Driving around in the Jordanian desert, we cleaned the car’s air filter more often than we filled up with fuel. Why? Because the filter was working non-stop, blocking all that dust and sand and grit from damaging the engine.
If you’ve got a car in the desert, a filter is wonderful; if you’re trying to show a scene in your writing, it’s not so great. Learning about literary filters – and how to get rid of them – transformed my writing.
There’s plenty of advice out there about ‘show don’t tell.’ Yet it’s an elusive skill, like trying to recall a forgotten name by deliberately not thinking about it; the moment you focus on it, it’s gone. But stripping away filters propels writing forward from ‘tell’ to ‘show.’
A filter can’t help itself, it just has to tell you what’s happening. For instance:
Sarah saw the car coming towards her and the pushchair with her baby son in it. Terrified, she snatched the pushchair back. She watched the car race past.
But take the filter off:
The car bore down on them.
Cassie! she screamed, snatching the pushchair back.
The car shot past, all polished chrome and tinted windows and filthy, choking fumes.
It’s not that the first scene is slow. There’s a strong action verb there, and emotion. But it’s one step removed. The narrator tells us what Sarah saw, and so you have the reader – narrator – protagonist, a three-step interpretation of the events.
In the second example, the narrator’s stepped out of the way. Now it’s just the reader – protagonist. No need to tell us what Sarah saw – we’re seeing it and feeling it ourselves. The filter is gone.
I tried it on my own work, going through and ripping out every she saw, they watched, he thought, she realised I could find. (There are other filter words too, but these are a good starting point.)
And it took work – it wasn’t just a case of taking out watched or saw. A whole bunch of rephrasing had to happen to fill the spaces, and it took more effort to get the rhythm right. But from what I can tell, my writing is much better for it. The emotions are stronger, the action more vivid.
And here’s the real reward: Whenever I’ve struggled to prise away a filter, I end up showing a level of detail that was never there when seen through the narrator’s eyes. In my first scene, above, it was just a nondescript car. With the filter off, the car came alive. That’s the magic of it.
But there’s a caveat.
Once you know about filters, you’ll spot them everywhere. And boy, are they annoying.
I now identify two types of authors: those that write full-filter, and those who at least try to limit them. I’m currently reading a thriller from a top author. It’s dripping with filters. Every chapter, the detective sees this, watches that, observes this. Of course she’s observing – she’s right there, and she’s a detective. It’s what she does. So why not just show what happens right in front of her, not the fact that she sees it happen?
“I hear there’s a body in here. Can you show me?” she asked.
“I can,” Jake replied.
She watched Jake as he walked across the room and opened the trunk.
“I hear there’s a body in here. Can you show me?”
Jake shuffled across the room and opened the trunk.
Which is more visual? Now multiply that by a whole story’s worth.
Removing filters won’t turn every tell into a show. But in my experience, it will certainly help.
About the author
John Tipper has spent much of the past twenty years as an aid worker in conflict zones. Always an avid reader, he turned to writing as a way to process some of the experiences he was involved in. Over the years, he’s been drawn to people who somehow stay positive in the middle of horrific situations, and he aims to reflect that in his writing.
When training other aid workers, he has found that people learn best through stories. His training book, Decision Making in Disaster Response, uses the power of story and a ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ approach to put readers and students at the heart of humanitarian crises.
John was the winner of the May 2020 My Writing Journey Competition.