Saturday, February 11, 2017

The Writers' Filtration System

When you filter something, you're passing it through some porous medium with the belief that undesirable elements will be trapped, allowing the result to be purer, more intense, of a more concentrated and greater use. You do not in any case filter a thing without wishing in some way to cause the result to be more intense.

In earlier, pre-espresso days, you've filtered coffee through filter paper in belief and hope that doing so will, as the introductory materials on your Chemex Coffee Maker proclaim, remove the mercaptans and other skunky stuff. Thus you were filtering for--and hoping to achieve--purer coffee.

Some misguided individuals you know filter orange or grapefruit juice, a thing you would not consider. You've replaced oil filters in a series of VW Bugs, had disastrous results trying to change the air filter on a home heater, and used various forms of sunglasses in the hope they were filtering light rays harmful to your vision.

When you filter a story, you are sending a series of dramatic pulses or beats through the filter of point-of-view, meaning these dramatic pulses trap random activity and induce a focused sense of agenda and activity. In the same spirit as a photographer would use a blue or yellow filter to underscore various qualities on a cloud-filled sky, or a composer would pitch a composition in the key of, say, D minor, to convey melancholy and sadness, the writer chooses filters to produce desired dramatic results.

In order to use the I or first-person filter, you must create a character who has a tangible reason for telling the story in the first place as opposed to a belief that the first-person is easy for some gratuitous reason, most gratuitous of all that you're used to writing about yourself. 

The I is not you; even though the story revolves around a central figure, you must realize that character is not in fact you, deserves similar consideration to the third-person or You narrator, and to the multiple POV potentials.

When approaching a story for the first time, your immediate goal is to discover what meaning and technique you can take from it. If not that, then at least what discovery and emotions it will lead you to. Then you begin to consider filters. Whose story is it? Does that person deserve the spotlight, or should it be someone of a higher or lower rank, making assessments about the protagonist.

Then, through deliberation and/or discovery, you run your character through the filter of reliability. Does she, for instance, know and tell the truth? Is she aware of the conditions and boundaries of her immediate circumstances? Is her main goal so remote as to be impossible for her to achieve? How well is she acquainted with the probability that she might not arrive at her hoped for destination?

Perhaps you decide to cast your narrator as essentially naive or unsophisticated. Perhaps he or she suffers some basic problem such as not being able to read. The merest thought of filter and your earlier example of a photographer's use of them brings to mind one of your favorite, exaggerated obstacles for a character, color blindness. Using a filter of mystery/suspense, you could insert such a color blind individual into the prestigious job of art critic for a publication or museum. Would that individual kill someone who knew of the color blindness. Using another filter, one of satire or social commentary, the self-same color blind art critic could become an excellent medium for humor.

Quite often, with no conscious effort on your part, you bring a character on stage as seen through a particular filter. At this point, you drink a champagne toast to your subconscious, that inner vision aspect of you, the one who sometimes sees things or has responses you don't wish to know about. Conversely, you might spend hours, weeks trying to discover what your subconscious discerns that you do not yet understand.

When you're not sure, you return to the one reliable starting place you've discovered after years of experiment. By its very nature, story is a filter, a porous membrane that allows only certain actions, thoughts, and spoken words to pass through. Story filters out most but not all superfluous detail. 

Reality is so packed with event and detail, so seemingly threatening and omnivorous that it threatens to overwhelm story, causing us as readers and writers to hunger all the more for it. We write page after page until we can scarcely focus.

Then we totter off to streaming drama on the TV or go out to a movie or take ourselves to the playhouse, curious and eager to filter out the distracting haze of the overloaded reality about us.

Reality never leaves us. Even when we are working at high concentration, well focused on the story at hand, we are bombarded by the inclination to stop the story in order to march to the flagpole of authorial ego, then unfurl and hoist an authorial flag that explains everything we fear we have yet to filter out.

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