Writers in the Storm

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October 28, 2016

How Filtering the Point of View Affects Show, Don't Tell

Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Janice Hardy BooksReaders experience your novel through the eyes of your narrator. Sometimes this narrative filter is invisible and readers don’t perceive any distance between them and the point-of-view character, such as with a first-person point of view. Other times the filters are obvious and readers feel the space between them and the characters, such as with an omniscient narrator.

A point-of-view character by definition is relaying everything she sees, hears, feels, touches, smells, thinks—she’s already filtering for you; it’s just a matter of how obvious that filter is.

If a tree is described, readers know she saw a tree. Saying, “She looked at the tree” and then describing it is redundant at best, clunky and telling at worst. The filter words create a layer between the character and the reader you might not want.

Filter words are words that distance readers from the point-of-view character, and you often find them in prose using far narrative distance. These words can make the text feel detached. Filter words also remind readers they’re reading, explain things that are obvious, and often lead a writer into telling or crafting passive sentences.

Common filter words include: saw, heard, felt, knew, watched, decided, noticed, realized, wondered, thought, looked.

Filtering is one way writers control the narrative distance. How much of the point-of-view character’s experience is filtered can make the prose feel personal or detached. Using a large number of filter words can turn a shown scene into a told scene in no time at all.

The more filter words used, the higher the likelihood of the prose sounding told.

Let’s look at some examples:

  • Bob could see three zombies shambling toward him.
  • Sally knew she had to get out of there.
  • I could feel the hard metal of the knife against my back.
  • Jane heard a scream from the hotel bathroom.

Each of these examples has a filter word in it, explaining what should be obvious by the rest of the text. If Bob mentions shambling zombies, clearly he saw (or heard) them. Odds are some other details in the scene will have suggested that Sally had to leave. Describing the knife as hard against your back can only be done if you can feel it. The one filter word that lives in a gray area here is the word “heard.” Unlike the others, “heard” doesn’t jump out and feel redundant, though it’s still filtering the sound of the scream through Jane’s ears.

Look at these same sentences without those filter words:

  • Three zombies shambled toward Bob.
  • Sally had to get out of there. Or better: She had to get out of there. (Using the pronoun makes it more personal, and more like an internal thought)
  • Hard metal pressed against my back.
  • A scream echoed from the hotel bathroom.

Nothing is lost, and now these sentences feel more active and in the moment. They have a sense of immediacy that eliminates that told feeling.

Some filter words are borderline tells that depend heavily on use, such as 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 car was missing.

These summarize the thinking and decision-making processes. You don’t get to see Bob realize running is his only option; you’re told he does. The author tells you what Jane is wondering; you don’t get to see her wonder in her own voice with her own concerns. Sally’s decision reads more like an afterthought than someone making a hard choice. If you suddenly noticed your car was missing, your reaction is probably going to be stronger than realizing you “noticed something.” The importance in this example is on the noticing, not the missing car.

Eliminate the filter words and you get:

  • He’d have to make a run for it.
  • Would they make it out of there alive?
  • They’d just have to jump and see what happened.
  • Wait—where was her car?

Without the filter words, the focus is on what is thought and decided.

However, sometimes you want that filter word if it’s important to draw attention to the act (the feeling, hearing, watching, realizing), or it sounds more dramatic with that filter—this works well for chapter or scene enders. You might also want more filters if you’re doing a far narrative distance or an omniscient narrator and want to create a detached, observer tone.

For example:

  • Bob watched the perimeter, eyes and ears alert for zombies.
  • Jane closed her eyes and wondered if any of them would survive until dawn.
  • I hoped for the best. Once in a while it worked out, right?

How much filtering you choose depends on which point of view you use and what narrative distance you’re pairing it with. An omniscient point of view with multiple point-of-view characters will likely have a lot more filtering as the narration floats from person to person. A tight point of view will typically have fewer filter words as everything is shown through the eyes of the point-of-view character.

Basically, ask yourself: Do you want to show more, or tell more? Then adjust your narrative distance and filter words accordingly.

For more on filter words, check out this earlier WITS guest post of mine on eliminating filter words for a tighter point of view.

How often do you use filter words? Do you have a preference?

Check out my new book, Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting it), and learn what show, don't tell means, how to spot told prose in your writing, and why common advice on how to fix it doesn't always work. Also, please enter the Rafflecopter giveaway (look down below my bio).

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About Janice

Janice HardyJanice Hardy is the award-winning author of The Healing Wars trilogy and the Foundations of Fiction series, including Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, and Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished DraftShe's also the founder of the writing site, Fiction University. For more advice and helpful writing tips, visit her at www.fiction-university.com or @Janice_Hardy.

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89 comments on “How Filtering the Point of View Affects Show, Don't Tell”

  1. Filter words make me nuts. And of course, that means I do it too. I catch them in the crits I do. I work at editing them out of mine.

    How embarrassing then, to have Fae tell me on the phone this week, "You don't need, 'he saw', at the beginning of that sentence."

    *head-wall, head-wall, head-wall*

    This is the BEST explanation I've ever seen on the topic. Thanks so much, Janice!

    1. Most welcome! I catch myself using them, too, so it happens to us all 🙂 Luckily, they're easy to search for and fix during revisions.

  2. Excellent post! I struggle with "Show not Tell." While editing, I use the Search and Replace key to find and capitalize the filter words. This forces me to address each "tell" situation. Thanks Janice!

    1. I try to show, not tell. However, I find that some tell is inevitable. In first person narration and dialogue you get away with it more. There, characters are talking about what happened, and they will use filler words in their conversation.

      1. Absolutely, and there are times when telling is better than showing. It's all about using the right word to do what you want the scene to do. This is why the book focuses on understanding SDT, not just "cutting out X words," so you can use it like any other writing tool.

    2. That's what a first draft is for 🙂 Anything goes in the drafting stage. There's plenty of time to edit later.

    1. Or at least examine 🙂 They're often red flags for telling, but depending on your genre, POV, and narrative distance, a filter word might be the right word to use. They're good places to start when editing, since most of the time editing them makes the works stronger.

  3. I have to go back through my writing and look for 'looked'. 🙂 That always seems to be the one that creeps into my WIP when I'm not 'looking',
    Thanks for the great post, Janice.

    1. Thanks! That one sneaks in on me, too. I did a conscious purge of it a few years ago so I'm better now, but it still tricks me from time to time 🙂

  4. Love the examples here. My biggest hurdle as I'm sure many writers have is the show v tell comments. These are perfect. I am in the process of reading your book - loving it so far. Thank you for the great help.

  5. Great post and good reminder. It's so easy, especially in early drafts, to clunk up the prose with filters. Time to go back and look over what I've written on this new WIP so far. Thanks!

  6. Wow, I never thought of doing this so deliberately--such solid, practical advice here! It always amazes me how, even after writing so many novels, there is more to learn. Thank you.

    1. Me, too. It's a handy thing to do at revisions. I have a whole list of "troublemaker words" I search for to make sure I haven't gotten lazy 🙂

  7. The one I have trouble with the most is "felt." My characters constantly "feel" something, and when I go back to edit and revise I have to remind myself to take the word out and get out of the way of the action. It can be annoying, because I've started catching it before I write it but sometimes it slips through. Grr!

    Awesome article. Thank you!

    1. Thanks! On the upside, you know you do it so it's easy to search for that when the draft is done.

    1. Most welcome. A little distance isn't always a bad thing, but it's good to make sure they're doing what *you* want them to.

  8. Damn! Just when I though I'd got to grips with the rewrites you do this to me!
    Fantastic article, Janice - even if it does make me feel like a novice. It wouldn't be so bad if this wasn't my 8th novel. I haven't checked yet but I've a nasty suspicion my latest effort is littered with them.

    1. LOL oops, sorry! Don't feel bad, you might do all this automatically and just never thought about why. 🙂

  9. Such good information on the filter words. I just took a course on POV and am really starting to notice certain things in my writing. This information was very timely and GRRREAT!

    1. Perfect timing! A strong POV will fix 90% of all common writing problems 🙂 It helps you avoid so much of the "bad stuff" in writing.

  10. Being aware of filter words has been such a godsend during revision. Thanks so much for this discussion!

  11. It's hard to believe how many filter words slip through. Thanks for the chance to win a critique!

  12. This is what I'm focusing on in revisions right now. So many times my characters "look" and then describe the object or talk to the person. A lot of them are simple cuts to make or verb substitutions (if a character needs to look and describe, study/examine and describe is often stronger).

  13. With my first writing I don't worry about show and tell. Before I begin reworking I find that reviewing topics such as your "Show Don't Tell" is a great way to focus on what to revise. Thank you for sitting on my shoulder as I work. Virginia

    1. Happy to help. Good plan, too. First drafts are often brain dumps and however we get the story down works. Polishing and tweaking the text can come later.

  14. This is such a fabulous post, Janice! I plan to do a search for these on my next sit-down. Also, I just approved 3-4 comments, so you might want to take a pass from the top!

  15. Filter words! Have a list and checking it twice - every time I scan scenes. Thanks for the blog tour, Janice. Will miss the posts and visits to new blogs.

    1. Glad you enjoyed it. I have more guest posts planned for 2017, so no worries. Not a full tour like this, but still some fun blogs to visit (like coming back here).

  16. This is a more recent development in modern fiction--and an improvement, I might add. Omitting filter words, where possible, enhances intimacy with the characters and gives the reader a sense of immediacy. However, it's not wrong to use "filer words" to state something simply. For example, in a part where someone is deflated rather than heartbroken, an author can still write, "She felt sad." It's a matter of balance, after all.

    Thanks for the explaining the pros and cons of using filter words, Janice. A post worth reading and sharing!

    1. Absolutely. There's nothing wrong with filter words, they're just one area that can affect show, don't tell. It also depends on genre, POV, and narrative distance. writers should feel free to use them if they're the right words for what they want to say.

  17. I eliminated a lot of filter words while editing my soon-to-be-released novel. But there was one place where I found them useful. My book is written in the third person with long chapters. These chapters are divided into sections with rotating POVs. Filter words are helpful in letting the reader know right away who is telling the story when I switch from one character's POV to another's.

    1. Great example of when they work. There's nothing inherently wrong with them, but the poor little guys are often misused, especially by new writers 🙂 But they have their place and can be very effective in the right situation--like yours!

  18. I use a lot of filter words in the first couple of drafts and then go through and delete them as I revise. I wonder if they're a learnt thing. There seems to be a lot of filter words in my boys picture and early reader books and then we have to unlearn them as we get older.

    1. Anything goes in a first draft, and I'm a big believer in doing whatever will get words on the page. Revision is where we make the manuscript and story better.

      It's possible. Filter words provide context for things that might not be as clear to a younger reader. But once they understand how language works, they no longer need to have that context spelled out. That could also be why we see more filtering in books for younger readers.

  19. Janice, you are dead on. Sharing this: As many editors need to hear this as well as writers. I wish I had a dime for every time an editor would pop in a 'she wondered' or 'she thought. As In: Uh, oh, she was in for it now. Along comes the editor and revises: Uh, oh. She thought she was in for it now. Or, she wondered if she was in for it now. Here's what I did. I didn't have a character wonder or think: I put the thought into dialogue instead. "Uh, oh. I'm in for it now."

    Oh, my. The sneering these days if one write's, 'His eyes followed her until she turned the corner." Hah! Traveling body parts. Heh, heh. Use, his 'gaze' followed...but I know and you know and the reader knows, his eyeballs did not jump out of his head and bounce along the path behind the woman like ping-pong balls. I like 'his gaze followed...' or 'he watched'...but sometimes...His eyes landed on the redhead across the room and two seconds later he was elbowing his way through the crowd. The reader gets it. We have to pick and choose which is more powerful in the scene.

    Years ago, a NYT reviewer totally destroyed Through a Glass Darkly because the author in writing of foods served at banquet mentioned comfits followed by (sugared plums). Every reader of historical novels knows what comfits are. The editor of the book was not familiar with comfits, so added the definition in parentheses--which is so seldom done in fiction. Poor author took the hit, because first book, huge advance and she bowed to an editor of experience--she thought. (laffin'). Another editor decided the book was too long and broke it into two novels and the momentum was lost. Dead book. But I loved it. The research was excellent. Not an historical fact out of place...which may be off topic, but also why I suggest this is a great post for editors to read. What I love about indie authorship: I get to choose what might work best for a character or a scene.

    1. Traveling body parts have made me laugh plenty of times. I use gaze as well. Great comment about details readers would know. I had a friend who ran into that with Southern slang. Her editor kept wanting to change it to proper English, but no Southerner would say it like that 🙂

  20. Thanks for the extra 'Bob and the Zombies' 😉 Not to mention the clear explanations and examples. The structure of your advice is always clear and accessible. I find I use filter words when setting up a scene or return to write after a break. After reading your 'place holder' words posts I try not to get too hung up on them sneaking in for first drafts. (The plan is to blitz them in the revision stages!)

    1. Most welcome 🙂 I do enjoy visiting Bob and the gals. Wise choice. First drafts don't need to be perfect, and it can be stressful trying to make them so. Story first 🙂

  21. Oh Janice, thank you for this insight. I'm struggling with my manuscript right now and I think your post cleared some of it up for me. Love it! and now, I'm going to share it!

    1. It's not so much that you shouldn't use them (they can be useful), just make sure they're serving your story and not accidentally pushing readers out of the story 🙂

  22. "realized" The word comes so naturally I didn't "realize" it was a filter word. Ugh. Back to "word find," again. Sigh . . .
    Thank you!!! Better "realize" it's a problem before someone else "notices" it.

    1. Realize is a gray area filter word 🙂 Most of the time readers won't be bothered by it, but if you're getting comments about a scene feeling told or detached, this could be a reason why.

  23. This is so useful, thank you very much. I find reading through a post like this, just before I sit down to write, is a great, much needed, kick in the pants!

    1. Thanks! I do the same thing before I edit, how funny. I have a file of notes and things to check to keep it all fresh in my head.

  24. Excellent point of view tips here with concrete examples. Thanks so much for these, Janice! Filter words come so easily when I'm writing. I need to search for them in revision. I keep hoping with every new story I find less, but I don't even think about them when writing/creating the story. Congratulations to Marie D. on winning the critique!

    1. Most welcome. I found I used them less and less as I trained myself to edit them out after, so odds are you'll see the same. All that revising afterward will stick and you'll naturally write without them.

  25. How sorry George Orwell, Vladimir Nabokov and Mark Twain, just to name a few, must be feeling right now for having failed to gain your approval! Their works are full of 'saw', 'thought', 'decided', etc. Please, run to burn all their books: they don't live up to your standards!
    The main point that you fail to understand is that there is such a thing as a difference in styles: some writers might be abhorred by the idea of creating any distance between their readers and the events narrated, others might want to use that distance to put the focus on what is going on in the characters that sees, thinks, decides, etc.
    The imperative on eliminating the so-called 'filtering words' represents just a recent fashion, something that perhaps will become a law punishable by death or that - more likely - will be replaced sooner or later by another style. You are not doing a good service to new writers by imposing your conformist viewpoint on them.

    1. Francesco, 'Rules' in writing are ever-changing. I think it goes without saying that what is popular today, will be gone tomorrow. But we're writing to sell today, right? And there's always the caveat that you can break any rule you'd like, as long as you're really good. Write on!

      1. You are giving advice - or pretending to do so - to new writers, many of whom could be easily influenced and really end up believing that there is ONE way to write today, as you state without recognizing the limits of your own observation. Ages are never monolithic and multiple styles always operate, in spite of what narrow minded people try to impose.

    2. I do say in the article that how a writer chooses to use filter words is totally up to them. And this article was about using a particular writing device to achieve a particular affect, there's no "rule" stated. I'm very much a believer that there is no "one way to write" or even a "right way to write." Each writer has to decide what best for their story. If they don't want to try anything I suggest, that's up to them. It's their call.

      I never once said not to use them, I said how a writer uses them depends on what that writer is trying to achieve with their writing and how filter words affect show, don't tell. I hope I do influence new writers who feel they must follow a particular rule to be successful, and let them know that's that true. The better a writer understands how to use the tools at their disposal, the better that writer will likely be. This article simply suggests one tiny tool to help with that.

      Every writer needs to do what's right for them and their story.

  26. In my book, Operation Mermaid: The Project Kraken Incident, I use a different approach. My book is primarily transcripts of dialogue, so I don't use the filter words. The parts that aren't, I imagined they were reports that someone else had written for the big report. These writers would not be professional writers, so they wouldn't know about a lot of the rules we talk about here. Also, the report had to be done quickly, so there was no time for major revisions. I've been there myself.

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