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"Patch of Dirt:" Filtering

March 14, 2017

I've found this article on filtering to be one of the best about how to make your writing more forceful. 


"Filtering" is when the writer forces us to "look at rather than through" the point-of-view character's eyes. So says Janet Burroway, author of eight novels and several books on creative writing, one of which is the most widely used text on the craft of writing fiction in the entire country. 

Filtering can inadvertently hold the reader at a distance, especially when working in a 
close I st or 3rd-person point-of-view, and keeps the reader from sinking comfortably into the fictional dream. One moment the reader is hunched over the POV character's 
shoulder, observing the world as if he is that character; seeing only what the 
character sees. But stumble across a "filtered observation" and suddenly the reader finds himself looking at the character instead of with the character -- watching the character as the character watches something else. 

In his book, The Art of Fiction. John Gardner refers to this as "the failure to run straight at an image; that is, the needless filtering of the image through some observing consciousness. The amateur writes: 'Turning, she noticed two snakes fighting in among the rocks.' Compare: 'She turned. In among the rocks, two snakes were fighting.' Generally speaking=though no laws are absolute in fiction=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 first time I read that paragraph by John Gardner I was totally confused. But luckily there was Janet Burroway's Writing Fiction. A Guide to Narrative Craft. to help clear up the confusion: 

The filter is a common fault and often difficult to recognize=although once 
the principle is grasped, cutting away filters is an easy means to more vivid 
writing. As a fiction writer you will often be working through "some 
observing consciousness. 11 Yet when you step back and ask readers to 
observe the observer=to look at rather than through the character--you start 
to tell-not-show and rip us briefly out of the scene" Here, for example, is a 
student passage quite competent except for the filtering: 

     Mrs. Blair made her way to the chair by the window and sank 
     gratefully into it. She looked out the window and there across 
     the street, she saw the ivory BMW parked in front of the fire 
     plug once more. It seemed to her, though, that something 
     was wrong with it She noticed that it was listing slightly 
     toward the back and side, and then saw that the back rim was 
     resting almost on the asphalt. 

Remove the filters from this paragraph and we are allowed to stay in Mrs. 
Blair's consciousness, watching with her eyes, sharing understanding as it 
unfolds for her: 

     Mrs. Blair made her way to the chair by the window and sank 
     gratefully into it Across the street the ivory BMW was parked 
     in front of the fire plug again. Something was wrong with it, 
     though. it was listing toward the back and side, the back rim 
     resting almost on the asphalt. 

A similar filtering occurs when the writer chooses to begin a flashback and 
mistakenly supposes that the reader is not clever enough to follow this 
technique , without a guiding transition: 

     Mrs. Blair thought back to the time that she and Henry had 
     owned an ivory car, though it had been a Chevy. She 
     remembered clearly that it had a hood shaped like a sugar 
     scoop, and chrome bumpers that stuck out a foot front and 
     back. And there was that funny time, she recalled. when 
     Henry had to change the flat tire on Aligator Alley, and she'd 
     thought the alligators would come up out of the swamp. 


Just as the present scene win be more present to the reader without a filter; 
so we will be taken more thoroughly back to the time of the memory without 
a filter: 

     She and Henry had owned an ivory car once, though it had 
     been a Chevy, with a hood shaped like a sugar scoop, and 
     chrome bumpers that stuck out a foot front and back, And 
     there was that funny time Henry had to change the flat tire on 
     Aligator Alley, and she'd thought the aligators would come up 
     out of the swamp. 

Observe that the pace of the reading is improved. by the removal of the 
filters--at least partly, literally, because one or two lines of type have been 

As Gardner says, no laws are absolute in fiction, but you may be surprised how much 
tighter, more in-the-moment, and vivid your writing becomes when you remove the 
filters. Give the exercise below a shot and see if removing the filters doesn't improve the vividness and pace of your work-in-progress. 

Print out a few pages of your current        Rewrite the passages without using the
Project.  Read through the piece carefully,  filters. You might be surprised how much
Highlighting obvious or suspected filters.   more in-the-moment and vivid the                                                                       passage becomes for the reader.                            

Some common filters to look for:

he noticed…
he saw….
he felt….
she tasted
she heard
she remembered
he recalled….
she thought back to…
she looked…
it seemed to her…



From: Scribophile's Writing Academy "Introduction to Filtering" by Michael. R. Emmert 


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