Filter words act like a veil between the reader and the character
by Kathy Steinemann
This article provides a list of writing filters, with practical examples of how to replace them. You’ll also find exercises that can double as story prompts.
All words exist for a reason. Use them wisely to create engaging narrative.
Why the fuss?
Filter words form a barrier that distances readers from a story.
Bertie felt the warm sand between her toes as she walked.
Bertie’s experience is relayed secondhand. When word economy is critical, this approach works. However, wouldn’t you rather become so involved that you almost feel it yourself?
With a few tweaks, we can strengthen the sentence.
The sand trickled between Bertie’s toes, radiating warmth with every step she took.
Strong verbs, trickled and radiating, amplify the sensory impact.
Five senses? Six? Twelve?
Most people can name five senses: sight, smell, hearing, touch, and taste. Add ESP to the list, and it grows to six.
Some pundits expand to include pain, balance, motion, sense of time, temperature, and sense of direction. You might even discover lists that include miscellaneous emotions such as hunger, happiness, fatigue, and rhythm.
For the purposes of this post, we’ll stick with the five senses we learned about in elementary school.
Popular advice recommends that writing include all five senses whenever possible.
Let’s evaluate a paragraph that complies with this recommendation.
Patricia heard steps on the front porch, and she smelled sulfur. She could taste bile rising into her throat. She couldn’t see anything in the dark, so she groped until she felt the familiar cold metal of her son’s baseball bat.
“What’s wrong with that?” you might ask. “The paragraph embraces all five senses.”
Please review the underlined words. They filter the events through Patricia’s perceptions. Let’s consider a different version.
Someone—or something—stomped across the front porch. The reek of sulfur overwhelmed Patricia’s nostrils, and bitter bile burned her throat. She groped in the darkness for a weapon. What was that? Ah, the comforting cold metal of her son’s baseball bat.
The second version employs strong verbs to transport readers into the action. Patricia hears stomping, she smells sulfur, she tastes bitter bile, she sees darkness, and she feels cold metal.
Or something, set off by em dashes, adds to the tension. The reek of sulfur leaves no doubt that the odor is unpleasant. Bitter bile burns her throat—a more effective taste reference. Familiar cold metal changes to comforting cold metal, a tell that adds to the paragraph.
All filter words (heard, smelled, taste, see, felt) were traded for active replacements.
If you don’t know what filter words are, you can’t avoid them.
Let’s review a partial list of filters and their close relatives. I tried to classify them logically, although some words could appear in multiple groups.
See: appear like, become aware of, detect, discern, distinguish, give the impression of, identify, look, look like, note, notice, observe, perceive, realize, recognize, reveal, seem, sense, sight, spot, watch
Smell: detect the smell of, diagnose, get a whiff of, scent, smell like, whiff
Hear: catch, eavesdrop, overhear, listen to, sound, sound like
Touch: feel, feel like
Taste: appreciate, delight in, enjoy, like, relish, savor, take pleasure in
Know: ascertain, assume, believe, bring to mind, decide, deem, discover, gather, get, glean, guess, infer, intuit, learn, posit, regard, remember, suspect, think, understand, wonder
Experience: be subjected to, face, go through, live through, suffer, take in, undergo
Be able to: be capable of, be equal to, be up to the task, can, could, have the ability to, have what it takes to
Dialogue to the rescue?
Consider the following sentence pairs.
Fabrice stared into the water. The creek looked cold.
Fabrice stared into the creek. “Wow, look at that ice. It must be at least three inches thick.” She shivered.
Sneaky, but effective, this provides an example of a filter word that doesn’t function as a filter. Fabrice describes the ice on the creek, and readers will understand that it’s cold. The shiver reinforces her statement.
Arno heard ringing in both ears.
Arno cupped his ears with his hands. “Will this infernal ringing never stop?”
A combination of body language and dialogue shows readers what Arno experiences, without using a single filter word.
This was crazy. Royce knew it, but he couldn’t stop himself from popping the question.
“Um,” Royce whispered, “I know this is crazy, but would you … will you … marry me?”
Another filter word sneaks into dialogue without functioning as a filter.
By the way, saying that a character knows something is discouraged by editors. Of course your POV character will know _____ [fill in the blank].
If you need to introduce facts, please find a way that doesn’t rely on know/knew or several paragraphs of internal monologue. Overdoing a character’s private thoughts is another practice that annoys readers.
Double-up = double-bad.
Do I need to explain why the following examples represent abuse of filter words?
Vivienne listened and heard _____.
Orson looked and saw _____.
Alice whiffed and detected the smell of _____.
Frank tasted and relished the flavor of _____.
Mallory touched her lips and felt _____.
Each sentence repeats the same sensory filter—double-slap on the wrist for offenders. I can’t administer your punishment, but dissatisfied agents, editors, and readers will.
More examples of filter rescues.
The corporal saw a grenade fly by and land in the foxhole.
A grenade flew by the corporal and landed in the foxhole.
Joe’s belches smelled like booze.
The stench of booze accompanied every belch that Joe disgorged.
Kristina heard a loud scream in the darkness.
A loud scream pierced the darkness surrounding Kristina.
Alva’s fingers touched something wet and sticky.
A sticky liquid adhered to Alva’s fingers.
Johanna smiled. The cake tasted moist and delicious.
Every delicious morsel of cake melted in Johanna’s mouth.
Quint knew Sandy wanted to go out with him.
Sandy wanted to go out with Quint.
Emil experienced a huge stress reaction.
Emil’s heart pounded like a gavel, and heat radiated to every extremity.
Be able to:
Raquel was able to sleep well for the first time in days.
For the first time in days, Raquel slept well.
Are you ready to attempt a few filter word exercises?
Try to edit away the filter words. If you like an idea, you’re welcome to snag it as a story prompt.
A few of the suggested solutions include what some editors would classify as filter words, but as I stated at the outset, all words exist for a reason. If you have to hunt through the solutions with a magnifying glass to find the filters, they’ll likely pass muster with most people.
Guido felt a host of humongous spiders skittering up his arm. Then he felt several sharp pains. They were followed by the feeling that he was suspended, swaying, trapped in a giant web. He heard a squeaky noise somewhere behind him, but he was unable to turn his head to discern what it was.
A host of humongous spiders skittered up Guido’s arm and sank their fangs into his skin. After a moment of disorientation, he found himself suspended, swaying, trapped in a giant web. Somewhere behind him a disembodied squeak sent a shiver down his spine, but the sticky trap immobilized his head, preventing him from investigating the source of the noise.
Looking up, Prisca noticed that she and her cohort were standing in the blind spot between cameras. Feeling emboldened, she extended a one-fingered salute in the direction of the CEO’s office. Then she heard a voice bellow from somewhere to her left, “Prisca, you’re fired.”
Prisca ensured that she and her cohort were standing in the blind spot between cameras. Then, she stuck out her tongue and extended a one-fingered salute in the direction of the CEO’s office. A voice bellowed from somewhere to her left, “Prisca, you’re fired.”
All Luisa could hear was silence, a silence so complete she could hear her own pulse. She felt nauseated. Where am I? The last thing I remember was stepping into the elevator.
The silence surrounding Luisa was so complete that the ka-thump of her pulse pounded in her ears. A wave of nausea engulfed her. Where am I? The last thing I remember was stepping into the elevator.
The restaurant smelled like garlic, charbroiled steak, and a faint odor that could have been licorice or fennel. Clint felt hungry, but not hungry enough to chance being poisoned again.
Delicious aromas of garlic, charbroiled steak, and a faint suggestion of licorice or fennel beckoned Clint toward the restaurant. However, his hunger wasn’t powerful enough for him to chance being poisoned again.
Sir Edgar decided he would never be able to reveal his love for Princess Edwina. He knew she loved him too, and she would be in danger if their enemies thought they could get to her through him.
The bitter truth forced itself on Sir Edgar: He must never reveal his love for Princess Edwina. She loved him too, and she would be in danger if their enemies could get to her through him.
By Kathy Steinemann, @KathySteinemann, June 11, 2017
Her writing tips blog has won multiple awards as one of the top blogs for writers.
Her career has taken varying directions, including positions as editor of a small-town paper, computer-network administrator, and webmaster. She has also worked on projects in commercial art and cartooning. You’ll find her at KathySteinemann.com, Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest.
What about you, scriveners? Do you look out for filter words in your writing? I’m editing the new Camilla book now, and these tips are really helping me. But do remember these are guidelines, not hard and fast rules!
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