Calle J. Brookes

Romance Novelist & Freelance Editor

For Writers

Filtering in Fiction

Posted by [email protected] on August 22, 2011 at 2:20 PM

Do you filter? Do you? As a writer, do you even know what this means?

Many don’t.

Filtering refers to the use of words that separate the reader from the action, forcing the reader to look at the events rather than through them. The reader is thrown out of the story briefly. Filtering is a common fault of new writers, and even those who are more experienced.

Another way to describe it—using words to create an extra (unneeded) step between the reader and the story.

Confused? Don’t be. I’ll explain further.

Janet Burroway first coined the term in her book “WritingFiction”—the most widely used creative writing textbook in the US. I used it in all of my fiction classes at Indiana University—and I have three copies floating around my house. Filtering was once my biggest weakness.

 Burroway speaks about filtering as “a common fault and often difficult to recognize—although once theprinciple is grasped, cutting away filters is an easy means to more vivid writing.” Burroway goes on to add that “As a fiction writer you will often be working through ‘some observing consciousness’. Yet when you step back and ask readers  to step back and observe the observer—to look at rather than through the character—you start to tell-not-show and rip us briefly out of the scene.”

Burroway is saying here that when you use filtering words you are doing exactly that—asking the reader to step back and watch the character do something. And who wants to watch something? A reader would much rather be a part of the action than sit back and merely observe it.

Why is filtering bad? Because a reader who loses focus on the story—even for only the time it takes to read the filtered passage—may lose focus on the book and put it down. And not finish; which translates into not buying another of that author’s books.

Take the following two passages from a piece of my writing, a short paragraph from a romantic suspense WIP--both say the same thing, but which do you think is sharper writing?

Paige looked at the behemoth sitting at her desk. She saw her partner’s brother take a pen from the cup holder and click it repeatedly. Paige noticed that it was her favorite pen; she recalled the day that her best friend Carrie had given her the pen as a present. She remembered how she always used that pen for her paperwork and when she wrote lyrics for her band. She hated how Mikhail used it and discarded it without thought. She wondered if he treated his own belongings that carelessly. She studied his face more closely; it seemed to her that something was on his mind. Good; she hoped the Internal Affairs Agent had the worst day possible. A man like him deserved nothing better—every day.

A behemoth sat at her desk. Her partner’s brother took a penfrom the cup holder and clicked it repeatedly. Her favorite pen, a present fromher best friend. That was the pen she used for paperwork and writinglyrics.  It burned her that Mikhail usedit without thought. Did he treat his own belongings so carelessly? She studiedhim--something bothered him. Good; she hoped the IA Agent had the worst daypossible—and man like him deserved nothing else. Every day.

The highlighted words are telling words.  More importantly, they are filtering. These words draw focus to themselves and the words that follow, rather than focusing attention on the story.

So do you filter? Take a look through your manuscript, keeping an eye out for the following types of words (or forms of these words):

To see-hear-think-touch-wonder-realize-watch-recall-look-grin-smile-seam-feel-decide-which-that-because,etc. 

This list is not all inclusive, filtering words can come in many forms. These words are not necessarily bad, but when filter words are removed and sentences tightened appropriately, the writing is vivid, well paced, and strong.




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