Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy
Readers 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.
- 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.
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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Janice 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 Draft. She'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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