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Lee Garrett

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The Lens of Perception
by Lee Garrett   
Rated "G" by the Author.
Last edited: Tuesday, June 28, 2005
Posted: Monday, June 27, 2005

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Get the monkey off your back before it chokes you out.

    Unless you're writing old school with omniscient narrative style, instead of limitied omniscent, the narrator of a story ought to be an unseen ape in the overhead jungle.  Problems arise when he scampers down to become a monkey on the back of the POV character.  When Jane (symbolic here for the reader) is trying to get intimate with Tarzan, this can be an annoying distraction.

     Breaking the cycle of “narrative intrusion” can be difficult, but the first step to solving a problem is the realization that you have one—-that there’s a monkey on your back.  In a nutshell, this is the tendency to tell the story instead of showing it.  This practice is the primary error of the novice writer, and a most persistent habit. 

     The problem runs amok in the exposition when the narrator tries to directly interject information to the reader that may or may not be needed, and does so in a heavy handed way—-like an ape at the zoo flinging feces.  This is called a “data dump”.   

    Here’s an example:

walked up the street to Billy-Bob's Steak House to see the new owner, my old buddy John “Mad-dawg” Murphy, thrice decorated Marine veteran and master of the Kung-fu grip.  Losing his leg in ‘Nam hadn’t slowed him down at all, though it had cost him his military career.  Fortunately, a covert government agency had rebuilt him at taxpayer expense.  Amazing what they can do with bionic parts these days.
    Inside, I was ushered into an office.  I sat.  "I'm in trouble," I said.  "I need your help."

I know, on the surface, this seems like incredibly great writing.  You may be asking; “What’s wrong with it?” 

Just this; it lacks the enhancing lens of perception that shows instead of tells.  The data has no texture, no sensory component.  It exists in a sensory deprivation tank, without the textures provided by the POV.  The reader needs to be in the mind of the main character.  All data should come in through the eyes of that point of view, colored by the perceptions natural to that character—-not the narrator.  The narrator can hijack a story, becoming a character himself, if you’re not very careful (apes are willful things).  

     So, how do you fix narrative intrusion?  

Basically, you keep the data tied to the main character.  Take all that background data that was crammed into the previous example and bring it out linked to sensory perceptions—-things the main POV character sees, hears, and remembers. 

Don’t just say the main character is at the steak house.  Establish setting.  Describe the place.  Describe “Mad-Dawg”.  Use his stiff military bearing—-or something the POV character can see—-to naturally justify the insertion of the veteran data.  Show “Mad-Dawg” in his office, sitting at a desk with his bionic leg up as he’s screwing on a replacement toe or something.  How he got the limb can be worked more naturally in.  Dialog is often a more effective tool for this than exposition.  Other pieces of data can be shown through the office setting, making it serve double duty; a purple heart on the wall in a glass case, pictures of him with his old combat team, etc…  

     It should go something like this:
               * * *
I walked up the street to Billy-Bob's Steak House to see the new owner.  The place was a massive A-frame structure, wrapped on three sides with tinted windows.  It looked as if it would have been more comfortable at a ski resort.  The sign just inside the door said I was in luck; it was endless surf and turf night!  A heart-faced girl with brown eyes and tawny hair gathered up a menu, preparing to lead me to Carnivore’s Paradise. 

“That’s all right,” I told her.  “I’m here to see Mad-Dawg.”  She blinked, not sure she’d heard me right.  “Oh, sorry.  That’s what we called him in ‘Nam.  I mean John Murphy, the new owner.”

“Is he expecting you?”

I smile habitually at pretty girls.  I did so then.  “No.  Just tell him a buddy from his old unit is here.”

“Yes, Sir.  One moment, please.”

The smell of the place was getting to me, feeding my hunger.  My stomach complained of neglect.  Shut up, I told it.  You’ll get taken care of soon enough. 

The hostess hurried back.  She led me to a back office cluttered with half-full boxes.  His hair was still an unruly black mop.  The face it framed was nearly untouched by age.  He looked up as I arrived.  Though no expression altered the mask of his face, I saw a flash of welcome dancing in emerald eyes.  

Mad-Dawg sat at a desk, his tin leg up on it, shoe and sockless.  I’d known that he’d had the original blown off by a mine, decades ago, but this was my first time seeing the bionic replacement provided by some nameless agency so he could continue his black-ops missions.

I watched him take off a mangled digit and screw on a new toe.  I had to wonder if it came complete with a death ray.  “How’s that thing holding up?” I asked.

“Can’t complain.”  Mad-Dawg looked up with his patented thousand-yard stare, guaranteed to drive fear into the hearts of the ungodly.  I was glad not to qualify.  “It’s brought me enough cash to buy this place, and quite a lot else.  This a social visit?”

“I’m in trouble.  I need help.”  My gaze went to the wall over his head.  Glass cases held a Congressional medal of honor, a purple heart, and assorted medals of valor.  Next to them was an old picture of the recon unit.  He and I were both there, wearing mud on our faces, grinning for the camera with the jungle behind us.  We’d walked through hell together.  It didn’t matter that that was a long time ago.  Bonds forged on the battlefield are forever.

“Have a seat,” he said.  “Tell me about it.”
               * * *

You see?  The same information comes in, but not from a disembodied source (the narrator), not as a monkey on the back of the main character.  The data comes in as an expression of the main POV instead.  This is the cure, my friends.  Time to clean up your act.  Go cold turkey.  Don’t let narrative intrusion clog the arteries and make a mediocre talent out of you!    

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Reviewed by Gwen Dickerson
Bravo! I think I've got it! Great example, Lee!
Reviewed by Mary Quire
Wonderful article, Lee. This has been an ongoing problem for me, as well. With much practice, I hope to have a clean, cut writing style, completely monkey-free.
Reviewed by Robert Montesino
This well written piece is packed with good advise & sounds like it was written just for me! Data dumping masked in narrative or dialogue is the archilles heal of most begginning writers & a bad habit like smoking that can be broken only with resolve & discipline...great write Lee!
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