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  • Writer's pictureNicole Arch

Removing the Filter (Words) between Your Characters and Readers

Many writers use filter words to convey what POV characters experience. But if you want to immerse your readers in a character’s perspective, eliminating filter words is a better course of action. Just be careful not to omit any filter words that are necessary or desirable to your story!

Removing the Filter (Words) between Your Characters and Readers. A hooded woman with a wand and crown is separated from a woman reading with a cup of coffee by a wall of words, including "believe," "know," "smell," "think," "see," and "feel."

What Are Filter Words?

Filter words are verbs that put distance, or a "filter," between the reader and the narrator. They highlight the character rather than what the character is experiencing, telling the reader what is happening to the character instead of showing the experience through their perspective.

Filter words often relate to the five senses, including sensory verbs such as "see," "look," "hear," "taste," "smell," "feel," and "sense." However, filter words can also include thought processes such as "realize," "believe," "remember," "know," "wonder," "decide," "think," and "note."

Why Are Filter Words So Bad?

New writers often use filter words as a means of easily conveying information about a character’s experience. However, these seemingly helpful verbs can have serious consequences for your prose, including:

Adding Psychic/Narrative Distance

Readers want to be immersed in a story, experiencing everything as if they themselves are the main character. Filter words add psychic distance by reminding the reader that they are separate from the character and the immediacy of the scene. Thus, filter words distance the reader from not only the character, but from the action and emotion of your story.

Showing the Reader You Don’t Trust Them

Filter words are a form of telling rather than showing, as you tell the reader what is happening to the character instead of showing the experience through their perspective. In addition to adding narrative distance, “telling” signals to the reader that you don’t trust them enough to read between the lines and decipher your meaning on their own. Essentially, you’re baby feeding your readers instead of letting them hold the spoon on their own… and your readers will be smart enough to spot the difference.

Clogging up Your Writing

Unnecessary filter words can clog up your prose with redundant writing. As author and editor AJ Collins says, “logically, if an action or emotion is being reported, it’s obvious the character is experiencing it, since it’s their point of view. Why then would you tell us?” Filter words also detract from scenes of heightened emotion, where you want short, sharp sentences to keep up the pace.

How to Avoid Filter Words

When you catch yourself using a filter word, consider whether the surrounding text can show the reader what’s happening instead. Oftentimes, you can just cut the filter word from the sentence without changing the meaning. For example:

Filtered: John stands from the table. He sees his mother frown.

Unfiltered: John stands from the table. His mother frowns.

Since the reader is already following John’s perspective, the reader will fill in the blank in the above example and infer that John sees his mother frown. You do not need to spell it out for the reader with the filter word "see."

In some cases, however, you cannot cut the filter word without revising the sentence more drastically. In these cases, try to put yourself in the character’s shoes and describe what they experience, rather than using the filter word to do the heavy lifting for you. For example:

Filtered: She felt the cold wind nipping her face. She felt faint.

Unfiltered: The cold wind nipped her face. Her vision blurred, and she swayed, fighting to remain upright.

You cannot simply cut the word “faint” in the sentence “she felt faint.” Instead, you have to dig deeper and really describe what the character is experiencing. The result is a more detailed and immersive piece of prose.

Exceptions to the Rule

Every writing rule has its exceptions, and so it should come as no surprise that filter words can be necessary or even desirable in some cases. According to fiction editor and proofreader Louise Harnby, “when used intentionally, [filter words] have a layering effect that can enrich a novel.” You may choose to use filter words in your manuscript in order to:

  • Add necessary clarity. Sometimes, it’s essential to know what the character sees/thinks/hears. Other times, there simply isn’t a better way to write the sentence.

  • Deepen character voice, especially in first person narration. A filter word might not be necessary to the meaning of your sentence, but it may be the most accurate way to reflect how your character thinks or speaks.

  • Move the perspective further away. If you’re writing a third person omniscient narrative, for example, you could use a filter word to intentionally create the effect of narrative distance as you begin to “zoom in” on a new POV character or “zoom out” on an old one. 

  • Ease tension. By creating narrative distance, filter words lessen the immediacy of the scene, allowing you to ease tension.

  • Introduce a new tone, particularly a contemplative one. While “she wondered” might not be necessary to the meaning of your sentence, for example, this filter word can create a sense of deliberation that adds to your intended tone.

  • Strengthen texture or flow. Variety is the spice of life, and peppering your narrative with occasional filters is one way you might choose to mix up your writing and word choice.

In Conclusion

When used unintentionally, filter words can seriously harm your writing and break reader immersion by creating narrative distance. Thus, filter words are usually frowned upon as a harmful barrier between your characters and your readers. However, sometimes filter words are necessary or even desirable for your prose. The key lies in your intention, so be extra vigilant in deciding where and how you want to use filter words in your story.

Still Have Questions?

Let me know! I'm always happy to answer comments, or you can reach out to me at my contact page.




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