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Monday, July 09, 2012

You'll Have to Go Through Me: Eliminating Filter Words

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

No matter who your narrator is, they're the person the reader sees the novel through. A tight first person, and omniscient third, everything is filtered through their eyes. Sometimes this filter is invisible and the reader doesn't feel any distance between them and the point of view (POV) character. Other times the filters are obvious and the reader feels the wall between them and the characters. One looks through the eyes of the POV, the other looks at the POV.

So, what exactly is filtering?

Words that distance the reader from the POV character.

Filter words remind the reader they're reading, explain things that are obvious, and often lead a writer into telling or crafting passive sentences. (Please note passive sentences are different from passive verbs)

(Here's more on An Easy Fix for a Tighter Point of View)

Words like: saw, heard, felt, knew, watched, decided, noticed, realized, wondered, thought, looked.

Even worse, filter words are often found with their passive, telling cousins: to see, to hear, could tell, to watch, to decide, to notice, to realize, to wonder, to think, to look.

A POV character by definition is relaying everything they see, hear, feel, touch, smell, think. If it's described, we know they experienced it in some way. Using these words is redundant at best, clunky and telling at worst. Let's look at some examples:
Bob saw three zombies shambling toward him. (or worse) Bob could see three zombies shambling toward him.

Jane heard a scream from the hotel bathroom. (or worse) Jane could hear a scream from the hotel bathroom.

Sally knew she had to get out of there. (or worse) Sally could tell she had to get out of there.

I felt the cold metal of the shotgun against my back. (or worse) I could feel the cold metal of the shotgun against my back.
Look at these same sentences without those filter words:
Three zombies shambled toward Bob.

A scream echoed from the hotel bathroom.

Sally had to get out of there. (or better) She had to get out of there.

Cold metal pressed against my back.
They're more active, more in the moment, and give a sense of immediacy. It also eliminates that told feeling.

Some filter words are a little more ambiguous. The wondered, realized, decided, noticed, type.
Bob realized he'd have to make a run for it.

Jane wondered if they'd make it out of there alive.

Sally decided they'd just have to jump and see what happened.

I noticed the shotgun was missing.
In most cases, eliminating the filter words makes it stronger.
He'd have to make a run for it.

Would they'd make it out of there alive?

They'd just have to jump and see what happened.

Oh crap, where's the shotgun?
Sometimes you want that filter word if it's important to draw attention to that act (the feeling, hearing, watching), or it just sounds more dramatic with that filter. (This works well for chapter or scene endings) You might also want more filters if you're doing a far narrative distance or a omniscient narrator.
Bob watched the perimeter, eyes and ears alert for zombies.

Jane closed her eyes and wondered if any of them would survive til dawn.
You don't have to cut every instance of these words, but they are good things to double check to make sure you're writing the strongest sentence you can. Filter words typically show up in told prose, passive prose, or just weak writing. You also find them in unintentionally distant POVs.

(Here's more on How Far is Too Far? Far Narrative Distance vs Telling)

Remember, your POV is already filtering for you. There's no need to remind the reader they're doing it.

Do you filter? Is it intentional or unintentional? If intentional, why? 

Find out more about show, don't tell in my book, Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).

With in-depth analysis, Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It) teaches you how to spot told prose in your writing, and discover why common advice on how to fix it doesn't always work. It also explores aspects of writing that aren’t technically telling, but are connected to told prose and can make prose feel told, such as infodumps, description, and backstory.

This book will help you:
  • Understand when to tell and when to show
  • Spot common red flag words often found in told prose
  • Learn why one single rule doesn't apply to all books
  • Determine how much telling is acceptable in your writing
  • Fix stale or flat prose holding your writing back
Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It) is more than just advice on what to do and what not to do—it’s a down and dirty examination and analysis of how show, don’t tell works, so you  can adapt the “rules” to whatever style or genre you’re writing. By the end of this book, you’ll have a solid understanding of show, don’t tell and the ability to use it without fear or frustration.

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The ShifterBlue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
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  1. Since I write in deep POV, I trust that my POV is tight enough so readers know whose head they're in.

    However, when my POV character is interpreting thoughts of other characters, I do use filtering words, because I think it helps clarify that I'm not head hopping, but rather showing my POV character's hypotheses about what another character is thinking. I tend to use realized and seemed to show that he's thinking something.

    That being said, I totally agree that for action, filtering doesn't do anything but distance the reader.

    Terry's Place

  2. This is so great! Now I notice this sort of thing when I'm reading books. My critique partner gave me a long list of these filter words, and after the story is down, I do a slash and burn pass.

  3. Great advice! I usually write in first person but being mindful of these things keeps us in "show, don't tell" mode which is something I think most writers grapple with from time to time!

  4. I love that you always seem to hand me just the right tool for where I am in my editing process.


  5. I do it way too unintentionally. Thanks for the new batch of words to add to my proofreading checklist, Janice. :-)

  6. Aren't you talking about third POV, not omniscient?

    By its very nature, omniscient isn't filtered through one viewpoint character's head. It's the God POV that can flit in and out of any character's head or just give a camera view of what is happening in a scene. You need filter words to write it so that the reader can tell whose head they are in.

  7. It's funny, I use to know this, and I was very good at it. Then I took a small break from writing, came back and I couldn't work out why my writing wasn't as sharp as it use to be. This article made me realise. Too many filter words. I had completely forgotten this rule.

  8. I try and watch out for the filters, but often find they slip in during first drafts. Thanks for more great additions for my editing hatchet list!

  9. Terry, absolutely, those are good exceptions and examples where you would use them.

    Julie, good plan! It's part of my final polish pass.

    Stephanie, we do indeed, especially in the early stages. First person is funny, because it seems the writer either does it a lot or rarely at all.

    LD, awesome! We must be around the same stage in our WIP process. I tend to write about whatever I'm currently working on/with.

    ChiTrader, most welcome! Hope they help.

    Marilynn, yes, mostly first and third POV. Omni will use more filter words, though I've seen strong omni where it doesn't use them either. It depends on the narrative distance you're creating as well. Single third limited with a far narrative distance would use a lot of filters, while a tight omni wouldn't.

    Greg, it happens to me, too. That's one of the reasons I love doing this blog (and tweeting good writing links) I get to remind myself of the things I should be doing :)

    Raewyn, most welcome! All bets are off on first drafts, hehe. We can do all the ugly things we want there.

  10. I agree. Your write:)
    Show don't tell is common advice. You explain it well. Thanks.
    I'm not making things up, but aren't we all 'telling' stories?
    We really need a finer line drawn.
    POV has something to do with it.
    Perhaps, I can 'tell' about me and 'speculate' about they?

  11. Elcidthekid, it's a weird thing, because as you said, we ARE telling stories. But what we're really doing is bringing a story to life, dramatizing it, using words to paint a picture and set and scene and draw the reader in to our story worlds.

    In the past, "telling" was the norm. Books written a hundred years ago are completely different from novels published today. I think TV and movies has changed this. Audiences are used to the visual storytelling mode now and want their books to reflect that in some way. They want to "see" the story.

    Certain words make the story feel immediate, others make it feel like we're getting it second hand. My favorite analogy is the difference between watching a movie and having your friend tell you all about the movie.

  12. All true and expressed with such confidence.
    I am less sure, but you draw me further out on my looking thin limb.
    First person only. Telling can contribute much to voice and character.
    Seeing, thinking and feeling, directly, also speculation of other's thoughts and feelings, indirectly are sharing POV.
    Short people don't see over tall fences.
    I don't see any other honest way to deliver.

  13. Elcidthekid, a lot also depends on voice. First person can do more "telling" as long as it's in the voice of the character and sounds like something they'd think. If it sounds like someone sitting on the sidelines relaying the action, then it feels "told." If it's how the character would talk or think, it feels "shown."

  14. Great Post. I didn't know the expression "filter words." Now back to my WIP to do more filtering....

  15. Another great post, Janice. You're helping me to kick the 'she realized' and 'he decided' habit.

    Since the word 'that' normally follows such expressions, doing a search for that can help unearth them.

  16. Good post. It gives another perspective on part of the craft I'm just starting to get a handle on. Thank you :-)

  17. Barbara, thanks! I think a lot of times it gets rolled into "telling."

    Jo-Ann, great tip! And that is a good one to cut most times anyway, so it saves you time.

    Teresa, most welcome. POV is a tough one to get for most folks, so hopefully this helps :)

  18. This was awesome! Your timing is impeccable, as these are the kinds of things I need to be eliminating in my edit. I'm definitely sharing this!

  19. I have a question. In some of your examples you remove the filter words and make the sentenses a question instead. I read in another blog a while back that doing that is an awful thing to do because your reader is hopefully thinking the same thing and it's distracting for them to read their thought. But I've seen other writers use this technique just fine, and they're considered great writers. So how do I know when it's an okay thing to do in my writing and when it's not?

  20. Jae, thanks, glad it helped!

    Angie, great question. For me, it depends on how it's done and I trust my ear. If it sounds like something the POV would naturally say in that situation, I leave it. If it sounds like it's pointing a big old arrow for the reader, I cut it. In all fairness, the "would they make it out of here alive?" is probably one I'd cut. The "Oh crap, where's the shotgun?" I'd likely leave.

    There's no rule, it's just what sounds right. If it sounds better to filter then I'd filter.