Monday, May 30, 2011

Challenge: Going Filter-less

Last week, I talked about how too much internal monologue can be a detriment to your story. Today, I want to talk about how to make the internal monologue as effective as possible.

Once you have a balance of story vs. internal thoughts, you want your character’s thoughts to have the best kind of impact on your reader. Meaning, they are appropriate for the reader to know, and the overall style fits with the intent.

I am referring here to filtering language. A filter is a layer of something in between the reader and the rest of the story. Sharon Darrow, instructor at the Vermont College of Fine Arts, compares filtering language to a play with the curtain still down. A person (or filter) is standing at the curtain watching the play, and then telling the audience what’s happening. I.E.: “Priscilla just tripped and fell down, and it looks like it hurt. Oh! She just noticed that John’s the one who tripped her, and now she’s mad at him.” Etc.

When we write, we want the reader to be as close to our stories as possible, right? The closer he is, the easier it is to understand our characters’ motivations and actions. We don’t want a filter to translate the story for the reader. We want him to interpret it for himself.

These are your basic filtering phrases:
He saw…      She heard…     I smelled…      He tasted…   She felt…
I noticed…    He realized…   She thought…   I watched…  He wondered…
She hoped… I considered… He could see… etc.

Each of them tells us that the character is doing something, just like the person standing by the curtain at the play. But it doesn’t show us how it’s done. The how is what makes the impact on the reader. Anyone can watch a football game, but how they watch it shows us who they are. A sports fan will either cheer or yell at the players, but a non-sports fan will likely be bored and glance at the clock often.

There is also another drawback with filtering language: using “I” excessively.
- I saw Tom trying to peel his banana.
- I heard Jenna laugh at Mike’s dumb joke.
- I smelled Joe’s musky, overpowering cologne.
Each sentence is not actually about the main character, but the character makes it about her by telling us that she saw/heard/smelled something. That can often give the impression that she’s self-centered, even if she’s not. I’ve heard more than one person complain about the selfish attitudes of YA characters, and I think this is where most of it comes from.

If you’re writing in third person, then you don’t have the excessive “I” problem. But you still have the lack-of-how problem (see the sports fan above). In third person, you are already distant. Adding in a filtering layer will only make it harder for your reader to connect to the story, which is the last thing you want. Show us the how and we’ll love you for it.

I challenge all of you to take a scene that contains filter language and rewrite it so that it doesn’t. Feel free to post the before and after in the comments so we can all enjoy. :)


Unknown said...

Thanks for the great advice. My writing improved big time once I cut out the filter words. :D

Michelle Flick said...

great challenge!! I'll take it!

brenda said...

This is always the challenge. I know when I am writing the first draft of anything my job is to write and not edit. The second write is where I howl in horror.. Thank goodness for rewrites - this is where I watch for these things, or try to.. Thanks for this, and all the other wonderful reminders. It helps me to come back and read before I start the edits.

Kelly Hashway said...

I try to avoid the filtering language as often as I can. I write in first person and it's not necessary at all to say things like "I saw". Show it instead.

Great post!

Tatum Flynn said...

This was the last piece of editing I did on my manuscript - searching for all those 'saw' 'felt 'heard' words and getting rid of as many as I could. It really makes the story much more immediate.

Natalie Aguirre said...

Great challenge. I have to admit that I use some of those filters. I'll have to watch for them. Thanks.

Tabitha said...

Stina - the same thing happened to me. :) It's amazing how drastic an improvement that makes, isn't it?

Mflick1 - excellent! Feel free to share your before and after. We'd love to see it!

Brenda - I think many people howl in horror (hilarious!) when it comes to revision. :) I also start my revision process by just reading and getting a feel for what else needs to be done.

Tabitha said...

Kelly - exactly!! :) Thanks!

Girl Friday - it sure does, and it brings us that much closer to being inside the main character. Which makes us closer to the story. Good for you for hunting them down! :)

Natalie - if you'd like to share a before and after piece, I'm sure all of us would be willing to give you some feedback. :)

Kelly H-Y said...

Fabulous advice/post!!! Thank you for these reminders!

Unknown said...

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