Avoid Filtering and Improve Your Writing

Guest Post by D K ELLIOTT

The characters in your novel are the essence of your story, and you want your reader, your customer, to develop an emotional involvement with the characters. You create involvement of the reader when you bring him into the scenes as a participant in the action. This requires that you avoid filtering when describing the action. If you follow this suggestion, the events of your plot will work through your characters to build reader involvement. What on Earth is filtering? I’m certain many writers would ask that question based on what I’ve recently read in novels from my local library. I’ll know it when I see it, goes the old cliché. The key word here is ‘see’.What does your character ‘see’; an angry man; a charging dog; a golden sunset? That’s all the reader needs to know. So, how do you tell him that’s what the character saw? Simply as follows: The door burst open and an angry man rushed in. When he dropped over the garden wall, a charging dog came out from behind the house. She lifted the blinds and a golden sunset spanned the horizon.

What is not needed, and not wanted, is being told that the character saw; only show what the character saw. In each example above, phrasing such as, and saw, or its equivalent, is not inserted, and aught not to be inserted, in good literature. You want the reader to be in the character’s head, seeing through the character’s eyes. You do not want the reader watching the character watching the action. You do not want filtering. How does the reader know that this is what the character saw if you don’t insert the, and saw, phrase, or its equivalent, each time you describe action in a scene? Simply by employing the point of view principle. Each scene should be cast in one character’s mindset. Filtering is adding the, and saw, and equivalent phrases in the narrative, thereby violating the point of view principle so important to quality literature. Rigorously applying the point of view principle in each scene, and separating the scenes by appropriate formating when changing point of view, is critical, if you are to avoid filtering. Nothing is more confusing to readers than shifting points of view within a a scene. You must question each bit of narrative and dialogue in a scene, as to whose point of view is represented, to avoid this problem.

Avoid filtering, as well, when senses other than sight are involved. When the character hears something, describe what he hears not that he hears, e.g., the crack of a rifle, a door slammed, a shrill scream. How do you tell the reader what the character hears? Simply as follows: The crack of a rifle sent him scurrying for cover. She was climbing the stairs when a door slammed. A shrill scream disrupted Joan’s composure.

Also avoid filtering when the character smells something, e.g., the scent of Chanel No. Five, the fragrance of roses, the stench of decayed flesh. Describe what the character smells, not that they smell it. Her hair emitted the scent of Chanel No. Five. The fragrance of roses surrounded the garden bench where they met. Detective Jones realized they located the body from the stench of decayed flesh. In each case, avoid inserting, he heard, or, he smelled, or equivalent expressions. You should also apply the filtering rule to both taste and touch, again, by describing what the taste was, or what the feeling was, not that it was tasted or felt. Moreover, strict adherence to the point of view principle is necessary to avoid reader confusion. If you avoid filtering, you also eliminate unnecessary and redundant words that would interrupt the flow of the story for the reader. It is one of the techniques that improve the quality of writing and works synergistically with other principles of good writing. Thus, avoid filtering, do not hang dreadful adverbial modifiers on dialogue citations, clean out redundant phrasing, write with nouns and verbs, avoid the use of qualifiers and clichés, use figures of speech sparingly and inform the reader which character is speaking when it isn’t obvious, and your writing will be substantially improved.

References: The Elements of Style, Fourth Edition; William Strunk, Jr. and E. B. White The Art of Fiction; John Gardner Writing Fiction, A Guide to Narrative Craft; Janet Burroway

D K Elliott, PhD D K Elliott Enterprises;

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