There aren’t many absolute rules in writing; some rules, such as “Write What You Know”, have long since been proven to be nonsensical at best and counter-productive at worst. However, in Tracieland, “Avoid Filtering” is one that comes pretty close to being absolute. Yet I see the rule being broken, often and to excess, in the slush pile and in every second independently published book I read. It seems that, in the e-book gold rush, the rule has been forgotten; I’m going to do my small part to bring it back.
You’ll find advice on filtering, what it is and why you should avoid it in many a worthy textbook and creative writing class. But let’s say you’re a talented but impoverished apprentice writer, and you don’t have the luxury of purchasing or attending either. This is my take on the subject; any professional editors reading this, feel free to correct me if I’ve got any of it wrong. And no doubt I’ve filtered myself many a time, particularly in my earlier works, so don’t hold that against me. I’d like to think I’m improving, though.
What is filtering?
So a viewpoint character is trundling along through a story. The reader knows that anything that happens in the story is being experienced by the viewpoint character, yet the author reminds the reader who is experiencing it anyway. Here are a few examples of filtering words.
She remembered/recalls/thought back to…
It appeared to her that…
Why avoid filtering?
Filtering creates distance between the reader and the story. It makes the reader look at a character instead of looking through the character’s eyes, thus making the character the “filter” through which the story is experienced. That’s the “official” reason not to filter; for me, it insults my intelligence as a reader. I know who the viewpoint character is. I don’t need to be told that he or she is feeling this, seeing that or knowing something else.
Here’s a passage from one of my stories, “Lest We Forget”. I’ve retro-fitted it to stuff it with filtering.
I hear the alarm go off at 5.50 a.m. and feel Stacey stir next to me. I kiss her, roll out of bed, dress clumsily in the dark and slip into the room Andy shares with his sister. I shake him awake. I know that he is confused because his face is bleary for a moment, then he appears to remember. He sits up and scrambles for the end of the bunk.
“Ssh! Don’t wake Lisa!” I hiss, but my warning comes too late. The bunk shudders as he descends the ladder, and I see Lisa lift her head. I bundle her down the hallway and into our bed, Andy close behind me. Lisa complains to her mother, her voice sounding high-pitched and seeming to carry throughout the house.
“Sssshh!” I know that if we wake the twins this early, there’ll be hell to pay. Stacey beckons Andy to her and pulls him into a long, awkward bear hug. I watch him wriggle free, leaving her kissing air.
Andy and I are still whispering as we leave the house. I feel the cold penetrate my jacket and I hunch my shoulders, but Andy seems oblivious. I catch a closer look at him as we pass under a street light. His eyes look wide and his nostrils flared, his arms swinging in long arcs at his side as he seems to try to keep up with my pace.
And this is how it went to print. It’s not 100% filter-free (“I catch a closer look at him” could arguably have been rephrased), but still a considerable improvement on the previous sample.
The alarm wakes me at 5.50 a.m. Stacey stirs next to me. I kiss her, roll out of bed, dress clumsily in the dark and slip into the room Andy shares with his sister. I shake him awake. His face is bleary with confusion for a moment then he remembers, sits up, and scrambles for the end of the bunk.
“Ssh! Don’t wake Lisa!” I hiss, but my warning comes too late. The bunk shudders as he descends the ladder, and Lisa lifts her head. I bundle her down the hallway and into our bed, Andy close behind me. Lisa complains to her mother, her high-pitched voice carrying throughout the house.
“Sssshh!” If we wake the twins this early, there’ll be hell to pay. Stacey beckons Andy to her and pulls him into a long, awkward bear hug. He wriggles free, leaving her kissing air.
Andy and I are still whispering as we leave the house. I hunch my shoulders against the cold, but Andy is oblivious. I catch a closer look at him as we pass under a street light. His eyes are wide and his nostrils flared, his arms swinging in long arcs at his side as he tries to keep up with my pace.
How to fix it
I’m still assuming that you’re a starving artist in a garret who can’t afford the services of a professional editor. But once you know what filtering is, it becomes relatively easy to spot. If after reading this, you still find yourself too close to your own work to spot the filtering, then apply a few simple searches on your document for key words – e.g. heard, saw, knew, felt, tasted, remembered, seemed, appeared. Check to see if the context in which you’ve used them constitutes filtering. If it does, rephrase.
Here are a couple of excellent – and free – articles on filtering that might help explain filtering.