If you did not read the title of this blog post in Jerry Maguire’s voice, please find a spot on the couch, cuddle with a stuffed animal, and let’s figure out where in life you went so wrong.
If you did, in fact, read this in the aforementioned jubilant tone… you may continue.
Thinking back to my early writerly days, I hobbled. I had crutch words and filter words and telling galore. Let’s be honest, I still fall into the filter trap (please excuse the dad humor) and my biggest offense would be the F word. It is a bad, bad, bad word that I use far too often.
Oh get your mind out of the gutter, I am talking about “felt.”
I’m kind of melding two writing lessons together here for a minute and combining filter words with the good ole showing vs telling mantra. Because this was a lesson *I* needed to hear (let’s be honest, still need to hear at times) to improve my own writing and if you find yourself in the same boat, read on!
Filter words (some more common ones are: saw, heard, felt, tasted, smelled, knew, thought, wondered, realized) have a way of distancing the reader from the character. Exactly the opposite of what you want. Whether good or bad, love or hate, you want to foster a connection. Remember kiddies, the opposite of love is not hate, it is indifference. And it is a facet of telling, which is something you want to avoid (not eliminate… we will discuss that more in a different post).
So I am going to give you a few examples of something I used to say versus how I would phrase it now that I have a miniscule amount of knowledge under my belt.
“Now, where were we,” he asked as they crossed the street. It was a trick question. He knew exactly where he left off and felt fairly confident where his temporary assistant had left off in her note taking, but he wanted to make a point.
I did not edit that at all. You just read two year old word vomit complete with unnecessary tags, echoes, and… the F word. Congratulations on surviving.
“Now where were we?” It was a trick to test his newest employee. There was no doubt where he’d left off in his dictation. Ryan’s posture was straight, shoulders back, chin up as they crossed the street. He didn’t bother to confirm Andi was trailing after him because… where else would the personal assistant to the CEO of a Fortune 500 company be?
Same scene, same characters, same actions. But which one brings you into the scene with them?
Another example – and y’all better appreciate me airing my dirty writing laundry to you – from a different, also abandoned, WIP:
Since Steve’s death, she had taken down the large portrait that hung above the fireplace. Both her counselor and the children’s therapist felt that, while smaller pictures of their father spread through the house would be helpful, the large 24×36 portrait needed to be taken down for a while.
Navigating her sudden thrust into single parenthood had been overwhelming enough, but doing it with two grief stricken children while mourning herself had felt impossible. Charlie soaked up every piece of advice she had been given, even when she felt it was a little ridiculous, like changing out the family pictures.
Um. Yep. That would be the F word times three as well as innumerable word echoes. I mean, at least I own my horrific writing, no?
Let’s see if we can FEEL Charlie without being told what she feels.
The removal of the large family portrait over the fireplace had come at the suggestion of both her therapist and the children’s grief counselor. They emphasized the need to relive and recount happy memories, but the imposing 24 x 36 framed photograph served as more of a bow that sent sharp reminders of their loss arrowing through her heart. Steve’s dark eyes and dimples taunting them each time they entered the room.
Navigating the choppy waters of single parenting – a boat Charlie never dreamt she’d be in – was rough by itself, but when she factored in her children’s grief with her own it was nearly insurmountable. She soaked in every piece of advice the experts offered, even the ones that were a bit over the top.
Filter words and showing vs telling go hand in hand because you can rely on them to TELL us how your character feels rather than SHOW us how they feel. The first stage of my editing process begins with a search for “felt” and eliminating many of those little buggers, fleshing out the scene, and deepening the POV.
And you know the good news here (she asks after having uttered that cursed editing word)? After a little while, the lessons become ingrained to the point you find yourself relying less and less on filter words and telling even in your first draft.