Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Perry Mason

When I was a kid, one of my mother's favorite shows was Perry Mason. For those of you of a different generation, the character was based on novels by Erle Stanley Gardner about a lawyer who never lost a case. His clients were never guilty, and once in a while they refused to be defended properly, but in the end, they were always exonerated. The show was popular at the end of the 50's and into the 60's, and has been syndicated in reruns every since. Lately, my dear husband and I have been watching some of the old reruns, as much for nostalgia as anything else, and all the things my mother used to laugh at way back when are even more funny now.

As an author, I am always tuned into "info dumping." How much of the background do you want to convey in a story? Certainly some needs to be presented so readers can know something about the character and the story, but there's a line between filtering the information in a little at a time and "telling" the reader everything. When reading, discovery is much more entertaining than being told what you need to know.

I finished reading a book recently where the author did an excellent job portraying a kind-hearted, champion to the downtrodden who is determined to help other people after surviving her own personal hell. The author could have said "as an abused woman, she spent her time doing good for others," but instead she demonstrates the character's traits. Over and over. The reader learns about this woman in the things she does for others, with only occasional reminders of the woman's own past and what motivates her to be this way. Very well done.

What does this have to do with Perry Mason?

Aside from the overacting in many places -- in the end, the guilty party almost always stands up in the courtroom and very dramatically confesses after Mason's improbable leading of witnesses and conjecture and other legal no-nos -- the beginning tends to be a huge info dump. "So Paul, this is what we know..." and he goes on to "tell" the audience what they need to know to follow the episode/story. To be honest, I haven't read any of the books, so I'm not sure if Mr. Gardner's prose also follow that line. Old television shows, in the beginning, were entertaining merely by being something new and different, so they could get away with a multitude of sins. As I mentioned, even my mother used to laugh at the dramatics of the confessions. However, audiences are much more sophisticated these days. TV is no longer a novelty. Unlawful behavior in the courtroom is laughed at as unbelievable.

Layering in information, foreshadowing, has become an art form. Consider the movie The Sixth Sense with Bruce Willis. The writers very subtly give you clues to the truth of what you're seeing, but it isn't until the very end when you suddenly say, "Oh, I get it." To me, that's a much more satisfying feeling than, "Let me give you the details of the case." Which is not to say I don't still enjoy the old Perry Mason reruns, but maybe that's just nostalgia.


  1. Most of the "old" television shows would never get produced today, just like a lot of "old" novels would never get published. But they're entertaining, even if it's just for laughs.