“As a fiction writer you will often be working through ‘some observing consciousness.’ Yet when you… ask readers to step back and observe the observer — to look at rather than through the character — you start to tell-not-show and rip us briefly out of the scene.”
Janet Burroway, Writing Fiction
Skilled writers employ an artful combination of showing and telling to convey necessary information while keeping a reader engaged and turning the page. But as we strive to balance these two forms of story sharing, there’s an important touchstone we can use according to Jacqueline Hesse: “Don’t put unnecessary distance between your story and your reader.”
In “No Filter,” an article published in “The Writer” magazine (September, 2016),
Jacqueline explores the fine line between reminding readers that they are observing a character and letting them actually experience the scene through the character’s eyes. Consider these two examples Jacqueline provides:
1) She stood at the cracked open window and saw a cat dart under a picnic table. she noticed the way its tail swished, back and forth, back and forth. It reminded her of a pendulum.
2) She stood at the cracked open window. A cat darted under a picnic table. Its tail swished back and forth, back and forth, a pendulum.
In paragraph 1, the words “saw,” “noticed,” and “reminded,” all act as filters — barriers that create emotional distance. In paragraph 2, these filter words are removed and we see the action through the character’s eyes — we experience it through her, not by watching her watching the action.
Filter words are often used in nonfiction, such as biography, because it’s impossible to verify what a character might have seen or felt. In fiction, filter words can seem deceptively useful. It’s easy to let them creep into our prose, but excising them can make our stories tighter and emotionally more affecting.
Here’s a simple exercise: Take a few paragraphs of your work and circle any filter words you spot, including: “saw,” “heard,” “thought,” “watched,” “seemed,” “felt,” “noticed,” and “remembered.” Then read each sentence with the filters and without them and note the difference. If you do this consisently, you’ll become more and more attuned to when and how you use filters in your work. Write on!