Change Your Camera View–Filtering in Fiction
Writing in a distinct POV can be tricky, be it first person, third limited, third omniscient–it’s easy to slip “out of character.” Violations of POV are one of the things I find most when I edit. One reason is that many writers engage in a practice called filtering.
I was introduced to the concept via Scribophile, a writing forum that encourages critique and knowledge exchange for writers. Michael Emmert, long-time writer and ACFW member, penned an article on the topic, where he quoted a conference speaker as saying:
“In writing there are no absolutes, but there are two important items to avoid: Filtering, and an overuse of adverbs.”
Well, I’d never heard of it before, but it made a lot of sense. Filtering is essentially delivering the story through a narrator rather than your POV character. Emmert compares it to pouring sand into a bucket through a screen.
Think about writing a story as if you’re looking through the viewfinder of a camera. Where is the viewer with respect to the reader? In a filtering story, the reader is held at a distance from the characters, as though they are peeking through a viewfinder. Without filtering, the psychic distance diminishes and the reader moves through the story as though they are the character. When the character’s heart races, theirs does, too.
Writing without filtering can be powerful, emotional writing. Filtering makes writing come across as bland and lifeless. It’s almost like the author doesn’t trust the reader enough to discern the character’s emotion and just has to tell them or explain.
Just as the lens is able to focus on a single daisy in the feature picture, a writer should be able to focus their lens as though they’re peering out from the main character’s eyes. What the character feels, the reader feels. What they hear, the reader experiences as a sound. What they smell triggers the olfactory senses in the reader to the point they can smell it themselves. In essence, the reader BECOMES the POV character. Removal of filtering is the secret to writing that gripping, can’t-put-it-down story.
Emily felt tired. She looked to her right, where Steve had already fallen asleep. He was curled up in the stiff, plastic chair and snoring. She wondered how he could possibly sleep with all the noise from the other bus passengers.
Notice how the writer is just telling everything. When an editor or critique partner suggests showing and not telling, a lot of times they mean a writer should stop filtering.
Now–let’s remove the filters.
Emily felt tired. Rather than telling how she feels, give her a couple actions to show it.
She looked to her right. Rather than having her look to the right, show what’s on her right. If it’s another character, just give their actions. It’s implied by mentioning it that Emily is looking and that’s what she sees.
She wondered how. Instead of telling she wondered, give it as the deep POV thought.
Emily yawned and rubbed her burning eyes. To her right, Steve sat curled in his chair, snoring. How could he possibly sleep with all the noise from the other bus passengers?
A lot of filtering words are sensing words and thought words–watching, seeing, feeling, hearing, understanding, realizing, wondering
Here’s a few other examples.
Emily looked at the passenger across from her, who was smiling. (filtering)
Versus: The passenger across from Emily smiled.
Steve understood that he needed to hurry. (filtering)
Versus: Steve nodded. He needed to hurry. (note the use of deep POV here)
Marsha heard a knock at the door, and she jolted backward, bumping into the kitchen chair.
Versus: Someone knocked at the door. Marsha jolted backward, bumping into the kitchen chair.
In most cases, filtering can be fixed by replacing with the action beat or deep POV thought.