Fending Off Filters: A Key to Vivid Writing
by James Thayer
How can we get readers to sink into the dream? How can we craft a story that is so compelling that the reader forgets she is in a chair in her den, and is taken to our desert island or medieval castle or Civil War battlefield or Planet Zerzix?
A powerful technique for bringing the reader right into the story is to avoid filters, which are word phrases that insert the character between the reader and the action. John Gardner cautioned against “the needless filtering of the image through some observing consciousness.” The observing consciousness is the story’s character, and the word phrases most often used as filters are he saw and she heard.
She saw the bird land on the branch is filtered with the phrase she saw. The image is more direct this way: The bird landed on the branch. This is filtered: He heard the cymbals crash and the drums pound. This is unfiltered: The cymbals crashed and the drums pounded. In these two filtered sentences, she saw and he heard represent a consciousness intervening between the reader and the action. Due to the filter, the reader looks at the character looking at the bird, rather than the reader looking directly at the bird. The filter makes the reader look at the character hearing the cymbals and drums, rather than the reader directly hearing the cymbals and drums. Filtering creates distance between the reader and the action.
Gardner says “vividness urges that almost every occurrence of such phrases as ‘she noticed’ and ‘she saw’ be suppressed in favor of direct presentation of the thing seen.” The gangster climbed out of the limousine is more vivid than He saw the gangster climb out of the limousine.
Here is a scenario with many filters, with the filters in italics:
Betty walked to the kitchen nook and sat on a chair near the window. She looked out the window and she saw the gray Ford parked under the cedar tree across the park. It seemed to her, though, that something was wrong with the car. She noticed that it was tilted slightly, and then saw that the rear wheel was resting on the rim.
This is the same scenario, without the intervening consciousness created by the filters.
Betty walked to the kitchen nook and sat on a chair near the window. A gray Ford was parked under the cedar tree across the park. Something was wrong with the car. It was tilted slightly, and the rear wheel was resting on the rim.
Here is another filtered scenario. Notice how the filters give the reader a feeling of distance from the action because the reader is watching the watchers, rather than watching the action. The filters are in italics.
His tie too tight and his shoes polished to mirrors, Paul walked onto the gym floor. His impression was that the gym was crowded. He noticed that his pals Jerry and Alex were standing by the drinking fountain. He saw them wave at him, and gesture for him to join them. But first he wanted to locate Brooke. Maybe he could find to courage to ask her to dance.
He heard the DJ introduce the next song. He listened as the PA system squawked like it did at basketball games. He sawBrooke over by the basketball hoop. He watched as she was leaned toward her friends, laughing and chatting. It seemed to Paul that she was wearing the gold heart he had given her for Valentine ’s Day. He saw her glance at him, then quickly look away. Maybe she was avoiding him.
He was aware that Jerry and Alex were watching him. They would tease him if he didn’t approach Brooke. He saw them make funny faces at him, and noticed that Jerry had tucked his hands under his armpits and was flapping his elbows, the chicken gesture. He heard Alex call, “Go for it, Paul.”
The reader is constantly directed to Paul, with he heard, his impression was, he noticed, he saw, he listened, he watched, it seemed to Paul. With all of his awareness forced on the reader, Paul is standing between the reader and the sock hop.
In the same scenario without the filters, the reader is right there on the gym floor:
His tie too tight and his shoes polished to mirrors, Paul walked onto the gym floor. The gym was crowded. His pals Jerry and Alex were standing by the drinking fountain, and they waved at him and gestured for him to join them. But first he wanted to locate Brooke. Maybe he could find to courage to ask her to dance.
The DJ introduced the next song. The PA system squawked like it did at basketball games. Brooke was over by the basketball hoop. She was leaned toward her friends, laughing and chatting. She might have been wearing the gold heart Paul had given her for Valentine ’s Day. She glanced at him, then quickly looked away. Maybe she was avoiding him.
Jerry and Alex were watching him. They would tease him if he didn’t approach Brooke. They made funny faces at him, and Jerry tucked his hands under his armpits and was flapping his elbows, the chicken gesture.
Alex called, “Go for it, Paul.”
In this version, the reader gets to listen to the music and watch Jerry and Alex and look at Brooke and see the crowd at the dance, rather than watch Paul listen to the music, watch Paul watch Jerry and Alex, watch Paul look at Brooke, and watch Paul see the crowd. In the filter-free version, there is less distance between the reader and the dance.
Exceptions exist to the filter avoidance rule. First: occasionally the reader may need to be reminded which character has the point of view. Whose eyes are seeing the action? Where is the reader during the action in the scene? A strong point of view keeps the camera angle clear in the reader’s mind, and so she saw or he heard is sometimes useful.
Second, the reader might need to learn that a character specifically noticed something. Perhaps the character’s boyfriend tried to surreptitiously gulp down a pill. He attempted to hide it from her, but she saw him. Here, She saw him throw the pill into his mouth is filtered by the she saw, but the filter works to let the reader know he didn’t get away with it.
And third, sometimes in great moments of emotion, filters will work to remind the reader of the character’s awe or wonder or surprise or revulsion or attraction. The filter can help focus on the character for a particular moment. Here, in one of literature’s most powerful scenes, is Edmond Dantés finding Abbé Faria’s treasure on the Isle of Monte Cristo:
. . . Dantés could see an oaken coffer, bound with cut steel; in the midst of the lid he saw engraved on a silver plate which was still untarnished, the arms of the Spada family—vis., a sword, pale, on an oval shield, like all the Italian armorial bearings, and surmounted by a cardinal’s hat; Dantés easily recognized them, Faria had so often drawn them for him.
After Edmond spent fourteen years in the dungeon of the Chateau d’If—some of that time wondering whether Abbé Faria’s tale of the fabulous gold and jewel treasure is true or is a fragment of the abbé’s imagination—Alexandre Dumas makes sure—with the use of filters--the reader gets to watch Edmond discover the treasure, which helps emphasize Edmond’s giddiness and relief that the treasure is indeed in the cave.
Most times, though, question the use of filters. Avoiding he saw, she heard, she noticed and the other filters will bring the scene closer to the reader, and make it more compelling.
James Thayer’s thirteenth novel, The Boxer and the Poet; Something of a Romance, was published by Black Lyon Publishing in March 2008. He teaches novel writing at the University of Washington Extension School, and he runs a freelance editing service (www.thayerediting.com)