The topic of filter words came up in conversation with an author recently. What are filter words? Are they a bad thing?
Point of View
It’s a question of Point of View (PoV). Modern writers are generally encouraged to write in close third-person perspective. The reader feels the character’s pain, sees what they see; the reader perceives the entire story through the prism of the character’s PoV. It’s a fashion, and a comparatively modern one, at that. Even fifty years ago, “close third” was a rarity. Most fiction was written in a distant third-person PoV, or even the now fashionably derided omniscient. If a modern writer has bowed to the conventions of the day and is writing in a close third-person perspective, then they should try and avoid using filter words.
What are filter words?
Filter words, and filter phrases, artificially insert a narrative distance between a character and the reader’s perception. Consider the difference:
Jon tasted the melon. It was fresh and sweet.
The melon exploded, fresh and sweet, in Jon’s mouth.
The first example contravenes the modern diktat of “show not tell”. We are told that Jon tastes the melon. To add insult to injury, we are then told, rather blandly, what the melon “was like”. It’s hard to think about melon. We’re too busy following the story, what Jon did, and what something was like, than thinking about the experience of eating a melon. In the second example, we are Jon, experiencing the melon bursting with flavour in his mouth. It’s much more immersive; “exploded” is a much more active and descriptive verb than “was”. In this case, we’re making the subject of the sentence the melon, and it’s difficult to read it and not think about eating a melon as a result. This is the ambition of close third PoV. Another example:
Jon opened the door. She was sitting at her desk. He immediately knew that she was upset.
Jon opened the door. She was sitting at her desk. Her eyes were red-rimmed; a cascade of used tissue overflowed from the bin.
Here, “knew” is the filter in the first line. In this example, the filtering is perhaps more noticeable and intrusive. It begs the question, how did he know? The following lines would then need to explain how he knew. But if the author describes what he sees, we readers can share the process of making our assumptions about her state of mind from the evidence available to him, her red-rimmed eyes, and the overflowing basket of tissue.
Importantly, his assumptions might be wrong. Perhaps she’s not upset. Maybe she’s had a very lengthy session chopping onions in the kitchen. Perhaps she’s just finished reading a torrid romance in which the heroine dies of a long, painful disease and her love interest only realises too late. But if Jon is making a misconception about her state of mind, we are making it with him. This is a really important tool in the fiction writer’s toolbox. Without actually lying to your readers (“she was upset”), you can let them be misled by your character into thinking she is upset. When your character is surprised to find out that he was wrong, later on, we are also surprised.
Any sense is a filter word. He tasted, he smelled, he saw, he felt, he heard. More intangible filters can also slip through. He thought, he realised, he believed, and he knew (as above), are all filters. If you’re writing in close third, avoid these types of interpretative verbs and structure your character’s narrative without them. Your close third person PoV will be all the more immersive for it.
If you’re doggedly ploughing on writing your novel in a very distant third-person, or omniscient PoV, you will probably need filters to interpret your characters’ perceptions of their environment. Just be prepared to endure the howls and brickbats of enraged others who will tell you you’re doing it all wrong and that using filters is “against the rules”. That’s what you get for not following fashion!