While most of my new book, Mastering the Craft of Compelling Storytelling, is updated material from the original and out-of-print Flogging the Quill, Crafting a Novel that Sells, there is new material as well. I thought I’d share a new chapter with you on the topic of what are called “filters.” The filters you’ll read about on the Internet are a common problem—I call them action filters—but I think I’ve identified a second kind of filter that can diminish a narrative: body-part filters. See what you think. Then, while you’re at it, treat yourself to a signed print copy of Mastering the Craft here or a Kindle copy here. Happy holidays!
I have always had a problem with “he felt” and steered editing clients away from it, but hadn’t realized that it was just one example of what are called “filters” until a reader on my blog pointed that out. She steered me to Writing Fiction by Jane Burroway. The book cites author/teacher John Gardner:
“. . . the needless filtering of the image through some observing consciousness. The amateur writes: “Turning, she noticed two snakes fighting in among the rocks.” Compare: “She turned. In among the rocks, two snakes were fighting . . .” Generally speaking—though no laws are absolute in fiction—vividness urges that almost every occurrence of phrases as “she noticed” and “she saw” be suppressed in favor of direct presentation of the thing seen.”
Burroway points out that when you look at a character rather than through a character, you start to tell-not-show and rip us briefly out of the scene or, as I see it, out of the experience of the story.
Leslie Leigh, who writes the Leslie’s Writing Exercises blog, put it well:
“Filters keep the reader from sinking comfortably into the fictional dream. One moment the reader is hunched over the POV character's shoulder, observing the world as if he is that character, seeing only what the character sees. But stumble across a "filtered observation" and suddenly the reader finds himself looking at the character instead of with the character—watching the character as the character watches something else.”
It turns out that filtering goes beyond things seen—a partial list follows.
Actually, I believe there are two kinds of filters:
1. Action filters—placing a character’s action between the detail you want to present and the reader.
2. Body-part filters—using a body part rather than the character to do the thing you want the reader to experience.
If the scene is clearly in the deep point-of-view of a character, readers don’t need to be told the character sees, hears, or smells something. When the “something” appears readers intuitively assume the POV character sees-hears-smells it.
Filters back the reader away from the character’s experience by one step because the focus of the narrative becomes the character’s action rather than the actual thing the character senses or does.
Here’s a narrative example:
Harvey heard the howl of a coyote. He went to the front door, opened it, and stuck his head out. He shivered when he felt the sting of the winter wind and ducked back inside. Then he noticed a second coyote’s howl join the first. He decided to get the shotgun from above the fireplace mantle and scare them off.
Same scene without the filters:
A coyote howled outside. Harvey opened the front door and stuck his head out. He shivered when the winter wind stung his face and he ducked back inside. A second coyote’s howl joined the first. He got the shotgun above the fireplace mantle to scare them off.
Here’s a partial list of common verbs that can create distance between the reader and the story experience:
- he saw
- she heard
- he thought
- she touched
- he wondered
- she realized
- he watched
- he looked
- it seemed
- she felt or felt like
- he decided
- she noticed (a very common one)
- he noted
- it sounded or sounded like
- she was able to
- he managed
- she experienced
A reader’s mind reacts instantaneously to word stimuli—write “cat” and an image of a cat pops into the mind. Write “cat’s paw” and an image of a cat’s paw appears in a close-up. Therein lies the filter created by using body parts to do things in a story rather than using the character. Like an action filter, this kind of filter has the reader looking at a body part rather than being with the character in experiencing the story.
If you write “eyes,” an image of eyes comes to mind: “His eyes searched wildly for a way out.”
If you use a pronoun or a name, an image of the character comes to mind: “He searched wildly for a way out.”
Literally, it’s not his eyes that are doing the searching, it is the character. If what I write has you visualizing a pair of eyes moving jerkily from side to side, is that as true an image as getting you to visualize a man turning his head rapidly as he scans the area for an escape route?
Which serves the story better? Which delivers the character’s experience? I think it’s the image of the man.
Nervous about meeting Bob, Stephanie cupped her hand and her nose smelled her breath.
Nervous about meeting Bob, Stephanie cupped her hand and smelled her breath.
Frightened by the kindergarten teacher, little Elsa shrank in her seat and her mouth sucked her thumb.
Frightened by the kindergarten teacher, little Elsa shrank in her seat and sucked her thumb.
His elbow smashed into the monster’s face.
He smashed his elbow into the monster’s face.
A tender moment:
His fingertips caressed her face.
He caressed her face with his fingertips.
Examples from submissions to my blog:
Keith stumbled. His body He pitched forward
Her body She lurched forward and her hands flew up.
His arm He recognized her touch.
Not all body parts in action usages are filters. It’s perfectly okay to have a body part do something that is a part of what the character is experiencing. For example,
Billy buckled his knees when Tom landed a punch on his jaw.
Nawww . . .
Billy’s knees buckled when Tom landed a punch on his jaw.
For what it’s worth.
© 2014 Ray Rhamey