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Inside, Not Outside
If you’ve been writing for a while, you’ve probably heard the phrase “show, don’t tell” about a thousand times. This generally means instead of telling us that a character did something, you should show them completing the action. It provides more impact and makes for better reading. There’s different ways to “show,” however, that you might not have thought about before. One of the best things I ever learned from an editor is how to avoid filtering. Learning this lesson literally changed how I write.
What is filtering? Filtering is telling how a character feels, thinks, reacts, and perceives the world instead of showing it. Say you have a character named Joe. Filtering is telling us that “Joe thought,” “Joe wondered,” “Joe saw,” and “Joe heard.” If Joe is your POV character, we need to get deeper into his perspective. You should show us what’s going on in Joe’s head instead of explaining it. Here are some examples:
- Instead of “Joe saw a dog on the street.”
- Try “As Joe walked down the street, a brown and white dog loped past him.”
You don’t need to explain to us that Joe saw the dog. The fact that the dog is being described lets us know that Joe saw it–after all, we’re in his head.
- Instead of “Joe heard music playing.”
- Try “A soft melody came from the other room. Joe smiled. It was a familiar tune.”
Especially when it comes to things that involve the senses, it’s better to describe the thing that activates the sense rather than just saying the sense was activated. This puts us more in the moment, experiencing it along with the character.
This works with more abstract things like thinking and knowing as well.
- Instead of “Joe knew something bad was about to happen.”
- Try “A cold chill rushed down Joe’s spine. His skin prickled. Something wasn’t right here.”
We feel what Joe is feeling when the author describes what’s happening to him, instead of just telling us he senses that something is wrong. We all know what it’s like to be afraid, sick, happy, jealous, glad, and a million other emotions…and the storytelling is much stronger when the author evokes these emotions in the reader rather than telling us about them. It also helps us connect more with the character, not just because the character seems more real, but because how the character reacts tells us a lot about their personality.
A good way to eliminate this sort of filtering is to do a sweep of your manuscript and search for sensory words like felt, heard, saw, tasted, and smelled. Also look for words like knew, thought, and sensed. Of course, not every single use of these sorts of words will be wrong. No writing rule is without exceptions. There may be times where it’s very much appropriate to use filtering. But as a general rule, eliminating filtering makes a story more immediate and provoking. It’s very much a way of showing instead of telling.
Getting rid of filtering was one of the best things I ever learned to do. It made my writing a lot tighter and more like a “story.” What’s a good rule you learned that changed your writing?