Friday, June 19, 2009

Novels Aren't Like Coffee, Pools & Cigarettes

One of the best ways to engage your readers is to make your POV characters identifiable, feared or intriguing. And you do that by making motivations and desires clear, including various types of sensory impressions and giving your characters multiple facets like quirky interests or occupations, different proclivities or issues that can affect how he or she reacts like phobias, skeletons buried deep in the closet, job tension or fatigue from insomnia. Okay. Check. You've done that. Good.

After all this great character building, does your work contain some unwanted distance? Are critters saying your work is pretty good but not engaging? Does your prose feel a bit clumsy? Filtering may be the cause.

Filtering is good for coffee, pools and cigarettes, but not novels. Yet it's something writers do too frequently because they don't know they shouldn't. But it's something you should watch for and avoid in your work. When you use combos like she saw, she felt, she heard etc., instead of just naming the stimulus, and sometimes the reaction, it zaps a reader's connection with the scene character. Saying what’s observed or detected with a filter creates distance and makes readers feel like they’ve been ushered outside the POV just a little bit instead of right there with it. Plus, it mucks up work with superfluous words.

Whether you’re using First, Subjective Third or Omniscience, filtering should be kept at a minimum. Here are some examples that show the difference:

She smelled burgers and bacon from Yesterday’s, which incited hunger pangs. (filtered)
The aroma of burgers and bacon from Yesterday’s incited hunger pangs. (direct)

She noticed the dogwood blossoms that settled on his black Corvette sail off and flutter to the pavement. (filtered)

Dogwood blossoms that settled on his black Corvette sailed off and fluttered to the pavement. (direct)

When she heard a window pane shatter and clink on the wood floor like crystal rainfall, she scampered for a place to hide. (filtered)

When a window pane shattered and clinked on the wood floor like crystal rainfall, she scampered for a place to hide. (direct)

To find the filtering in your work, look for noun-verb combinations like: she felt, she knew, she saw, she smelled, she heard, she tasted, etc. and could-forms like: she could feel, she could sense, etc. and rewrite them so they're non-filtered.

In some instances, it’s effective to use a filter like this:

By the time she caught wind of his black cherry-leather cologne, her neck was in the stranglehold of a muscular arm.

She heard somewhere that filters can kill an otherwise good novel.
You can also use a filter to help set up POV. In Omniscience, filters tend to be used more often, but once POV is established, they can be omitted. If your chosen narrator remains at a distance from all POV characters, not quite as far-removed as Objective/Dramatic nor as close as Subjective, then filtering can be used to maintain this distance throughout.

Filtering is a beginner's mistake so it comes off as amateurish and that's not the kind of impression you want to make. Rock on. Write on. Be direct.

~ Signing off and sending out cyber hugs.


  1. good food for thought...good post

  2. Absolutely AWESOME, Courtney. I learned a lot right here today. I now have another bullet in my revision gun chamber! Thank you so much.

  3. Thank you, Nathan.

    I'm glad you found the post absolutely awesome, Darc.

  4. Ahhh.....I'm extremely happy that I stopped here. Filtering will be in the forefront of my mind from this time forward.

  5. Glad you found the post useful. Thanks so much. :)

  6. Courtney,

    Thanks for the post - great title too.

    I just searched my manuscript for the phrase "she felt" and am appalled. In examining where I've used it, I realize it's a lazy substitution for forms of "to be".

    In all my fiction writing classes and reading I've never run across filtering. You've just helped me improve my writing.

  7. Great to hear. I'm so glad I could help you out. Thanks for visiting my blog and taking the time to comment.