LTWF: Filter Words and Distancing POV

I recently read (but failed to finish) an ARC for a book attracting a ton of hype.  I won’t name the book, but I was really disappointed…  I had high hopes for this upcoming young adult novel, but alas, my hopes were dashed!

My main problem was that I could not connect to the story.  It was written in 1st person POV (point of view) and in present tense, so the story was told like, “When I reach my room, I cautiously press my ear to the wood, listening for any signs of life on the other side.”

People usually associate 1st person present with immediacy, with tight narration — we’re pulled right into the story.  In the Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins does an amazing job of letting us live/breathe/fight directly with Katniss.  This is how it should be.

But there is one simple thing that can easily creep into your writing that will make all the immediacy of 1st person present fall apart.  For that matter, any point of view (1st, 3rd) or tense (present, past) suffers when this mistake is present…

It’s why I couldn’t enjoy the ARC.  It’s why I couldn’t identify with the story’s main character, why I couldn’t feel the world she lived in, and why I couldn’t ever feel any emotional response to the story.

Filter words.

Filters are words or phrases you tack onto the start of sentence that show the world as it is filtered through the main character’s eyes.

(with filter phrase) I see the moon rise overhead.

(without filter phrase) The moon rises overhead.

(with filter phrase) I feel sad.

(without filter phrase) I am sad.

(with filter phrase) I hear a howl from the hall — it sounds like Emily is in trouble!

(without filter phrase) A howl comes from the hall — Emily!  She’s in trouble!

(with filter phrase)  I can feel the roughness of the canvas beneath my fingers, and it reminds me of Mom’s jacket.

(without filter phrase)  The canvas is rough beneath my fingers — just like Mom’s jacket.

(with filter phrase) He looks furious with his eyes bulging and lips pressed thin.

(without filter phrase)  His eyes bulge and his lips pressed thin. He’s furious.

Do you see the difference?  Do you feel the difference?

Filter words appear like crazy in my first drafts — it’s so natural to include them.  Especially in 1st person, and perhaps even more so in present tense (I don’t know for sure).

But as easy as they are to include, they’re even easier to catch and edit out!  One read through of your novel, and you can catch them all.  (And it infuriates me that a book coming out soon was allowed to remain so filtered and so distanced!  Grrrrrrr. ;) )

Now keep in mind, that sometimes you do want a filter word.  Sometimes you do need that distance — you need to know that the character “sees” or “hears” or “wonders”.

I watch the kids play basketball. (The filter word here is important to the meaning of the sentence!)

I hear the radio, but its noise doesn’t process in my mind. (Again, the filter is critical for meaning.)

I lay in my bed, and I wonder why…  Why would anyone want to do that to such a nice person? (Not critical, but it adds a nice layer and visual.)

Here’s a list of filter words for you to watch out for:

  • to see
  • to hear
  • to think
  • to touch
  • to wonder
  • to realize
  • to watch
  • to look
  • to seem
  • to feel (or feel like)
  • can
  • to decide
  • to sound (or sound like)

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a few thousand filter words to eradicate from my WIP…

Do you have any filters to add to my list?  Have you ever found these in your own books — or how about a book on shelves?