It was a critique partner who showed me where I was distancing the reader in my writing. It took me a while to get the concept firmly in my head, but once I did, I even caught my critique partner out.
So, what is distancing the reader? Adding filter words. We do it because are trying to show what our character is experiencing and add unnecessary verbiage. Here are some examples:
If we are with a character, whatever they see or hear can just be stated. The reader will assume the character witnessed it or experience it as well. The above could become:
Here are some other filter words:
Editor Louise Harnby says, “Filter words are verbs that increase the narrative distance, reminding us that what we’re reading is being told by someone rather than experienced, or shown, through the eyes of the character.” She also says, “To keep your prose tight, look out for filter words that tell of doing being done.”
Let’s look at Justin and Manuel expanded. First, with filtering in bold:
Justin stepped inside and shut the apartment door. He heard, shoof, shoof, shoof. The back-and-forth sound from the other room felt comforting. He knew Manuel was polishing his shoes. He realized that meant Manuel’d be leaving for work soon. Good, Justin thought. He won’t be here when Linea arrives.
Without filtering or distancing:
Justin stepped inside and shut the apartment door. Shoof, shoof, shoof. The back-and-forth sound from the other room was comforting—Manuel was polishing his shoes. Which meant he’d be leaving for work soon. Good. He won’t be here when Linea arrives.
Do you hear the difference?
In her book Writing Fiction, Janet Burroway says, “As a fiction writer you will often be working through ‘some observing consciousness’. Yet when you step back and ask readers to step back and observe the observer—to look at rather than through the character—you start to tell-not-show and rip us briefly out of the scene.”
Does that mean you can never use filtering? Of course not. But if you do it should be done deliberately to change the meaning of the sentence, the pacing of the story, or for clarity.
SM Ford writes inspirational fiction for adults, although teens may find the stories of interest, too. She also loves assisting other writers on their journeys.