Altered Perception and
the Reader's 50 Percent
By Margaret McGaffey Fisk
Copyright © 2008 by Margaret McGaffey Fisk, All Rights Reserved
You don't have to be a '60s
hippy to have altered perceptions. Your perceptions are altered every
day, by every interaction or experience you have. This is one of the
reasons police have such a hard time with eyewitness accounts, and
writers have such a hard time conveying an exact image with just words.
A word picture is a combination of impressions and images, but the
impressions are not necessarily the same for every reader.
An easy example is a diner.
This word can bring up everything from cheap, amazingly good food in
large quantities; to a dingy rat-hole that no self-respecting person
would be seen in.
Imagine your story contains
the following sentence: A man walks into a diner.
I see a homely place owned
by Mother Williams who has dished out the same generous servings of
delicious hash browns since she had Chris balanced on one hip as she
took the orders. Now she's a grandmother. She still rules her kitchen
and the diner, though, with a strict, but loving hand, determined to
make sure the customers are well and truly fed in direct contrast to the
posh, uptown restaurants where food is all for show and customers walk
out with rumbling bellies.
Uh oh! Here's where the
problem lies. That's a reader's fifty percent. I have a nostalgic
appreciation for small diners, my favorite being those actually housed
in old railroad cars. I'll choose cracked plastic benches and a
neon-lit jukebox over an elegant wine menu any day.
As a writer, you have no way
of knowing that.
Maybe the diner in your
scene is on the bad side of town, maybe it has a layer of grease built
up on every surface and a lingering cloud of old cigarette smoke. Maybe
it's a truck stop, or the owner is completely cowed under the local
gang. Maybe this is the most dangerous place for the undercover cop
main character to go, but he has no choice if he is to earn a spot in
the local crime organization. Maybe this is the place for those on the
underside to see and be seen.
The best way to work around
the reader's fifty percent is to avoid catch phrases. As writer
shorthand, they can assist in setting a scene or creating an atmosphere
without excessive word count. However, the pitfall is that you cannot
control what each word calls up, or even if the image exists in the
minds of your readers.
For example, the Marlboro
Man. Rugged, cowboy type, accepts no guff. That's my image. I say the
same to my boys and they won't ever know that means the character is a
smoker, but the cigarette in his hand is an integral part of the image
since it's formed based on tobacco advertising. This is a classic
stereotype that has lost its meaning. Unless you can know exactly who's
in your audience, using something like the Marlboro Man is likely to
cause as much confusion as clarity.
Is there a way around this
besides treating everyone as newborns who do not know the meaning of the
word sheep? Sure. Those same catch phrases can be modified by an
adjective or two, or a little ambience, to make them spring to life as
you intended, whether or not the reader catches your reference.
Drag your mind back to the
diner and consider the following:
The homely diner
The dingy diner
A cloud of smoke oozed from
the doorway as the man stepped into the diner.
Everyone who was anyone in
Big Chuck's organization came to this diner.
The music spilled out from
the open door of the diner, not the country tunes he might have
expected, but hard, cop-hating rap.
Take any one of those
examples and I think you'll find there is less chance of confusion.
They all use the word diner, sometimes with only one word to back it up,
but each conveys a different image because of focus and detail. This is
the writer's only defense against the reader's fifty percent: build the
image with enough blocks so readers have to see your idea, and not
whatever that word might mean to them.
And in case you think this
only applies to places, I recall a confusing conversation with a friend
of mine. She told me her son was interested in learning to play the
guitar and that he'd found a special one designed just for picking, one
which had a wider neck and space between the strings.
I was stumped. I'd never
heard of such a special guitar. I tried to come up with anything which
could match that description but failed. Then, remembering my friend's
interest in the Society for Creative Anachronism, I realized the
answer. She must have been talking about a lute, right? It has a very
wide neck and lots of space between the strings.
Each of us brought our own
fifty percent to the conversation and ended up in two different
When I finally got the
chance to see the guitar, I was stunned. A wider neck, extra space
between the strings? It all depends on your perspective, I guess.
My friend grew up around
steel-string folk or country guitars. I use a nylon-string classical as
my primary. To me, the folk guitar has a skinny neck, up to about one
inch thinner than the classical style I prefer. I would never have
thought to start with the folk guitar as my standard to judge the
classical. But she had. Her description was of none other than a
standard nylon classical.
The key element here is both
of us were using words we had in common. And most of the time, the
distinctions wouldn't have affected the meaning. But where her
background differed from mine created a mile-wide comprehension gap in
this context and prevented successful communication of the concept.
It's easy to think that
shared words have the same meaning, and a lot of the time they do. But
in writing, when you're trying to evoke an emotion or paint a scene
frugally, it's crucial to provide enough of a framework around the words
to ensure your meaning is the dominant one in reader's mind.
Oh, and in case you missed
it, or thought I did, my very first line is another catch phrase that
might not have the same meaning to all readers. Though the stereotype
is of hippies existing in a drug-altered state, a stereotype is rarely
true for all individuals in a group. The sentence could just as easily
have called up images of political activists fighting for what they
believe in...and that interpretation would've been just as much of an
altered perception, with the main political views being the government
There is no way to avoid the
reader's fifty percent entirely, but awareness is the first step to
making it work for, not against you. Marshall those adjectives, train
up your descriptive phrases, and make sure when your hard-boiled
gangster swings open the restaurant door, he isn't greeting by a sweet
smile and a "be with you in a moment, sugar"...unless that was your plan