Get in your character’s head: Author Toolbox Blog Hop

It’s time for the Author Toolbox Blog Hop! The hop takes place the third Wednesday of every month (minus November/December) and focuses on the sharing of resources and learning tools for authors.

Stop by the hop page and check out all the participants and their posts this month! Also check out #AuthorToolboxBlogHop on Twitter.

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?

Author: Megan Morgan

Paranormal and contemporary romance author.

42 thoughts

  1. This is great, Megan. I have trouble seeing the filtering in my stories sometimes. Another tip could be: the writer needs to show why whatever happens is important to that particular character. We need to show why it matters to the character that Joe likes the music or a dog lopes by him. What does it have to do with the story?


  2. Great post!

    Janice Hardy calls this “adding narrative distance”, but it’s the same thing. The quick fix is simply to cut the “she knew” (or whatever filter word has been used), but your showing examples are much stronger.


  3. I avoid filtering as much as possible. I do however believe, as you mentioned, that everything, including filtering is okay from time to time. Great post, Megan! Looking forward to what you have to say next time around. 🙂


  4. Great examples of filtering and how to remove them. I always try to hunt these buggers down and luckily my critique group is brutal when it comes to filtering. However, at my last critique, they suggested adding a filter to portray that my character was removed from the action. My character heard a scream from another room, and I wrote it similar to your dog loping example. They recommended adding the filter “he heard” to emphasize that the scream was separate from his location. It was a revelation to see a filter word used to intentionally create distance.


  5. Showing and Telling are such a tricky subject. I think part of the challenge is how many of us initially learned English without being taught the underlying structure (beyond noun, verb, adjective). We were shown examples and taught to infer the proper way to compose sentences, without recognizing what was really going on, structurally.

    Those are great examples. I think one of my favorite things to see in writing is when the author uses those subtleties to intentionally create distance, referring to how a character “grabbed my hand” rather than “grabbed me”, creating a sense of separation between the character and their hand. It’s those kinds of subtleties that really wow me.


    1. That’s a good point. As writers we get a lot “deeper” into the language and how it can be used a lot more succinctly. That’s the heart and soul of writing, after all, being able to say a lot in as few words as possible.

      Yes! I see what you mean. It’s another way of getting in the character’s head and really seeing what they’re thinking and feeling. Thanks for stopping by!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I think I have filter words licked, but I’m terrible at adding extra words. “The table on the rug on the floor.” Where else would you put a rug?
    My #1 bad habit is using the word “all”. It sneaks into (all) my writing. Thank goodness for word search.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s another good point! Adding extra words is something I struggle with too. It’s much harder to notice those kind of things though as you can’t just do a search for them. Thanks for pointing that out, it’s great advice!


  7. Ha, I wish I had found this before I started querying agents and entering RWA contests! I learned not to filter by, metaphorically, having my hand smacked every time I stuck it out and then googling how not to get smacked. Which led me to filter words, deep POV and how to show, not tell. This is such a good, succinct explanation!


  8. Oh yes. I always do a search using Word’s search tool for those filter words. It’s so easy to write those sentences, but it’s also easy to search for those filter words and remove them.


  9. Great examples on showing vs. telling, and I like the idea of going back and doing searches on keywords which indicate telling. I try to catch them as I write, but I get lazy occasionally.


    1. Same here! These days I just want to get the first draft down and not concentrate too much on doing it “right.” I always run the check AFTER I do all my editing and revising, to find what I missed.

      Thanks for stopping by!

      Liked by 1 person

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