A few days ago writer Anthony Lee Collins shared his thoughts about a term I’d never heard before: filter words.
Of course, I had to look it up, so I Googled the folks he was referring to and read what they had to say. (Write It Sideways talks about it and links to Let The Words Flow and Fiction Factor. There’s also another link, but it leads to some Go Daddy page, heh.)
The concern is that such words can dampen the reader’s experience and should generally be avoided.
What, exactly, are Filter Words?
“Filter words” are basically words used to create distance between the reader and what’s happening on the page; the author “filters” story events through a character’s senses (which in itself isn’t actually a bad thing, when you think about it) while also including overt “sense words”or words indicating cognitive processes within the descriptions of their character’s experiences…rather than allowing the reader to directly experience the events themselves. (I suspect this may be a subtle form of author or narrative intrusion, which seems to be a fairly undesirable technique for many readers these days.)
From the sites linked above, listed examples of common trigger terms (and their variations) that may point to the possible misuse of filters include:
- to see
- to hear
- to think
- to touch
- to wonder
- to realize
- to watch
- to look
- to seem
- to feel (or feel like)
- to decide
- to sound (or sound like)
Brief examples of the improper use of filter words are (underlines inserted by myself):
- “She realized she’d reached the point of no return. She had to kill him.” Versus, “The point of no return. Breached. She had to kill him.” – Fiction Factor
- “I see the moon rise overhead.” Versus, “The moon rises overhead.” – Let The Words Flow
- “I hear a howl from the hall — it sounds like Emily is in trouble!” Versus, “A howl comes from the hall—Emily! She’s in trouble!” – also from Let The Words Flow
Hopefully you can see how the removal of “filter words” brings the reader closer to what is happening in each situation–which is good, if you intend for the reader to be close to something.
Here’s the thing, though (and this is something Anthony also pointed out): all of these examples are being used to demonstrate how filter words create distance within moments that actually call for emotional immediacy (or, as Anthony put it, when “something immediate and exciting is happening”)–a woman who has just finished crossing a busy street when she realizes she’s left her purse at the cafe on the opposite side (see the Write It Sideways link); the woman who realizes she’s reached “the point of no return” and decides she must now kill a man (Fiction Factor), etc. These are moments of relatively high tension. Such moments can be especially poignant and in-your-face, so the dampening effect of filter words would not compliment this mode of storytelling.
…But that’s just one mode of storytelling.
We know now when not to use filter words, but then I’m left wondering…
When is it okay to use filter words?
Now, Let The Words Flow does actually point out some examples of where it might be okay to use filter words, but, to be honest, when I compare those to the earlier examples, it’s still not clear to me. (And perhaps this is because we’re only given one sentence out of each fictional situation and have no additional context to go by.)
I want to take into consideration, then, those moments in a story when you don’t want total, gripping immediacy. What if you are going for a less intense, rather muted effect?
I think filter words can be used to achieve these things intentionally. I think they can even induce a slower pace or suggest a distant state of mind that a character might currently be in.
Take the example given on Fiction Factor: “She realized she’d reached the point of no return. She had to kill him.” Nothing really seems wrong with this example to me because I don’t really know what’s happening with the rest of the story. Then the alternative: “The point of no return. Breached. She had to kill him.” Punchier, sure, and it may be more appropriate to this particular situation…if the character is in a frantic state of mind and plans on doing the killing immediately rather than after she’s had ample time to plan things through.
But do you want every moment of a story to read this intensely?
Maybe the narrator actually has reason to create some distance here, but that all depends on the context. If the character is having a calm moment of rationalization and is trying to decide why she should commit premeditated murder, for example, then why wouldn’t you use filter words to create distance and space and, therefore, extra time when there’s no hurry to kill just yet? What if we are witnessing the mind of a practiced serial killer? To me, it wouldn’t necessarily make sense to remove the filter word, if this was the case.
The difference in the use of filter words here would be between depicting someone who is in a state of panic versus for someone who is brooding in a controlled manner. The first requires a more urgent mode of storytelling while the second requires something more relaxed and pensive.
Other Reasons to Use Filter Words
I think that if you were to write your entire story using the same technique over and over again, it would begin to feel flat after a while. Of course, I also think it takes a tremendous amount of concentration to be able to realize when, and why, you’re using filter words, which is probably why it’s so easy to use them by default in the first place. So yes, I think using filter words warrants caution (something you’d probably pay more attention to during editing than writing the first draft), but we shouldn’t be afraid of them or prescribe a negative connotation to the term. Personally, I’d prefer to understand how to use filter words in addition to how not to use them.
Ultimately, I think that being able to freely switch back and forth between the inclusion and omission of filter words can add variety to stories and keep them from having an overly homogenous fabric, if you will. Different moods and styles can create different textures, shake things up a bit. (I like how Anthony also compared it to variety in music or colors in art on his blog. It’s the same kind of idea. Mutes can be used on musical instruments like the trumpet or violin to dampen the sound, creating a softer effect, in the same way that complimentary colors can be added to hues in order to create less vibrant, intense colors.)
At least, that’s what I think. Maybe I’m totally wrong here. I don’t know, you tell me.
What are your thoughts about using filter words?
Can you think of specific situations where you’d want to use them? Also, would you say that using filter words is a form of author intrusion? (And is author intrusion a “bad” thing?)