This is the first of a series of posts featuring writing hacks which will instantly improve your writing!
With NaNoWriMo looming in the distance, I want to help writers produce cleaner and more effective drafts by addressing the issue of filter words.
WHAT ARE FILTER WORDS?
‘Filter words are verbs that increase the narrative distance, reminding us that what we're reading is being told by someone rather than experienced, or shown, through the eyes of the character’ (Louise Harnby: her excellent writing and editing blog is linked here)
Filter words include words such as think, feel, see, touch, realise, know, wonder etc (the list goes on). There are also phrases which have a similar effect, e.g. seemed to, looked like etc.
WHAT IS THE EFFECT OF FILTER WORDS?
When constructing your prose it can seem intuitive to write about a character hearing something, or feeling something, or realising something, as in the example below:
‘Emmy walked into the building and smelt grease and meat juice in the air. She was shown to a table and saw a paper placemat, chopsticks, and a bottle of soy sauce. The waiter gave her instructions about how to use the buffet (as if she didn’t know), and she felt her stomach gnawing at her while she waited for him to finish his explanation.
Five minutes later she sat at her table with her plate piled to what looked like chest-height. She speared a piece of chicken on her fork and relished the taste of sweet and sour on her tongue.
‘Ooo look it’s Emmy.’
She almost choked. The sound of the girl’s voice sent her body rigid and immediately made her want to curl up in a ball and hide in her chair. She felt her heart race as her childhood bully strutted towards the table’.
Not the world’s best writing, but in my defence I wrote it with a toddler sitting on my lap and poking me in the eye. Sometimes life is imperfect.
Now look at the same passage with filter words and phrases removed or re-worked.
'Emmy walked into the building, into a cloud of grease and meat juice. She was shown to a table with a paper placemat, chopsticks, and a bottle of soy sauce. The waiter gave instructions about how to use the buffet (as if she didn’t know) while her stomach gnawed and growled.
Five minutes later she sat at her table with her plate piled to chest-height. She speared a piece of chicken on her fork and relished the sweet and sour flavour.
‘Ooo look it’s Emmy.’
She almost choked. The girl’s voice sent her rigid and immediately made her want to curl up in a ball and hide in her chair. Her heart raced as her childhood bully strutted towards the table’.
Obviously there are other ways we could improve this passage, but notice that the writing immediately feels improved. It is cleaner, punchier, and it draws the reader into the story.
Filter words place distance between the reader and the character. The reader is told that the character sees something, feels something, or thinks something, instead of the reader seeing, feeling or thinking these things along with the character.
There are occasions on which filter words may be recommended or required. For example, you may need filtering phrases to show a character coming to a gradual realisation. Certain types of filter words or phrases may also contribute to a character’s narrative voice, particularly if the story is told from a first-person perspective.
However, most of the time filter words are not needed, and too many can drag a reader out of the story rather than drawing them in. It can feel intuitive to use filter words, but the reality is that writing is almost always improved when these words and phrases are omitted (unless used intentionally).
Filtering falls under the category of writing advice labelled ‘show, don’t tell’, and is one method you can use to show your character’s experiences and interactions with the world. By removing filtering language, you effectively allow the reader to experience the world directly through the character’s eyes, ears, skin and brain.
AN EXAMPLE: HARRY POTTER
I’m using Harry Potter because it is well-known, but also because it provides a concrete example of the point I’m making.
One of the biggest criticisms of the series is that the main character is unlikeable, annoying, and too much of a ‘goody do-gooder’ (as some of my relatives would say). I agree with this sentiment. I love many of the characters in the series, but even as a child I found it difficult to like and relate to Harry.
I puzzled over this ‘feeling’ for years because many of Harry’s behaviours, thought patterns, personality traits and decisions objectively make sense. Yet I could never warm to him or like him like I could with many of the side characters, and I wasn’t alone in feeling this.
Recently I re-read parts of the series (for the first time in years) because of research for my Enneagram personality type series. As I was doing this it finally hit me why I couldn’t relate to Harry: the books are RIDDLED (pun intended) with filtering language.
I’ve picked out an example from Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, during the final confrontation between Harry and young Tom Riddle. I picked this passage because it provides examples of both over-use of filtering, and some of the benefits of filtering:
‘But as warm blood drenched Harry’s arms, he felt a searing pain just above his elbow. One long, poisonous fang was sinking deeper and deeper into his arm and it splintered as the Basilisk keeled over sideways and fell, twitching, to the floor.
Harry slid down the wall. He gripped the fang that was spreading poison through his body and wrenched it out of his arm. But he knew it was too late. White-hot pain was spreading slowly and steadily from the wound. Even as he dropped the fang and watched his own blood soaking his robes, his vision went foggy. The Chamber was dissolving in a whirl of dull colour.
A patch of scarlet swam past and Harry heard a soft clatter of claws beside him.
'Fawkes’, said Harry thickly. ‘You were brilliant, Fawkes…’ He felt the bird lay its beautiful head on the spot where the serpent’s fang had pierced him.
He could hear echoing footsteps and then a dark shadow moved in front of him’.
The use of the filter word ‘watched’ in the line ‘watched his own blood soaking his robes’ is an example of this tool being used effectively. Watching your own blood leaving your body has a disturbing and emotive punch that wouldn’t hit as hard if the word ‘watched’ was removed.
One could also argue that filter words used during a trance-like state (which Harry enters when the Basilisk’s poison seeps through his blood) shows the character’s feeling of detachment from reality.
However, some of the filtering is unnecessary and (in my opinion) creates distance between Harry and the reader, and / or dilutes the potential power of the scene e.g. ‘he felt a searing pain’, ‘he knew it was too late’.
Going back over the books (after learning a lot more about writing craft), I was floored at the constant use of filter words through which Harry’s story is told. No wonder many readers can’t connect with him! No wonder people care more for the side characters than for the main character: you expect a certain amount of narrative distance from the side characters when experiencing a story in close third-person perspective, but when the language used regularly distances you from the main character himself… this can be a huge problem.
Is this the reason so many readers dislike Harry and fail to connect with him, even as they fall in love with and root for his friends? I can’t say for sure, but I’m willing to bet it forms at least part of the reason (another reason being that he’s a ‘Gary Stu’ character who finds it easy to make the ‘morally correct’ choice, but that’s a topic for another day!)
HOW CAN I USE THIS GOING FORWARD?
If you’re trying to draft your story as quickly as possible then, if you wish, use all the filter words you want and edit them out later.
However, since I found out about filter words, I’ve become aware of when I’m using them (even in drafting mode) and I automatically either avoid them, or try to use them with intention.
No one is going to DNF your book if there is the occasional filter word. However, it is easy to use them as a crutch, and the more you use them without conscious thought, the bigger your task when editing and trying to remove or re-work them.
Filter words increase the narrative distance between the reader and the main character. In most cases, removing most or all filtering language in your writing will instantly improve it, by drawing the reader in and showing them what the character is experiencing rather than telling them about it. If used with caution and intention then filter words can be used to great effect for characterisation, character realisations, and to add emotive or sensory nuance to a scene.
WRITING HACK SERIES
This is part of a series of blog posts featuring writing hacks which will instantly improve your writing!
BEFORE YOU GO…
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