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Filter words in fiction

What are filter words?

When writing, we all use verbs to describe what characters are doing. For example, ‘Herbert noticed that Hector had run off again’, or ‘Monica realised that she had left her purse at home’. If we look more closely at these examples, we can see we are being told that Herbert and Monica have realised or noticed something. There’s nothing wrong with writing like this and most people write this way without thinking about it. But we could rephrase these sentences so that we are alongside Herbert and Monica in their experiences, rather than being kept at a distance and told what they are experiencing. We can remove the filter words.

Filter words are verbs that put distance between the reader and a viewpoint character’s thoughts, observations and actions. Filter words act as a barrier between the reader and what is happening to the character. As we saw above, Herbert and Monica were noticing and realising (both filter words). 

Filter words are often used to make sure the reader knows what the characters are doing and thinking. But readers can think for themselves and don’t need everything spelling out. Allowing the reader to work things out means they get closer to the story. The adage less is more is true here.  

The example below tells us that Pip knows something, and it goes on to tell us what they know.

Pip knew that the circus was coming to town next week. About time too they thought. They were so excited.

The reader is in Pip’s head. They know it is Pip’s thought, so the Pip knew bit is redundant.  Adding in some free indirect thought and an action beat shows Pip’s excited state of mind.

The circus was coming to town next week. About time too.  Pip squealed and danced around the room.

Removing filter words makes the narrative tighter and increases the pace, especially if the sentences are short.  Fewer filter words means the reader is in the moment with the character, so they can experience what the character experiences when it happens. The reader is shown what is happening, rather than being told. This creates a greater sense of immediacy and keeps the reader closer to the character, which is known as reducing the narrative distance. The example below shows a passage with filter words in bold and then with the filter words removed.

Sam came into the living room and shivered. He noticed that Ginny had left the windows open. He wondered why she had done that as she hated the cold. He then saw Sue from next door running down the drive and he heard the doorbell ring. He suddenly felt sick and thought something was amiss.

Sam came into the living room and shivered. Ginny had left the windows open. Why had she done that? She hated the cold. Now Sue from next door was running down the drive. What the hell did she want? The doorbell rang. Nausea washed over him. Something was amiss

The second example puts us closer to Sam and his thoughts, and we can picture the scene as it happens, rather than being held at a distance and told what is happening.

Examples of filter words

What is considered to be a filter word depends on the context of the text, but some examples are listed below.

asked

knew

saw

believed

noted

spotted

decided

noticed

tasted

felt

observed

thought

heard

realised

watched

looked

recognised

wondered

     

How to cut down on filter words

First-person narrative

Filter words can become a particular issue when first-person narrative is used, as too much use of I keeps the reader in the character’s mind, which is very limiting. Consider the examples below, which are shown with and without filter words.

I felt a shiver run down my spine.

A shiver ran down my spine.

I decided it was time for another piece of cake.

It was time for another piece of cake.

With the filter words removed, the prose is shown and not told. The first-person point of view means the reader can imagine themselves as the character.

However, filter words can sometimes work with first-person narrative. This is discussed in the section below When is it OK to use filter words?

Sensory information

Many of the filter words in the above list relate to our senses: sight, sound, smell, taste and touch. By including action beats and reframing narrative as questions, the reader is in the moment with the viewpoint character, rather than observing from a distance.

Sight

Ken thought he saw his mate Don over the road. He was sure it was him. He shouted his name.

Was that Don over there? It was. Ken cupped his hands. ‘Don, mate. Over here.’

She noticed the man outside the shop had fallen over. She thought she’d better go and help him.

The man outside had fallen over.  She grabbed the first aid kit and dashed outside.

They observed that the target was on the move. They knew this was going to be the showdown.

The target was on the move. Time for the showdown.

Jos recognised him straightaway. It was the fifth image in. With his grey bushy beard and distinctive nose, she’d know him anywhere.

Jos swallowed. The fifth image in. It was him. Grey bushy beard. Distinctive nose. There was no doubt.

Sound

She heard the sound of an aeroplane flying overhead. She looked up in the bright blue sky. She thought it might be vintage.

The low hum of engines on a summer’s day was strangely comforting. Her sunglasses weren’t much help on such a bright day, but the aeroplane was vintage. She knew that much.

Smell

He could smell burning coming from the field next door to the house.

He wrinkled his nose. Something acrid hung in the air. His stomach flipped. Was something burning? He dashed outside. Please let it not be the field again.

Taste

Roma thought the halibut tasted off.

Roma grimaced. Was the halibut under-cooked? Or had it gone off?  She gagged and made for the bathroom.

Touch

Helmut felt Desiree’s hand grab his. He knew she liked him and that made him happy.

Desiree’s hand grabbed his.   A woman actually liked him. Helmut grinned.

When are filter words OK to use?

Removing filter words makes the text tighter and cuts down on superfluous words. But scattering a few around the text introduces variation into the narrative style and is unlikely to affect the reader’s enjoyment of the book. In certain contexts, filter words may be necessary to give the reader essential information or to aid their understanding.   

If removing filter words affects the meaning of the text or you feel the tone has changed, then keep them in place. It’s your story!

Sight and sound

A reader may need to know what a character has seen or heard.

An example of using filter words for context is from In the Dark by Mark Billingham (p. 303):

Sitting there with her father and Paul’s parents, Helen watched the reactions of pedestrians as the cortege drifted by. She remembered being on the way to her mother’s funeral and seeing people stop and lower their heads; watching a man raise his hat.

The fact that Helen is watching the reactions of pedestrians is key here, as it is the catalyst to her remembering her mother’s funeral and watching the reactions of passers-by on that occasion.

Adding essential information

In the example below from Nightshade by Stephen Leather (Chapter 2, Kindle), the reader needs to know that the character didn’t realise that the noise was gunfire until she heard screaming.

The second shot had been closer, but she still hadn’t realised what it was until the screaming had started.

Dialogue

Dialogue is one way that verbs that also act as filter words can be used without fear of telling rather than showing. The example below includes some filter words that Hari is using to describe his experience at the docks.

Hari picked up his phone. ‘I saw him. I recognised him straightaway. He was down by the docks. I shouted but he never heard me.

First-person present-tense narrative

Including filter words in first-person present-tense narrative can create suspense, and perhaps give the prose a sinister voice. This example is somewhat exaggerated but shows how filter words can work to portray a voyeuristic, creepy voice.

I watch her from my rooftop. I recognise her even though it has been fifteen years. She looks happy. I hear her laugh. I wonder what she would think if she knew I had been released. I note that a man bends down and kisses her. I think of the knife under my mattress, and I smirk.

Now with the filter words removed:

My rooftop is a great vantage point. It’s been fifteen years, but she hasn’t changed much. She smiles and laughs a lot. What would she think if she knew I had been released?   A man bends down to kiss her. The knife is safe under my mattress. I smirk.

The voyeuristic and disturbing voice is lost once the filter words have been removed.

Final words…
  • Trust your reader. They don’t need filter words to work out what is happening in the text. Allow the reader to be on the character’s shoulder, experiencing what the character experiences. Show thoughts, observations and emotions rather than tell.
  • Use filter words when necessary. This could be in dialogue or when the context demands it.
  • Filter words can create suspense or give a voyeuristic feel to first-person present-tense narrative
References

In the Dark, Mark Billingham, Sphere, 2008

Nightshade, Stephen Leather, Hodder & Stoughton, 2013

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I’m Clare Black, a fiction book editor based in Stockport, UK. I help independent authors prepare for publishing by fixing the important details and improving the readability of their books. I specialise in crime, thriller and contemporary fiction, but I am happy to consider other genres. I am a Professional Member of the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading (CIEP).

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