Unfiltered Narrative: Strengthen Your Fiction by Minimizing Filter Words

What are filter words in writing?


By David G Brown


Writers of fiction and narrative nonfiction aim to create a vivid experience for their readers, enabling them to step into the shoes of their characters and witness events unfold as if they were part of the narrative. One common obstacle to achieving this level of immersion is the use of filter words or filter verbs in fiction, particularly in first-person and deep third-person point of view (POV) narratives. These filters serve as a reminder that the story's events are being presented through the focal character's perspective, creating an unnecessary buffer between the reader and the character's experiences.

Filter words are verbs that refer to a character's senses or cognition, such as seeing, hearing, or thinking. While their usage is sometimes justified for emphasis or clarity, an overreliance on filter words can detract from the narrative's immersive quality. By minimizing filter words, authors can create a more engaging reading experience and allow their readers to more fully inhabit the world of their story.

The Filtering Effect: A Comparison

To understand the impact of filter words on the reader's experience, let's examine a short scene featuring a young boy who is breaking into his neighbor's treehouse, convinced that she stole something from him.

Version 1 (Overuse of Sensory Filtering): Jimmy could feel his heart pounding as he climbed up the makeshift ladder, feeling the rough wood against his hands. He saw the door to the treehouse was already wide open and cautiously entered, smelling the faint scent of the neighbor girl's perfume and listening to the creaking of floorboards beneath his feet. He looked around and saw colorful posters of her favorite K-pop stars on the walls, and then he examined a small table in the middle of the room covered in knick-knacks like seashells and porcelain cats. Finally, he spotted the familiar red cover of his stolen sketch book and felt a mix of relief and anger.

Version 2 (Sensory Filtering Removed): Jimmy's heart pounded as he climbed the makeshift ladder, the wood rough against his hands. The door to the treehouse stood wide open, inviting him in. The faint scent of the neighbor girl's perfume lingered in the air as he creaked across the floorboards. The walls were plastered with colorful posters of her favorite K-pop stars, and a small table in the center was covered in a collection of seashells and porcelain cats. And there, among the knick-knacks, was the familiar red cover of his stolen sketch book, which stirred in Jimmy a mix of relief and anger.

By removing the sensory filter words, the reader gains a more direct connection to the scene and experiences it alongside Jimmy. The revised paragraph allows for a more immersive experience, encouraging readers to share in the young boy's emotions and better understand his perspective.

Sensory Filtering: Common Culprits

Sensory filtering can surface on every page of an early draft manuscript. Although these filters may seem harmless, they can do a surprising amount of damage and diminish a story’s impact. Here are some of the most common sensory filter words to watch out for:

 See Hear Feel
Touch Taste Smell
Notice Observe Look
Listen Perceive Sense
Seem Recognize Watch
Glance Gaze Peek
Stare Spot Gawk

When revising your work, keep an eye out for these filters and consider whether they are necessary or if they can be replaced with more direct and descriptive language.

Cognitive Filtering: A Subtler Barrier

While cognitive filtering may be less common than sensory filtering, it is still worth addressing. Removing these words allows readers a more vicarious experience where they can better imagine they "are" the focal character.

Here are some of the most common cognitive filter words to be aware of:

 Think Remember Realize
Wonder Consider Decide
Believe Imagine Worry
Know Contemplate Reflect
Understand Assume Learn
Ponder Conclude Doubt
Expect Acknowledge Guess

Let's revisit the treehouse scene, this time focusing on cognitive filtering. Jimmy has found his one-of-a-kind sketchbook filled with his original drawings and agonizes about what the neighbor girl might have seen.

Version 1 (Overuse of Cognitive Filtering): As Jimmy held his sketchbook, he thought about the most personal drawings it contained—meticulous sketches of the neighbor girl's cats and her treehouse—and wondered if she had seen them and what she might say about them. He remembered how much time he had spent creating each piece, capturing every detail, and worried about what she would think of his secret passion. He couldn't help but imagine her flipping through the pages, and he realized how naked he now felt.

Version 2 (Cognitive Filtering Removed): Jimmy's mind raced to the most personal drawings his sketchbook contained—meticulous ink sketches of the neighbor girl's cats and her treehouse. Had she seen them? What would she think? He had spent hours creating each piece, capturing every detail. She now had complete knowledge of his secret passion. The idea of her flipping through these pages left him exposed, almost naked.

By trimming cognitive filter words in the second version, we are more directly connected to Jimmy's thoughts and emotions. This creates a more immersive experience that enables readers to share Jimmy’s perspective and concerns.

In Conclusion: The Benefits of Cutting Filter Words

Removing filter words from your writing can greatly enhance your readers' immersion in your story and connection to your characters. By reducing unnecessary sensory and cognitive verbs, you allow your audience to slip into the shoes of the protagonist and experience events as they unfold, without redundant reminders that the scene is filtering through the senses and cognition of the focal character.

Cutting filter words also cleans up your prose for better overall flow. By saying the same thing with fewer words, you create a more direct and engaging reading experience, which can make your story feel more immediate and powerful.

David Griffin Brown aka Septimus Brown, found and senior editor of Darling Axe Editing

David G Brown is an award-winning short fiction writer. He has published poetry, fiction, and nonfiction in magazines and literary journals, and he volunteers for the Malahat Review where he interviews writing judges and screens contest entries. He holds a BA in anthropology (UVic) and an MFA in creative writing (UBC). As an editor, he pays special attention to structure, relationship arcs, and voice. David lives in Victoria, Canada, in the traditional territory of the Esquimalt and Songhees Nations.

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1 comment

  • Wow, this is great! I never thought about filtered words (although I’ve “felt” the effect when reading…)

    Janet Boyer

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