Details can mark the difference between good and great writing.
Filters are one of these obstacles, reminding your reader that she is observing the character and not actually experiencing the scene.
Examples of filters
Compare a paragraph with filters to paragraph without:
#1. She stood at the cracked-open window and saw a cat dart under a picnic table. She noticed the way its tail swished, back and forth, back and forth. It reminded her of a pendulum. Grandma’s clock, she thought. A gust blew in, and she felt the cold rain as it hit her face.
#2. She stood at the cracked-open window. A cat darted under a picnic table. Its tail swished back and forth, back and forth, a pendulum; Grandma’s clock. A gust blew in, and the cold rain hit her face.
In paragraph #2, the filters saw, noticed, reminded, felt, and thought have been removed. You don’t need noticed, because who else could be noticing the cat? You don’t need reminded or thought, either, because the reader is still with the same character – it has to be her thought. Of course she felt the rain; how else would she know it is cold? The filters are barriers for the reader. They create a psychic gap.
In Writing Fiction, Janet Burroway said: “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.”
Filters also happen in more subtle “I-not-I” characters, when you write outside of your gender, race or planet of origin. Filters can creep into your writing when you create characters that are very unlike yourself, such as a serial killer, white supremacist, or Sherlock-like genius. Filters are the sometimes subconscious admission that you have no idea what a serial killer actually thinks. This is most likely, and hopefully, because you have never killed a person.
But such filters are avoidable. Consider how Caroline Kepnes avoids them while writing about someone not like herself observing another in You:
You smile and you’re definitely not wearing a bra. You take the books out of the basket and put the basket on the floor and look at me like it wouldn’t be remotely possible for me to criticize anything you ever did. Your nipples pop. You don’t cover them. You notice the Twizzlers I keep by the register. You point, hungry. “Can I?”
Here we are essentially in the mind of the character, thinking the thoughts with him, because there are no filter words keeping us at arm’s length.
There are some exceptions, however. A writer may consciously choose to use filters when writing about a historical figure. Candace Fleming has written more than 30 books for children, many of them biographies. Fleming will consciously decide to use “may have thought” or “may have said” when she cannot verify (through diaries, letters, or other documentation) that the historical figure actually said or thought those lines, and that’s acceptable for more traditional forms of nonfiction, such as biography.
Likewise, when writing creative nonfiction, a writer may take a bit of poetic license. Who knows exactly what Ghengis Khan said to his men or his wives as he rode across Mongolia? Who can say for certain what Cleopatra thought the morning she killed herself? Inserting a filter is subtle way to let the reader know these details are from the writer’s mind and not necessarily historically accurate.
Writer Rebecca Kanner employs filters in her book Esther. “When I first wrote the book, I wrote it in third person,” Kanner said. She then took steps to rewrite the story of the biblical Esther in first person. Because Esther was not invented by Kanner, she could not fully occupy Esther’s thoughts, could not know for certain what she saw and felt. The filters acknowledge this. Filters here intentionally communicate the “I-not-I” distance. Yet Kanner still manages to tell an exceptional first-person story.
Generally speaking, however, the closer we get the reader to the character, the stronger it resonates and the more the reader feels. Removing the filters in your work is a leap toward better writing and creating a story with greater emotional resonance.
Search your manuscript and remove these filters: Saw, smelled, heard, thought, knew, touched, wondered, realized, noticed, watched, looked, seemed, felt, decided, remembered and reminded. Read each sentence with and then without the filters. Take note of the subtle but important difference.
Jacqueline Hesse has a BA in journalism, an MFA in creative writing, and teaches literature and writing as an adjunct professor for Minnesota State Colleges and Universities. She has 10 years of participating in and leading graduate-level writing workshops, and five years of professional critical critique and fiction editing experience.
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