Over the past few weeks, I’ve discussed several issues regarding point of view: the basics, first person vs. third person, and using multiple POVs. But whichever POV you choose, there’s one issue that will weaken your POV and create a wall between readers and characters: filter words. This is an issue that I see quite frequently in unpublished submissions, and it’s one that many writers are unaware of. Eliminating these filters can really strengthen your prose and allow the reader to feel completely immersed in the viewpoint character’s perspective.
So what are filter words? Essentially, they are words that distance the reader from the POV character. The most common examples are:
- Sensory words: saw, heard, felt, tasted, smelled
- Words about a character’s thoughts: knew, thought, wondered
- Other words that describe what a character thinks or sees: realized, noticed, decided, watched, looked
Why do these words weaken your writing? A POV character is, by definition, relaying everything that they see, know, think, feel, etc. If it’s being described, then we already know that they see/notice/know it. Using these words is not only redundant but also creates distance between the reader and the narrator. It can make prose feel clunky or awkward, and it’s often a sign of telling instead of showing. So, although the use of these words may seem like a small issue, it can have a tremendous effect on your prose.
Don’t believe me? Let’s take a look at some examples. First, three sentences that use filter words/phrases:
- Jane saw the car barreling toward her.
- John knew he had to get out of there.
- I could feel the cold raindrops splattering my face.
Now, let’s take a look at those sentences without the filtering:
- The car barreled toward her.
- He had to get out of there.
- Cold raindrops splattered my face.
See the difference? The rewritten sentences have a sense of immediacy. They’re more active and more in the moment, and the verbs are stronger. It’s sentence-level showing instead of telling.
Those examples are fairly obvious, but some filter words are a little more ambiguous, and these tend to be the ones I see most often. Examples:
- She realized she’d have to make a run for it.
- He wondered if he had enough time to reach the exit.
- I decided to wait out the storm inside.
This time, the solutions could be a little more complicated than just eliminating the filter:
- Oh, crap. She’d have to make a run for it.
- Would he have enough time to reach the exit?
- Well, I’ll just have to wait out the storm inside.
By eliminating the filter words in these examples, we’ve also added internalization and, in doing so, strengthened the voice. These are fairly straightforward examples, but they demonstrate what a difference eliminating the filter words can make.
Of course, there are exceptions to this. Sometimes adding a filter word can be useful in drawing attention to a specific act (like looking or watching). Other times it can create a dramatic effect. And the more narrative distance you’re using, the more you will need to filter. If you’re writing in a very distant third person—either limited or omniscient—you’ll probably want more filters. You certainly don’t have to cut every instance of these words.
However, it’s always good to double-check instances of these filters to make sure that you’re writing the strongest sentences possible. It’s especially good to check for these if you know that telling instead of showing, POV inconsistencies, or passive sentences are issues for you. Personally, I always check my manuscripts for these words during line edits, just because a few of them always slip in during first drafts. MS Word’s Find feature is a great way to search for them; just plug in the word you want to search for and take a look at each instance that pops up.
Remember, your viewpoint character should be narrating everything from their perspective, so there’s usually no need to filter it. Eliminating these unnecessary words can both tighten and strengthen your prose, and your readers will likely feel a greater connection to your character and their perspective.
What do you think? Do you ever use filter words? Have any tips for eliminating them? Let me know in the comments!
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