Ok, confession time. Raise your hand if you’re not really sure what Filtering words are? Hey, look at that we have something in common.
I’ll tell you a secret, but you have to promise not to let my agent know. If she finds out, she’ll add another color to the checklist she has for critiquing my manuscripts. She’s already used all the primary and secondary colors. I think we’re up to periwinkle now. I didn’t even know that was a color.
So here’s the thing. When I wrote the first draft of my book, I intentionally used filtering words because I thought they were cool. Turns out…not cool.
Seriously. I was using all kinds of filtering words because I thought it was a great way to talk about what my MC was doing. I had stuff like Bob saw this…and Bob knew that…and Bob heard something…and Bob watched…and Bob remembered…and Bob felt…and Bob thought… and on and on an on.
In fact, if you want to know how to avoid using filtering words, just read my first draft and do exactly the opposite of what I was doing.
What’s that? Oh right. We didn’t actually talk about what filtering words are. Sorry, sometimes I get on a roll and can’t stop. (In case you’re wondering “JD you’re rambling in this section” is color coded fuchsia on my agent’s review checklist).
Filtering words force the reader to experience the scene with the MC standing between the reader and the action. The MC becomes the filter through which the reader sees the story. (examples include things like: He saw…he watched…he knew…he felt…he heard).
It sort of looks like this:
In this case, the only way the reader gets to experience the story is by watching what the MC sees and hears and feels. The MC is the one moving through the story, not the reader.
But wait a minute. Isn’t that sort of the way a book is supposed to work? A person reads a book and they are swept into another world where they see and hear and feel what the MC does.
Well, yes that’s true. However, we want to invite the reader deep into our story and keep them there. We want to give them more than just the experience of standing outside watching our MC go through the story. We want to make the reader feel as if they themselves are the actual MC going through the story. Then the reader becomes the one that sees and hears and feels. That’s a much closer experience and it really immerses the reader in our story.
I know what you’re saying. “Huh? I don’t get it.”
So let’s look at a couple of examples and how small changes in the wording can move the reader from a position of watching what the MC does, to a position of actually becoming the MC.
With Filtering: Bob stopped in mid chew. He watched a furry mouse scurry across the dance floor and saw it disappear under the hem of the heavy woman’s dress. The next thing he heard was a-high pitched scream loud enough to rival an air raid siren.
The writing seems ok on the surface, but can you spot those nasty filtering words? (Hint: they’re red.) So what we’ve done here is describe the scene through the filter of the MC (in this case Bob). The reader is forced to experience everything through the Bob-filter: He “watched” and he “saw” and he “heard”. All of that is talking about Bob’s experience in this scene. It keeps your reader at arms length from the action.
That’s not good enough. We want the reader to actually feel like they are in the scene, experiencing the action for themselves.
Filtering removed: Bob stopped in mid chew. A furry mouse scurried across the dance floor, disappearing under the hem of the heavy woman’s dress. A scream louder than an air raid siren split the air.
The rewritten version is almost identical – we just removed the filtering words. But the effect is huge. Now it’s not Bob who is watching and hearing things…it’s the reader who is experiencing these things.
We got rid of the Bob-filter by getting rid of the filtering words. We moved the reader inside the MC’s head and now the reader feels like they are the MC.
Now the picture looks a lot more like this: (notice the “he saw” words are crossed out)
This may sound like a subtle change, but go back and read the books that made you feel like you were inside the story. I’ll bet you don’t see a bunch of filtering words.
Let’s try another one.
With Filtering: Tara sniffed. She smelled the sickening stench of bile and fresh blood in the air, and knew the reaper couldn’t be far away.
Not terrible, but because of the filtering words it’s Tara that is doing the smelling of the blood and she’s the one getting all worked up about the reaper being close.
Filtering removed: Tara sniffed the air – bile and fresh blood. The reaper was close.
With the filtering removed, the reader gets a much more intense experience. The reader feels as if they are the ones smelling the bile and fresh blood. And if they’re reading in a dark room, they may even get a chill thinking about that reaper being close to them.
That’s the kind of deep experience we want to immerse our readers in.
Breaking the habit of using filtering words can be tough – especially if you intentionally added them to your writing because you thought they were cool (uhhmm…guilty!) But if you work at it, you will catch yourself doing it and then just kill them off. Trust me, your readers will thank you for it.
Oh, I almost forgot. Even for those brave souls that write in first person, where the POV is coming from the inside of the characters head, there can still be issues with filtering words.
For example: I stopped at the church entrance. I heard the bells ringing and knew the vampires would flood through the city in minutes.
Can you find the filtering words in this example?
Last thing I’ll mention is there are situations where I think using a filtering word is appropriate. That’s a topic for a different post though.
Here’s a link to some common filtering words.
And as always, I’d love to hear your comments.
p.s. I should mention my agent doesn’t really critique my writing using a color coded chart…but I really did add filtering words to my manuscript when I thought it was cool.
All the best,