Friday, 4 August 2017

Creative Pulse - Week 6 - Filtering

By Jason Donald

Images courtesy of JD Lewis

Have you ever re-read you draft pages and, like me, thought to yourself, “This whole section just feels blah!”? The writing is grammatically correct, not too many adjectives and adverbs, the characters were behaving realistically, the plot moves along at pace… so what the hell is wrong? Why does it feel so stale?

Perhaps your writing suffers from filtering. This concept was introduced to me by a friend and as soon as she mentioned it I could see I was doing this… a lot. Filtering is term that was started by Janet Burroway in her book On Writing.


 
What is filtering? It’s words or phrases tacked onto the start of sentence that show the world as it is filtered through the main character’s eyes. Meaning, the character is placed between the reader and the action in the story.


Let's look at some writing with filtering:

Janet felt a sinking feeling as she ran through the diner and out the front doors. She wondered if Jake would really just get up and leave her. She saw him throw the suitcase into the car and slam the door. He seemed cold as his gaze met hers. He pointed a finger, dropping his thumb like a gun. Now she knew he would take the money and disappear, leaving her to take the heat. She decided to beg and ran across the parking lot, sinking to her knees on the cold cement. The car's tires spun, and she felt the gravel spitting at her as she saw the convertible careen onto the road.

Do you see how the highlighted words come before the action? This forces the reader to step back and watch the character, rather than the action. It moves the reader away from the events on the page. An extra step has been inserted between the reader and the story. A filter.

Here is the same piece of writing after filtering is removed:

Janet's stomach sank as she ran through the diner and out the front doors. Would he really just get up and leave? Jake threw the suitcase into the car and slammed the door. He turned. Her gaze met his, and his eyes narrowed. He pointed a finger, dropping his thumb like a gun. A cold chill enveloped her; he would take the money and disappear, leaving her to take the heat. She ran across the parking lot, sinking to her knees on the cold cement. The car's tires spun, spitting gravel at her as the convertible careened onto the road.

Do you see the difference? Can you feel the difference? The events are up-front and immediate. The reader is more able to visualize the actions on the page. In the last sentence, the reader directly views the car in its haste to depart.


Here's a list of common filter words to become aware of in your writing. I have this list pinned above my desk:

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), to notice, to be able to, to note, to experience


All writing rules are there to be questioned, tweaked, toyed with and disobeyed. (even this rule!) Sometimes you do want a filter word. Sometimes you need that distance, because you need to know that the character “sees” or “hears” or “wonders”.

1) Henry watches the kids splashing in the river. – Here, the filter word adds an important layer to the meaning of the sentence.

2) I hesitate for a second and then touch the dog’s damp, quivering back. - The filter is critical for meaning.


Exercise:

Take a page from your draft manuscript.
Using the above list, circle all the filter words you can find.
Re-write those sentences.
Has the prose improved? Is it less blah?



Jason Donald was born in Scotland and grew up in South Africa. He studied English Literature and Philosophy at St. Andrews University and is a graduate of the Glasgow University Creative Writing MA. His debut novel, Choke Chain, (Jonathan Cape) was shortlisted for the Authors Club Best First Novel Award and the Saltire First Book Award. His second novel, Dalila, (Jonathan Cape/Vintage) was published in Jan 2017. He lives in Switzerland and runs Write Time retreats to nurture authors.






No comments:

Post a Comment