Vision: A Resource for Writers

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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 centuries.

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 line.

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 all along.