I have been seeing a lot of filtering in the Speculative Fiction Marathon over the last ten weeks. Filtering. What is it, and why should I care?
Filtering is exactly what its name implies. It is running an observation through your point of view character instead of giving it straight to the reader. It’s pretty easy to spot but can be harder to remove. What happens is you’re having the character share the action with the reader instead of putting it directly before the reader. It’s like a stage direction that shouts ‘look here’. If you have words like ‘heard, saw, watched, looked, realized, knew, understood, seemed, and felt’ then you have filtering. Here’s a heavy example:
She heard the gunshot and dropped her book. It felt like her stomach twisted and dropped into a hole. She knew that her mom had taken matters into her own hands. Going to the window, she saw smoke rising from the rifle crimped against her mother’s shoulder, and she watched as dozens of blackbirds scattered from the cornfield. It seemed Mom had gone over the deep end.
So what’s so bad about filtering? First off, it adds to your word count. Those words are unnecessary, and they won’t help your cause with agents. It makes the writing look sloppy instead of sharp and concise.
Second, it’s like twirling your head in plastic wrap, or putting a swimsuit on your kid, covering him with a towel, and adding a parka to top it off before you go to the beach. You’re coating your writing in layers. Those words create a distance between the reader and your character. They filter and slow down the pace, adding a layer to separate readers from getting close to the action. Everything you write, unless you use third person omniscient, is coming through your point of view character. What filtering does is poke the reader in the eye and say ‘hey, don’t forget, my character is here’.
Most of the time, it isn’t necessary though there are exceptions. Rarely, there are times when you do want to draw attention to something such as the fact that your character is in a dark room so you focus on her hearing.
Here’s how it looks without the filtering:
The pop of a gunshot made her drop her book. Her stomach twisted as if it fell into a hole. Her mother had taken matters into her own hands. At the window, smoke rose from the rifle crimped against her mother’s shoulder while dozens of blackbirds scattered from the cornfield. Her mother had gone off the deep end.
Try writing without filtering words and see how much more vivid and fast paced your writing becomes.