Filtering in Fiction: A Choice in Style
Updated: Sep 27
What is filtering?
When used to describe a stylistic device in fiction writing, filtering has little to do with the use of expletives or verbal language filters for delicate audiences. Rather, filtering tells a reader that a character hears, sees, smells, tastes, touches, notices, realizes, recognizes, or feels something.
These "filter" verbs remind readers that they are being told through an observing consciousness rather than seeing or experiencing for themselves. Filtering separates the reader from the immediacy of the experience and disallows full immersion in the character's journey.
Here's an example I made up:
Molly noticed the box of candies atop her mother's writing desk, and she wondered how much trouble she would get into if she opened the box before her mother arrived. She felt the weight of guilt at her longing for sweet treats at a time of scarcity but heard her stomach rumble in anticipation. Then, she recalled the last untimely indulgence and felt herself shudder at the prospect of upsetting her father. She had seen how spittle flew from his mouth in times of high passion, and she did not desire his vitriol to be directed at her.
The passage requires the reader to work to get through it. It is cluttered; the sensory experience is being done to the character rather than experienced. In overly cluttered passages with stark sensory detail, readers tend to skim. And when readers skim, they may miss crucial information. Worse, readers may miss your message. In the worst cases, they give up because reading is not enjoyable.
We can tighten up the passage by removing filter words:
The box of candies sat atop her mother's writing desk. Molly knew she would be in trouble if she opened the box before her mother arrived, and the guilt of anticipation ate away at her despite the rumble in her stomach. The last time she indulged in a sweet treat set aside for her mother, her father had become upset, spittle flying from his mouth in the vitriol he directed at Molly.
The detail of the passage remains intact. But there is more immersion for the reader, and we have de-cluttered the passage, removing unnecessary words in the process.
Filtering for Texture
Filtering is a stylistic choice; it is neither wrong nor right. When used intentionally and sparingly, filter words have a layering effect and may serve to enrich a novel. Removing all filter words can be a fun writing exercise, but it isn't always practical when applied to a whole book.
Here are some tips for judicious use of filter words:
When your narrative style is heavy, or the scene is emotionally taxing for the reader, use a bit of filtering to give the reader a small break from their immersion.
When the reader needs to know that a character realizes, watches, thinks, or feels something, use filter verbs for clarity.
When your writing could use an altered mood, use filter words to subtly change the emotional landscape to make it more deliberate or investigative.
When developing a dialogue style or character personality, use filter verbs to set up a character's unique voice.
Let's go back to Molly and the box of candies to play with the number of filter words in the original. We'll pare down the use of filter words without removing them all:
Molly noticed the box of candies atop her mother's writing desk, and she knew she would be in trouble if she opened the box before her mother arrived. The guilt of anticipation ate away at her despite the rumble in her stomach. The last time she indulged in a sweet treat set aside for her mother, her father had become upset, spittle flying from his mouth in the vitriol he directed at Molly.
Leaving "noticed" in place reminds the reader that this box of candies is an atypical addition to the scene. Perhaps Molly doesn't chance upon sweet treats often. The excitement of seeing such an item is more pronounced, and readers feel her anticipation. The filter word adds a layer to the narrative that would not otherwise exist.
Filters and Tightening
Filter verbs add to a novel's word count and change the mood and immersion of the work as a whole. To best tighten up your novel to provide an immersive reading experience, look carefully at the filter verbs you use and determine whether losing some of those filters may enhance the writing. You know you have improved your writing by removing a filter verb if the passage feels more dramatic and immersive. However, if your story loses meaning, intention, or mood, reintroduce filters judiciously until you achieve the effect you desire your readers to have.