Writing Deconstructed: Filtering

Filtering...Oh Noes!

I like to start any piece of writing advice with the caveat that no rule is an absolute. While there are plenty of things that could generally be considered "good writing advice," there is always an exception. So, learn the rule, apply it when necessary, break it when not.

What Is Filtering?

Stated simply, filtering is the use of unnecessary words that separate the reader from the story. It's inserting your MC between the narrative and your reader.

Example: I could see the mountains in the distance.

That "could see" part is filtering. Other commonly-used filters: hear, feel, taste etc.  

There are other versions of filtering as well, and I've best seen them described as "thought verbs." 

Example: Carrie knew her mom was going to ruin her night.

The filter/thought verb there is "knew." There are lots more. So many more. So, so many more. Realized, understood, remembered, imagined, thought...

so many.gif

Why Should You Get Rid Of It?

Or, why is filtering a problem? The simple answer is it creates narrative distance. That means it creates a layer of distance between your MC and your reader.

Distance, dear writer, is not a good thing. (Usually.) We want our readers to connect with our characters. We want our readers to lose themselves in the narrative, immerse so deeply they forget subway stops exist and sleep is a thing they need. Having a constant reminder that they are reading is counter to this goal.

But how and why do those little words create distance? Because any time you are in the POV of a character, everything on that page should be through their senses. Doesn't matter whether you're writing in first person or third, there should be nothing in the narrative that your POV character doesn't see, hear, realize, or understand etc. It is, after all, from their point of view. (Omni is a whole 'nother ballgame that we won't get into here.)

You don't need those filter words and thought verbs, because they're imbedded in the narrative. They're invisibly understood, until you break the illusion and put them on the page. 

Filters Off

Let's see the difference, using our first example sentence.

Filtering Example: I could see the mountains in the distance.
Without filtering: Mountains loomed in the distance.

Let's put it in a small paragraph, with a few more filtering examples. (Don't judge my sentences, okay? It's way too early in the morning.)

Filtering: I stepped onto my balcony and felt cool air whisper over my skin, while I smelled the sharp notes of pine and the salt of the ocean. I could see the mountains in the distance.
Without:  I stepped onto my balcony and cool air whispered over my skin, carrying the sharp notes of pine and the salt of the ocean. Mountains loomed in the distance.

You lose nothing without the filtering. It's not any less clear. We still intrinsically understand the person who's feeling the air and smelling pine trees and looking at the mountains is the POV character. But lo and behold! Not only do we lose words we don't need (felt and smelled in the first sentence,) a funny thing happens when we remove the filter in the last sentence--it forces us to use more active and powerful descriptions. Our verbs are stronger, more robust, they set the tone we're trying to convey.

We go from "I could see" or even "I see" to the mountain looming. One little word, and suddenly we've created a much more vivid picture, and we've eliminated the narrative distance. Win-win.

Those Thought Verbs Though

What about those thought verbs? The concept is the same, and also a little different. It still creates distance, and removing them still forces us to write better sentences, but thought verbs go even a little deeper. 

Example: Carrie knew her mom was going to ruin her night.
Without thought verb: Carrie waited as her mom stood silent, eyes narrowed, fingers poised over the "call" button on her phone. One call was all it would take for Mom to find out there'd be no parents at the party. No parents meant no party.

Removing the thought verb forces us to paint the picture. To use sights and sounds and feelings to convey what's happening. It's immersive and draws the reader to interpret. It forces us, as writers, to show rather than tell.

Example: I realized David was the killer!
Without: I stumbled back, away from David's hands and the blood coating them. Away from the blade in his hand and the violence in his eyes.

Terrible sentences aside (we're not judging, right??!!!!) I think we can agree the second does a far better job of putting us in the scene, and letting us realize what our MC is realizing without saying it's what our MC is realizing.

perfect sense.gif


Your New To-Do List

Go through your manuscript and look for all those filtering words and thought verbs. Set them on fire. Rewrite. Rephrase.

Okay maybe not all of them. Remember the whole "no rule is an absolute" thing. But lots of them.

If you're a Scrivener user, this is a great opportunity to use the snapshots feature, which saves the current version in a side pane, so you can revert to it at any point. That way, if you try rewriting and decide you don't like it, you can always go back to the original version.

But experience has taught me that once you start seeing and removing filtering, you'll want no part of adding it back in.