Show. Don’t tell: The golden rule of writing explained

This is a post by Novel Publicity staff editor, Robb Grindstaff

QUESTION: I was recently told by an editor that I use too many ‘filters’ in my novel manuscript and I should remove them. What is a filter, and why are they bad? – A question asked by several writers and editing clients of mine.

First, I’ll point out (as I frequently do) that I don’t believe in hard and fast rules that say ‘never do this’ or ‘always do that.’ But there are writing techniques that can help your writing become more engaging to readers.

One of those writing techniques is to eliminate, or at least greatly reduce, the number of filters.

So what is a filter?

The most basic form of a filter is when the writer tells the reader that a characters sees, hears, smells, feels (as in the sense of touch), or tastes something. A related, and slightly more nuanced filter, is when the writer tells the reader that a character notices, realizes, recognizes, or feels (as in an emotion) something.

So what’s wrong with telling readers that a character experiences something through her senses? Isn’t that what good writing is supposed to do? It lets readers know what the character is sensing. It shows the reader the event rather than telling it. It engages the five senses (and emotions) of the reader. It’s one way to use more show than tell, isn’t it?

Yes and no. (How’s that for ambiguous?) Yes, you want the readers experience the story through the senses of the character. Engaging the five senses plus emotional reactions of the readers helps them engage more closely with the character.

But a filter – or at least an abundance of filters – can have the opposite effect. Filters come between the character and the reader, and instead of showing the experience, the writer tells the reader what the character experiences. The writer tells the reader what the character is sensing rather than letting the reader sense it directly.

If the scene is clearly in the point-of-view of a character, readers don’t need to be told the character sees, hears, or smells something. Show the ‘something,’ and readers will intuitively assume the POV character sees/hears/smells it.

Filters remove the reader from the character’s experience by one step. The important part of the sentence becomes the action of sensing something rather than the thing sensed.

Okay, this will make more sense with some examples.

ORIGINAL: When Joe heard the rattling, shaking sound, he looked down and saw the snake coiled on the path in front of him. He knew it was ready to strike. Joe felt the panic rise in his throat.

This sentence has a several filters in it, some direct, some indirect. ‘Joe heard’ and ‘saw’ are direct filters. ‘Sound,’ ‘he looked,’ and ‘he knew’ are a bit more indirect. ‘Joe felt’ is filtering an emotion rather than one of the physical senses.

In what should be an active and tense scene, the writer steps onto the page to tell the reader that Joe heard something, and describes the sound Joe heard. Then the writer tells readers that Joe looked down and saw something. Next, the writer tells the reader what Joe saw, and continues on to tell the reader what Joe knew. Finally, the writer tells the reader how Joe felt.

Each of these filters, individually, removes the reader from the direct experience by a fraction. Taken together, this live scene has become a narrated scene in which readers are told about the event rather than experience it directly through the POV character.

REVISION: The rattle and shake stopped Joe in his tracks. Coiled in front of him, the snake blocked his path, ready to strike. He stifled the little-girl scream that tried to escape.

Same scene, same sentences, zero filters. It’s more direct. It shows readers the moment at the same time and in the same way that Joe experiences it. Readers hear the rattle, see the snake, sense the danger, and feel the panic as if they are Joe. Instead of using the verbs ‘heard, looked, saw, knew, and felt,’ it uses the more dynamic actions of ‘stopped, coiled, blocked, and stifled.’

If the scene is firmly established in Joe’s POV, readers will intuitively know that Joe hears the rattle, sees the snake, and feels a bit panicked.

So, do I need to remove every filter word in my manuscript?

As with most writing techniques, it’s the heavy reliance on a particular usage that creates a noticeable problem. If, in your 100,000-word, 400-page manuscript, you’ve used a dozen filters, or even two dozen, or however many (there’s no formula), and most of your scenes are written without filters, then a few scattered about here and there probably aren’t doing any harm. But are they doing any good? One secret to great writing is that no word is wasted.

As with any writing tip, there are exceptions.

There are times when, due to the nature of the scene, multiple characters interacting, or various other situations, you may need to specify that a character sees or hears something in order for the scene to be clear.

EXAMPLE: Keeping the snake in his peripheral vision, Joe looked at the large boulder beside him, and wondered if he could jump on top of it before the snake lashed out.

In this case, it’s important to make sure readers know that Joe sees the boulder while keeping his eye on the snake. The filters in this example don’t bother me, and more importantly, probably wouldn’t bother a reader.

EXAMPLE: Joe held onto the rough surface of the boulder and peeked around, watching, waiting. The snake was out there somewhere. He could feel it.

In this example, I don’t view these as filters. In this case, the ‘senses’ are the important actions. Peeked, watching, feel – all of these words add to the scene, show us what Joe is doing physically and his internal emotions. Note the filter that isn’t there: ‘Joe felt the rough surface of the boulder as he held on.’

Likewise, you may need to state the negative filter when a character does not see or hear something.

EXAMPLE: Joe calmed his breathing, but couldn’t hear anything over the thumping of his heart.

What if I’m writing in first person? Wouldn’t a first-person character say what she sees or hears or feels?

It may be even more important to avoid filters in a first-person story. One of the primary benefits of writing in first person is that it presents the story in a closer perspective and lets readers experience the story from inside the character’s skin and head. Adding filters creates a distance between that first-person character and the reader, and it makes the story more narrated – it is more ‘told’ to the reader by the narrator rather than experienced by the reader.

Let’s take Joe and the snake and make him a first-person character.

ORIGINAL: When I heard the rattling, shaking sound, I looked down and saw the snake coiled on the path in front of me. I knew it was ready to strike. I felt the panic rise in my throat.

REVISE: The rattle and shake stopped me in my tracks. Coiled in front of me, the snake blocked my path, ready to strike. I stifled the little-girl scream that tried to escape.

If the POV character is clear, if readers are in the POV character’s head, whether first or third person doesn’t matter – filtering the scene creates added distance between the character and the reader.

As always, there’s a wide degree of latitude for personal, subjective taste and writing style. But if you want your readers to experience the scene much more directly, reduce or avoid filters.

 

About this post’s author:  

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIn addition to a career as a newspaper editor, publisher, and manager, I’ve written fiction most of my life. The newspaper biz has taken my family and me from Phoenix, Arizona, to small towns in North Carolina and Texas, and from seven years in Washington, D.C., to five years in Asia. Born and raised a small-town kid, I’m as comfortable in Tokyo or Tuna, Texas. My first novel, Hannah’s Voice, debuted January 2013, and two more novels are in the works for 2013-14. I also edit fiction and non-fiction books for authors from around the world. It helps that I’m fluent in five languages: U.S. English, U.K. English, Canadian English, and Australian English, plus my native language, Texan. Connect with me via my website, Facebook, Twitter, or Evolved Publishing. I’m also a staff editor for Novel Publicity!


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