - an experienced practitioner is using rope bondage on an experienced fetish model or sub and the scene is between them. Show the MC tying knots but focus on the emotional and physical reaction to it. You might be tempted to 'educate' your readers about the history of shibari in the story, but you'll probably end up writing dialog such as: "As you know, Jim, rope bondage in Japan is known as..." And you really, really don't want to go there.

The real problem with "As you know, Jim," isn't just that it's lazy writing. No. Its worse sin is that it's a lecture. A paragraph or two is the most any reader will tolerate of off-topic chat forced into a story. And as you know, Jim, in erotica, anything that isn't about sex is off-topic.

10 comments:

  1. Brilliant post. Very good, very helpful.

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  2. Hilariously good advice. Even Mary Shelley was capable of writing "as you know, Victor" dialogue in Frankenstein (but then, she was only 18). This kind of dialogue has a long history, but that doesn't mean it was ever a good strategy.

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  3. It's great to laugh as you learn--thanks for the reminder! I never enjoyed lectures, as the doodles in my old college notebooks attest. It is definitely a challenge to write about foreign cultures (like Japan) and introduce certain unfamiliar objects, foods, etc. without slipping into guidebook mode. But I think it does make you stronger as a writer to try your best!

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  4. Thank you, RG

    Jean - sometimes you can't get around it no matter how hard you try, but then your reader is left wondering if one of your characters is stupid. And I think I can forgive Mary Shelly anything, seeing as she gave us science fiction.

    Donna - I never felt during Amorous Woman as if you were lecturing or resorting to "As you know, Jim."

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  5. I have a co-author particularly prone to this sort of thing, as well as text-block exposition.

    It drives me up a WALL.
    That said, I have used it, mostly in humor stories. (one where Fred and Bob were narrating the epic free-for-all of Buffy vs the Teletubbies)

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  6. If you're using it humorously, I can see where it would work. (Especially if someone finally made a "Not shit, Sherlock" comment) But usually, text-blocks and speeches are death to a story. they bring it to a grinding halt.

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  7. Funny but sharp, as usual, Kathleen!

    The balance between explication and obscurity is tricky, especially in science fiction. I'm currently reading Neal Stephenson's ANATHEM. It begins with a preface which begins:

    "If you are accustomed to reading works of speculative fiction and enjoy puzzling things out on your own, skip this Note."

    That definitely started me off in a testy mood, because I NEED notes like that, and don't want to be relegated to some second-class-reader status just because I like to have some idea what is going on.

    Originality and surprise enhance the reading experience. But too much confusion over details can interfere, sometimes fatally, with the progress of the story.

    Having just published a steam punk erotica book, I had some of these issues. Mostly, though, I'm not original enough to have really had a problem. When I talked about the Universal Electropaedia, most people will have a good idea what I'm talking about.

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    1. Thank you, Lisabet.

      Steampunk seems to lend itself to "and then a miracle occurred" science. Because the subgenre is about scientific curiosity, I think you can get away with more "As you know, Jim" stuff as one characters tries to figure out how much the other character knows about the subject.

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  8. Wonderful article. I learned a few things once again.

    My worst part is "telling" in long paragraphs of thought about something I should be either showing or dropping all together. Your article showed me places I've been going wrong possibly.

    Thanks for writing this.

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    1. Damian - I hope it's helpful. One sneaky way you can do this, but probably only once in a story, is have a character give (at most) a two paragraph lecture and have the other character interrupt huffily and say "Why are you telling me what I already know?" But then the first character, to be consistent, has to be a crashing bore for the rest of the story.

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