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by Christie Rich
When I read, I want to experience the book, sink right in and become the main character, or at least tag along for a piggy back ride. As a writer, my greatest wish is that my readers will have the same experience. The trouble is it’s not that easy to get readers to see through the character’s eyes unless you learn a few things. I’m still on the journey of figuring out all the secrets of creating engaging fiction, but one thing I stumbled upon last year threw me.
I had no idea very common words can distance a reader from the experience of the story I’m telling, but once I learned them it totally makes sense why the words put a barrier between the action and the reader. This information has helped me understand why sometimes, it is impossible for me to connect with a story, even if it is an interesting idea and the characters are enjoyable.
What words, you ask?
Janet Burroway, author of Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft, coined the phrase that has caught on in the editing arena lately—filter words. I haven’t read Janet’s book, but it is on my to-read.
My introduction to filter words came from a writer friend’s blog: http://blackbirdinmywindow.blogspot.com/2012/09/wednesdays-writer-avoid-filter-words.html
The post is short and to the point, and really, I could stop here and just tell you to go read her blog, but I have a few things to add. First, here are the pesky critters that can blur the image you try to create for the reader.
- to see
- to hear
- to think
- to touch
- to wonder
- to realize
- to watch
- to look
- to seem
- to feel
- to decide
- to notice
- to sound (or sound like)
Look familiar? Some of these words are easier to avoid than others, or to remove from your first draft. Others, not so much, at least for me. Because I’m aware of these words now, I don’t use them as often, but they are so easy to use. They wiggle their way into what should be intense, action driven scenes. The result: a watered down version of what would otherwise be riveting fiction, right? Right!
I can hear you all screaming SHOW, don’t TELL! ;)
Let’s take a gander at a few examples. This is a made up scene, not from any WIP.
Kari could feel the heat of the sun on her skin, the breeze barely denting the effects of the tyrannical orb. She’d been out too long, and if she didn’t find shelter soon, she’d be just another sojourner to never return home. Everywhere she looked, she saw rolling hills of sand. No sound could be heard other than the occasional flurry of wind. It seemed the whole world had disappeared with the burgeoning morning.
She wondered if she should turn around. If she hurried, she might be able to find her way back to the others. She thought she heard something in the distance, which brought hope to her wilting heart. She increased her step, stumbling up the dune toward the sound. When she crested the hill she realized her mistake, falling to her knees. She noticed the flurry of action before her mind comprehended what she saw.
She watched helplessly as the raiders ravaged the small village, tears leaking from her eyes for the children that cried over dead parents. She wondered what she could do for the people. If she went down there, she’d just be taken too, or worse.
“Over there,” shouted a man.
Kari could feel her heartbeat speed up as she watched a man look at her then sprint toward her. Her feet took off, finding some inner strength she didn’t know she had. If she was taken, her village would be next. She recalled that the raiders were known for mind penetration. She could see her mother’s kind eyes weeping tears of devastation, all because she hadn’t listened. Her disobedience had not only made her life forfeit, she had placed every single person she loved in danger…to see a boy that didn’t love her, a boy that had already broken her heart.
Now, without the filter words.
The heat of the sun baked Kari’s tender flesh, the breeze barely denting the effects of the tyrannical orb. She’d been out too long, and if she didn’t find shelter soon, she’d be just another sojourner to never return home. Everywhere she turned, rolling hills of sand spread out before her. Nothing but an occasional flurry of wind disturbed the haunting silence. The whole world had disappeared with the burgeoning morning.
She should turn around. If she hurried, she might be able to find her way back to the others.
What was that? She stilled, listening more intently and it came again. Voices. Had she made it to the village after all? Hope filled her wilting heart with a new purpose. She raced ahead, even though her weary muscles screamed at her to stop. When she crested the hill a flurry of motion bombarded her mind.
Helplessly, she stared as the raiders ravaged the small village, tears leaking down her cheeks for the crying children trying to wake their slain parents. What could she do to help them? If she went down there, she’d just be taken too, or worse.
“Over there,” shouted a man.
Kari’s heartbeat slammed against her chest as another man sprinted toward her. Her feet took off, finding some inner strength she didn’t know she had. If she was taken, her village would be next. What had she done? Her mother’s kind eyes flashed in her mind, bright with the tears of devastation, all because she hadn’t listened. Her disobedience had not only forfeited her life, she had placed every single person she loved in danger…to see a boy that didn’t love her, a boy that had already broken her heart.
So which scene allowed you to feel the character’s emotions? Which scene was easier to connect with?
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Okay, so I’d like to do something fun, if you all are game. Search your current work in progress. Post a scene of yours with filter words then without. The more examples posted, the easier this concept will be for all of us to remember. If you’d like me to remove your filter words, that’s great, just say so in your post.
The more you practice, the easier it will be for you to spot the culprits that make it difficult for your readers to connect with your stories.
The only way this will be any fun is if we have lots of comments and posts, so go for it. The only thing you have to lose is a barrier you don’t need. Happy writing everyone!
I grew up daydreaming about fairytales, and my love for discovering new worlds has never died. I am not one of those writers who always knew I would write. I thought that was what other people did until one day a few years ago, I took a challenge from a friend and typed my first words. My journey has been wonderful, and I cannot imagine a day where I would ever give up writing. My love for reading is what fueled my imagination in the first place and still does. When I am not writing or reading, I am enjoying family time with my husband and two children. I also dabble in painting but writing has taken over my creative time right now. I hope to get back to it at some point in my life, but I'm not sure when I'll have time for it. My family and I live in a quiet community in Northern Utah, and I am so thankful for the rich life I have been blessed with.