The one thing writing has in common with Instagram—sometimes filtering is a good thing.
This month’s misused advice is fairly straightforward, though it sill manages to get twisted into an ultimate rule by some. I must admit that I like this one. Writers I’ve worked with can tell you that I regularly strike filtering language in edits. However, I still don’t make it a hard and fast rule. So how is it meant to work?
It’s language that puts distance between the reader and the character. It’s sometimes incorrectly assumed that first-person writing is always closer than third-person. However, those terms simply refer to the pronouns the narrator uses for the main character. Narrative distance can be brought closer or made more distant in any point of view, depending on how much the story is filtered.
Filtering puts a layer of perception between the reader and what’s happening in the story. It’s usually indicated with words for thoughts or senses: see, hear, taste, feel, smell, think, guess, believe, etc. By removing them, you put the reader more directly into the action.
I heard two people shouting in the alley.→ In the alley, two people shouted.
She thought the coast was clear. → The coast was clear, right?
He felt a cold needle poke his arm. → A cold needle poked his arm.
You probably noticed that this is closely related to the concept of favoring active voice over passive. By filtering, you automatically create a passive structure with your character observing the action instead of the action itself happening. Besides the narrative distance, passive voice is another reason to avoid filtering.
There are at least two good reasons you might need to filter.
Sometimes the sense or thought is the whole point of the sentence. Let’s take that first example again:
I heard two people shouting in the alley, but I couldn’t see out the window.
The emphasis is on what the narrator is able to see and hear, not the people shouting, and that may be exactly what you intend. Or maybe your character has been drugged or injured, and you need to describe what they’re still able to feel. And for that all-important character growth, sometimes they need to directly acknowledge that whatever they thought or believed before is no longer true.
He thought she was his friend until she betrayed him.
Some writing is meant to be more distant, particularly if you’re emulating an older style like something from the romantic or gothic eras—or really anything pre-Jane Austen. Since styles have evolved greatly since then, you’ll have a hard sell on your hands if you aim for that, but you may have your own reasons for wanting to do things that way.
Children’s books also tend toward more narrative distance as children are still developing the empathy required walk in a character’s shoes as they read.
Before anyone gets defensive, this doesn’t make narrative distance a childish thing. In fact, some works are too dark or disturbing to write in a close perspective. If you’re writing in the villain’s point of view, you and your readers might not want to settle in too deep. Diane Anthony’s Supernova does this well. She alternates between a deeper first-person POV with a small-town librarian, who’s sweet but down-trodden, and a more distant third-person POV with an escaped convict, who has some rather unsavory view of his fellow man. There’s enough narrative to understand the convict’s downward spiral, but we aren’t settled in good and deep and invested like we are with the librarian.
A Time and a Place
Avoiding filtering will strengthen writing more often than not, but it’s certainly not a rule that must be adhered to at all times.
Were you taught that this was an iron-clad rule or some other strange-sounding writing advice? Let us know! Next time, we’ll discuss the advice that past perfect tense is passé (don’t use “had”).
Join us next week, when Rebecca Mikkelson will begin a new series on plot archetypes.