Writing: Filtering ruins your descriptions.

Have you gotten your manuscript back and your beta/early reader comments are: “Your characters are boring.” Or “This feels very distant.” Or “I couldn’t get into it.” Or “You’re filtering.
What they might mean: You’re filtering.

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This is a different type of “Filtering”. Faceswapping from Snapchat. Probably won’t help your writing…

Specifically, sensory filtering. It’s an easy thing to find and change in your manuscript, and you can train yourself out of using filtering words.

The simplest way to describe it is you’re using sensual verbs. No, not smexy verbs, verbs that describe the act of receiving information through one of the five senses. The most common filter words are: Saw, Heard, Tasted, Felt, and Smelled.

Here’s why they need to go. In your super special work of art, whatever genre it is, you’ve created a pocket universe. The main goal of your descriptions is to immerse the reader so deeply in this universe that the reader believes your story could totally happen. Or better; the reader lives your story.

When you use a filtering verb, you’re reminding the reader that they are reading a story, and not living it.

Have you ever been in a theater, watching a Summer Blockbuster, when something – a really stupid line, one of the actors is just awful, the explosion didn’t have a realistic blast radius – jolted you out of the drama and you thought “Man, these chairs are so uncomfortable.”

A filtering verb does the same thing.

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Don’t download this app. You don’t need another thing to distract you from writing.

 


Here’s an example in limited 3rd POV with Fey Hunter Jack as our Main Character:

Jack and Priya walked through the false twilight made by L.A. fog. The scant light cast a melancholy orange glow to the hazy streets. Wavering purple shadows crawled out of black alleys and clung to the skyscrapers.

“This place smells like the boys’ locker room,” said Priya. Her voice sounded husky in the strange air.

Jack sniffed. “Sweaty feet, old piss, and backed-up toilets?” He grinned. “Means we’re in Fey territory. Oberon should be close.”

“Good.”

Jack heard her load a can of soda into her modified shotgun. He looked at her and saw she had a determined smile across her tired features.

“Fey trails,” she said, pointing at the broken pavement.

Jack squinted and saw the faintly glimmering path as if a giant snail had meandered down the street. He recalled the first time he’d seen such markings. Bozu, his old mentor, had compared it to a trail left by a… well, it was a distasteful joke and the desire to share it died under Priya’s hard gaze.

“So we gonna go get’em?” she asked. “Or is the brave Fey Hunter quaking in his oh so rugged and stylish Hush Puppies?”

“I was tacticionizing,” said Jack. He started to insult her back but he heard a growl come from a nearby alley.


Let’s put our serious pants on and deconstruct:

Jack and Priya walked strode1 through the false twilight made by L.A. fog. The Scant light cast a melancholy orange glow to the hazy streets. Wavering purple shadows crawled out of black alleys and Quivering purple shadows clung to the skyscrapers.

“This place smells2 like the boys’ locker room,” said Priya. Her voice sounded husky in the strange air.

Jack sniffed. “Sweaty feet, old piss, and backed-up toilets?” He grinned. “Means we’re in Fey territory. Oberon should be close.”

“Good.”

   Jack heard her load a can of soda into her modified shotgun. The can of soda she loaded into her gun clunked and screeched as it slid down the barrel of her homemade shotgun.He looked at her and saw she had a determined smile across her tired featuresA determined smile stretched across her tired features.4

“Fey trails,” she said, pointing at the broken pavement. 

   Jack squinted and saw the faintly glimmering path. as if It looked like a giant snail had meandered down the street. He recalled the first time he’d seen such markings.5 The first time he’d seen such markings, Bozu, his old mentor, had compared it to a trail left by a… well, it was a distasteful joke, and the desire to share it died under Priya’s hard gaze.

“So we gonna go get’em?” she asked. “Or is the brave Fey Hunter quaking in his oh so rugged and stylishly hipster Hush Puppies?”

“I was tacticionizing,” said Jack. He started to insult her back but he heard a growl come from a nearby alley. “And your boots are –” 

   A deep growl came from the alley to his left.6

  1. Whenever simply moving a character, either make the movement count, or don’t say it at all.
  1. This was one of the words I listed as filtering. Am I going to change it here? No. Priya, not Jack-the-POV-character, is the first one who smells it. Since this is limited 3rdPOV, Jack can’t read her mind. Therefore, she must reveal this information in dialogue. Maybe it’s significant. Also, what else do I show by what she chooses to compare it to. What does that reveal about their world, their relationship. Their age?
  1. The focus is on Jack hearing. Not what he is hearing. Here, filtering is doubly awful because it ignores something special about this world. Guns that use cans of soda for ammo. Which is more awesome: watching Jack hear something? Or hearing the sound the can makes as it slides into the gun?
  1. Redundant. Of course he’s looking at her if he saw her. More importantly, again, the focus is on Jack looking and seeing, not what he saw. The text reminds the reader that s/he is looking at Jack looking at something else, not being inside Jack, seeing through his eyes. Which would you think: The dog just ate that slug. Or: I saw the dog just ate that slug. Or: I am seeing that dog eat that slug.
  1. “Recall” is another filtering word. You might be trying to signal a memory or flashback with it, but it’s unnecessary. When remembering something (note: this is different from when you’re talking to someone, telling that person about yourself remembering something), do you start the thought with “I remember this one time….” Or do you just rememberit: “The first time we roasted a giant…”
  1. Whenever your character “starts” to do something, change to just describing what the character is doing. The word “start” reminds the reader of the story and not the action. The equivalent of tapping a reader on the shoulder, it messes with a story’s chronological structure and exaggerates that what’s about to happen was not happening before and might be interrupted.
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This app is destroying my life.

In your WIP: Seek and destroy (most) filtering words.

Caveat! Sometimes your Protags do need to have a look around, remember something vital, or dialogue about what they’re experiencing. Examples:

“In the darkness, I felt around for my dagger.”

“Through the telepathic link, I tasted the muffin.”

“In the time portal, I saw myself as a young man, hitting on my own grandmother.”

But! “He felt the knife slide across his throat.” Versus: “The knife sliced through his throat.” Or better: “The woman slashed. A hot sting burned across his throat.”


Lastly, let’s thank American author Janet Burroway for the term “filtering” in application to writing.


Connect with me by leaving a comment below, on Twitter (@JoanWIP), or Facebook.

Hang out in my mental playground! My short are stories available on Amazon, Fresh Cuts: Breaking Volume. 

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3 thoughts on “Writing: Filtering ruins your descriptions.

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