Sunday, March 02, 2008

Filtering Language

I've been reading a lot lately, and have noticed a trend in writing style. I don't know if it's just the style of the times, or maybe it seems natural when writing in first person. Still, I think it puts a barrier between the reader and the story. My ICL instructor called it filtering, and it's also one of the top reasons editors reject manuscripts. Here are some examples:

1) Jim noticed the flowers on the ground.
2) Ella watched the bird fly away.
3) Jeremy saw his mom cross the street.
4) Sally thought her mom was being unreasonable.
5) Tim realized he was late for school.
6) Jamie wondered why everything is supposed to taste like chicken.
7) Alfie considered running away, but he had nowhere to go.
8) Mary hoped she would become Prom Queen.

Each of these sentences take us outside the character's head. The author is telling us about the characters, not letting the reader experience the characters' thoughts and actions for himself. Let's rephrase each sentence such that the filtering is removed.

1) Jim knelt on the ground. The leaves of the wilting violets fluttered in the wind.
2) The bird spread her wings and flew away. Ella smiled.
3) Jeremy's mom looked both ways, twice, then crossed the street.
4) Sally snorted. Mom was being completely unreasonable!
5) Tim scrambled out of bed. He was late for school again!
6) "Just try it, Jamie. You'll like it. It tastes like chicken." Dad stabbed the snake meat with his fork and shoved it into his mouth. Jamie sighed. How can everything taste like chicken?
7) Alfie threw some clothes in a suitcase. He had to get out of here. He zipped the bag closed, then froze. Where could he go? Who would take him in after what he'd done?
8) Mary hugged her chest. "Please let me win. It's my last chance to be Prom Queen."

These revised sentences put us directly into the characters' heads. We see what they see, feel what they feel, think what they think. We experience the story first-hand, instead of being told by someone else.

I think filtering is a form of telling - the author tells us what the characters are thinking/feeling/etc instead of letting us experience it for ourselves. Writing without filtering is very difficult, and I've banged my head against the wall on more than occasion. But once I find the right words, I'm ten times more satisfied with the end result.

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