Pitch Wars Revision Advice: Show vs. Tell, Part 2 — Filtering
Hello Pitch Wars preppers (and anyone else revising)! Last week I talked about an under-discussed part of the old writing adage “show, don’t tell.” You can find that post here. Today I want to return to the topic, but focus on the better known portion of this advice–”showing” emotions & sensory details, rather than just telling the reader. Even though this part of show/tell is more frequently discussed, I find that writers often struggle to actually execute it in practice. So today, I want to talk about a more tactical, sentence-level issue with showing vs. telling: filtering.
Chances are, if you have received any kind of manuscript feedback from me, you have heard my thoughts on filtering. I give this advice so often that I actually already had a whole document written up that I just copy & paste into people’s manuscripts. This is basically that document, now made publicly available. Okay, so here it goes…
Before I get into how to fix the problem, I want to start off by addressing WHAT filtering even is. Before my own Pitch Wars year in 2017, I had never heard of it before. Filtering is a way of structuring sentences that creates emotional distance between the reader and the POV character, because it reminds us that the character is “recounting” the story, rather than allowing us to experience it alongside them.
An example of filtering would be something like “I heard my father’s footsteps in the hall” vs. “My father’s footsteps echoed in the hall.” In the first one, “I heard” reminds us that we’re not actually living the story in the moment with the narrator. We’re being told about the sound after the character has already heard it themselves. In the second version, even though it’s still in past tense, we hear the footsteps at the same time that the narrator is. Here’s a list of common filter words that can create this type of distancing effect:
When/Then/Next or other “chronology” words
Able (as in be able, etc)
Now, of course these words aren’t purely bad. They all have their place in our stories. But they’re also the kind of words that are so basic and common we use them unconsciously, without stopping to think about the effect they have on our sentences.
At best, they’re often simply unnecessary. If I’m writing a book in first person–for instance–and I have a sentence that says something like “I decide to have cereal for breakfast,” the word “decide” is doing nothing. I could just as easily say, “I’ll have cereal for breakfast.” It’s fewer words, no less clear, and puts us deeper into the character’s POV.
But that’s a pretty innocuous example. What I wanted to talk about today is the way that this type of writing can inhibit our best efforts to “show” rather than “tell.” Part of the reason that “show, don’t tell” advice exists is to create a more immersive experience for the reader. It’s about drawing them deeper into the world of the story, right? But if you attempt to “show” the reader something, while still using filtering words, no matter how descriptive you are that immersion is still going to be hard to achieve.
Last week, I think I used the example of “don’t tell us the cake is ruined, show us the smear of crumbs and frosting down the side of the counter where the cake fell.” So here are three different versions of that example:
The cake fell off the counter and splattered on the floor. It was ruined.
Showing, but with filtering:
I watched as–seemingly in slow motion–the cake teetered on the edge for a moment before it fell over the edge. I could see the smear of frosting down the side of the counter and the shrapnel of funfetti crumbs scattered across the floor. “Mom’s going to kill me,” I thought.
Showing, without filtering:
For a moment, the cake teetered on the edge of the counter. It tipped over the edge and, seemingly in slow motion, fell to the ground, where it splattered into pieces. Blue frosting smeared down the side of the kitchen island. Funfetti crumbs scattered everywhere, like shrapnel. Mom was going to murder me.
Ok, obviously this a totally context-less example I just pulled out of thin air, but do you see how much closer we feel to the character and the tension of the moment in that third example? Now imagine if this were in a real story with actual stakes and character development! That impact would be even greater.
Neither of the first two examples are bad, and depending on the context either one of them could work in your story. But if you keep loading up your scenes with all kinds of great sensory details and you keep getting that same irritating “show, don’t tell” advice, this might be why! Sensory details often fail to have their desired effect if they’re not meaningfully drawing us deeper into the character’s POV.
Now, sometimes people tend to go a little over the top with removing filtering words, and it can lead to a loss of clarity and concision. Sometimes just saying “I heard” or “I saw” is really the fastest, easiest, clearest way to say something! For instance, while I was revising my own book, one critique partner wanted me to change a sentence that read “Olive watched me from the bed as I moved around the room” to “Olive’s eyes followed me around the room”–which, yeah, we still get the point, but (to me) also kind of sounds like her disembodied eyeballs are floating about?
So it’s a matter of personal judgment. Personally, this is NOT something I worry about while I’m drafting. It’s just too easy to get in my head about it, and when I draft I really only care about getting something down on the page so I can fix it later. Instead, when I’m revising I do a whole pass just for filtering. I take the above list of common filter words and CTRL + F each word, evaluating every usage (yup, this takes a while).
And when I’m evaluating each sentence, I ask myself: is there a more immediate way I could say this, without sacrificing clarity? A lot of these words are pretty easy to work around. Anything that’s “thinky”–like know, realize, thought, wonder–you can usually just cut altogether. If we’re in that person’s head, we’ll assume they’re the ones thinking, wondering, etc. Same goes for chronology. You don’t need to say “And then I did this, next I walked down the stairs.” Books are usually linear–we’ll just assume one thing is happening after the next unless we’re told otherwise.
But where I think this gets really interesting is when we bring it back to “show, don’t tell.” Filter words are not just something to avoid for the sake of it, but an opportunity to give readers a more vivid and precise view into the world of the story. A piece of writing advice I often give is to look for places where you can add highly specific details that the reader–left to their own devices–would never have been able to imagine for themselves. The kinds of things that only you, the author, could conjure.
There’s one instance in my book where the main character Flora and her love interest are having this really intense & painful conversation. In an early draft, I said something like “I looked away, unable to meet his eyes.” And as far as filtering goes, that’s not a huge deal–no one would be mad about that sentence.
But when I was trying to decide if I should replace it, I had an idea. What if, instead of just saying she looked away, I described WHAT she’s looking at instead–this guy’s sad, lumpy couch, which looks like he pulled it off the street:
“I stare at the sagging, grimy cushions on his couch. There’s a yellowish stain by the seam. He knows I want to believe him, but I can’t give in this time.”
This accomplishes a few things.The attention to detail she’s giving this couch–the way she fixates on the stain–makes her discomfort with the conversation very clear. She’s so determined not to look this guy in the eye, she’s pinning all her attention on this gross street couch, something we would usually ignore.
But this detail also further hints at her love interest’s backstory. This guy lives a really lonely, isolated life. He’s cut himself off from the world, and every time these two characters try to get closer, one of them ends up pulling away. In the same scene, we learn that his kitchen table only has one chair. By giving these kinds of hyper-specific details, it becomes clear just how alone & broken he is…because we’re not being told he’s lonely, we’re seeing the evidence of it with our own eyes.
And that’s why this can be an effective way of tackling “show, don’t tell,” because it creates the opportunity for richer, more detailed imagery while also grounding us more deeply in the story’s emotional POV.
Before I close, I just want to reiterate that much of how you deal with filtering is a matter of personal taste. If you open a lot of very successful, famous books, you’ll find that there’s TONS of filtering–because it’s not inherently bad! But once you’re aware how it works, you can make deliberate, strategic choices about where to leave it alone vs. where to try another way. Hope that helps, and good luck!
Kylie Schachte is a graduate from Sarah Lawrence College and an active member of the Pitch Wars online community as both an alum & mentor. She lives in Portland, Oregon with her husband, cat, and giant dog. YOU’RE NEXT is her first book.
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