Filter words are words that put distance between the reader and the story.
They’re words that call attention to the fact that the story is filtered through the point-of-view character’s point of view. And they can cause a pretty significant problem.
Filter words remind the reader that they’re [reading].
The reader is observing rather than experiencing, like when you accidentally hit the touch-pad on the PlayStation controller when you’re playing Fallout and suddenly you go from first person to third person and you’re watching your character doing things rather than seeing what they see. You are no longer a survivor, you’re just controlling one.
When filter words prevail, there’s a loss of connection between the reader and the point-of-view character. There’s a loss of intimacy, which limits the reader’s capacity to forget what they’re doing and get lost in your story. If your story doesn’t hold them in, there’s no drive for the reader to turn pages. If there’s no drive for your reader to turn pages, there’s a very real possibility that your reader will close your book and not pick it up again, which is the last thing a writer wants.
Filter words are also an indication that you might be telling your reader what’s happening, rather than showing them, which breaks one of the big golden guidelines for writing. If you’re writing something like “he felt sad”, you’re reader’s going to know your character feels sad. But guess what! Your reader isn’t going to feel sad. You’ve alienated your reader by not allowing them into the part of your character’s brain that interprets their senses and observations.
This goes for words like “seemed”, too. Because your character is going to spend time thinking about other people’s feelings and of course he can’t know for sure what these feelings are. So other characters are going to seem sad.
Okay, Mr Character. I’ll take your word for it.
Filter words tell the reader something they already know: the story they’re reading is filtered through the point-of-view character’s point of view.
If he’s omniscient, he doesn’t have to infer what other characters think or feel, he knows. If he’s limited, then your reader understands that he can’t possibly know what other characters are thinking or feeling. Your reader understands that they’re experiencing the story through the point-of-view character’s senses. If a bell rings, they know your point-of-view character heard the bell ring. You don’t need to write He heard the bell ring! The bell rang is sufficient!
More than being sufficient, it uses fewer words and is more direct. The reader isn’t meandering through your reconstruction of the alphabet to get to your point. They have a direct route into the scene, without all that padding separating them from what’s happening.
Again, the padding that filter words create disrupts your reader’s connection with the story, which can have negative effects on their reading experience. A collection of negative reader experiences is probably not what you aim for in your writing career.
Take out filter words. Reconstruct your sentences to avoid filter words. Use your point-of-view character’s senses and observations to write more vivid scenes that your reader can escape into.
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