By Jen Ponce
When I read M. A. Ray’s post about filtering, my mind went in a different direction than hers. She wrote about filtering as a way of going down deep into our characters to tease out their authentic selves, to make them live on the page. Excellent advice, that. When I first saw the word filter, it made me think of the way we keep ourselves from being immediate in our fiction. I asked her if she’d mind if I riffed off her post and she said no, so here it is.
First of all, what does filtering mean? It’s like a muffler for your ears when listening to music or your foot dragging the ground when riding the merry-go-round. In writing, it keeps the reader from being immersed in your story. It’s a hesitation to jump into the action; whether that hesitation stems from a lack of confidence or a bad habit you’ll have to determine for yourself.
Here are some examples of filtering and immediacy.
Filtered: “She began to run to him.”
Immediate: “She ran to him.”
Filtered: “She started to laugh.”
Immediate: “She laughed.”
Both these examples deal with the same type of problem. Instead of letting the characters do something, the author pulls her punch. Let me tell you right now, I don’t want to read about a character who is always beginning to do something. I want to see them doing it. “She began to make love to him.” Boring! “She took off his shirt.” Ah. Now we’re getting somewhere. See the difference? One holds me back and the other invites me in.
Filtered: “I felt that he was teasing me.”
Immediate: “He teased me.”
Filtered: “I thought he was a jerk.”
Immediate: “He was a jerk.”
When we are writing from a character’s point of view, we are showing the reader what that character’s world looks like through their eyes. Often, our need to remind the reader that, “Hey! You are inside the head of a fictional character!” creates padding that ultimately takes a reader away from the writing, rather than deeper into it.
Also, check out how weak those filtered sentences are. “I felt you were mean.” This isn’t therapy, this is a book. We don’t need no stinking “I” statements here (unless your character is in therapy and is the type who would use “I” statements, of course.)
Here’s a longer passage. See if you can identify the filtering before checking out the second, more immediate passage.
Susan gazed out the window at the black cat sitting in a spot of
sunshine on her lawn. She felt like the cat was a sign from the gods,
though she didn’t know what kind of sign it could be. Death? Weren’t
black cats bad luck? She thought that signs from the universe should
come with handy labels. It would make things easier.
Did you spot the filters? Let’s see if we can eliminate them.
A black cat sat in a spot of sunshine on Susan’s lawn. The cat was a
sign from the gods, though she wasn’t sure what kind of sign it could
be. Death? Weren’t black cats bad luck? Signs from the universe
should come with handy labels. It would make things easier.
When the filters are removed, it makes the passage tighter and puts you more directly into the character’s head. You don’t need to tell the reader that Susan gazed out the window because the reader already knows he is in Susan’s head. What she sees, he sees, so there’s no need to put a flashing neon sign there screaming, “We are still in Susan’s head!”
When you remove the filters in your writing, you unearth your writer’s voice. Think of it as chipping away the rock to find the gold. If you’re a beginning writer, you’re probably burying your voice in mounds of filtering. Eliminate it and let your voice be heard.
(Even more experienced writers fall into the filtering habit. Here’s this paragraph in its original form: “Removing filtering is also away to unearth your voice as a writer. Think of it as chipping away the rock to find the gold. I’m guessing if you’re a beginning writer, you’re burying your voice in mounds of filtering. Eliminate it and your voice will be able to be heard.”)
Filtered: “He noticed her hands were covered in mud from the garden.”
Immediate: “Her hands were covered in the mud from the garden.”
As long as you’ve established that we are in a particular character’s head, you don’t need to tell us he noticed something. Let us notice with him, which is what we do in the immediate example.
Filtered: “Jane remembered when her husband used to bring her flowers. Now he only brought trouble.”
Immediate: “Her husband used to bring her flowers. Now he only brought trouble.”
When you take us back into the character’s memory, let us go back with her. Don’t tell us she’s remembering, show us. (Hear that? Filtering is telling.) Readers are smart. As long as you have clearly established the view point character you don’t need to smack them on the head every time your character remembers something.
As with everything in writing, these are not hard and fast rules. Yes, the pacing is often improved when you eliminate filters in your writing. However, there are times when the story dictates that you need a filter. You are ultimately the master of your writing. If there’s a passage that needs filtering because you want to slow the pace, then for the love of all that’s unholy put it in. The important thing to know is that this filtering problem exists and it can water down and weaken your story.
Here’s a list of some filtering words to look out for:
He would start
She thought she might
If you’re game, post some “Filtered” and “Immediate” passages of your own in the comments. If you can think of other filters, post them too. I’m always up for improving my writing.
Writing exercise: Take out the filters in this passage and rewrite it to make it your own. Post your results in the comments. Come on. It’ll be fun. (I think it will be fun, maybe.)
Damion knew that the aliens were planning to take over the world and
felt sad that he would never get the chance to tell Lydia how much he loved
her. He began to cry, thinking about all the missed opportunities he’d had
to ask her to marry him, to make love to her. The aliens would enslave them
all and he would have to start wearing one-piece unitards. He didn’t think
Lydia would love him once she saw him in a unitard. His body wasn’t made
for Spandex, not at all.