Spotting “Errors” and “Filtering”

Over on Absolute Write there’s a little discussion going on about “filtering.”  As I understand it, filtering is a “mistake” some writers make that distances the reader from the story.

Here’s what I think is an example:

Filtering:  Bob came over the hill, emerging from the dark confines of the jungle, and saw a vast plain spread before him.  He felt the cool breeze on his face, grateful for how it dried the sweat on his skin.  He smelled something clean and crisp in that breeze that reminded him he was almost home.

Not filtering:  Bob emerged from the dark confines of the jungle.  A vast plain spread before him.  The cool breeze dried the sweat on his skin; clean and crisp, carrying the scent of home.

OK, so I’m not a good writer.  Someday….maybe.  But hopefully it’ll work as an example.

Do you see the difference between the first one and the second one?  In the first one Bob “saw” the plain, “felt” the breeze, and “smelled” the clean and crisp scent.  In the second one, we are Bob.  We are emerging from the jungle.  We see the plain, we feel the breeze, and smell the scent of home.

You don’t walk around thinking “I walk out the front door and see my car.  It’s blue.  And needs a wash.”  You think, if you think at all, “Huh.  Maybe I should wash my car?  Pretty sure it’s blue, but hard to tell under all that dirt.  Ah well.”

So, here’s where the whole spotting “errors” issue comes up.  One of the sessions I attended last weekend dealt with point of view.  It included examples of POV slips.  But I don’t think POV slips are always what people think they are.

Some are obvious.  If you have 90 pages of deep third person focused on Harry and on page 91 you suddenly say, “Jane looked at Harry and thought to herself, ‘What an idiot,'” and then go back to Harry’s thoughts and feelings, you have a pretty obvious POV slip.

But what about “Harry grimaced.”  Is this a POV break?  I don’t think so.  I think people know when they grimace.  They don’t need to see it.  But some would call it a POV slip, because Harry can’t see his own facial expression so how can he know that he grimaced?

So, sometimes I think people really stretch to find “errors” in others’ work.  (And, quite frankly, if I’m ever published and this is all people can come up with in reading my work, then I’ll be pretty damned happy.)

Now, the reason I started this off with filtering is because, after reading that thread on AW, I went back through my work to identify instances of filtering.  And I found some.  (I tend to fall into it when describing scenery.)

I was able to tighten those bits up be removing all the “saw” and “felt” from the paragraph.  But, I also noticed another place where I use it.  And I suspect that if I remove it from those scenes then someone at some point will accuse me of POV slips.

Here’s an example:

Filtered: “John saw Fred surreptitiously replace his knife in its sheath before standing and helping him.”

Unfiltered: “Fred surreptitiously replaced his knife in its sheath before standing and
helping John.”

In this little snippet, we’re in John’s head.  When Fred replaces the knife, it’s John who sees this.  But without the filtering I think it could come off as a little head hop.  It shouldn’t be, but that’s how it reads.

So, here I’m faced with a choice: Do I keep the filtering in, which creates a little distance and maybe reminds the reader that they aren’t really in John’s head?  Or do I drop it and risk having the reader suddenly wonder how they ended up in Fred’s head?

I think the answer is to play with it and see which you, as the writer, like better.  In this one, I’m keeping the filtering.  But there are others where I may drop it.  I think I have about five of them in 350 pages, so I’m not too concerned.

Anyway.  Just a few thoughts that one person’s “error” is just another’s slightly different take on the situation.

And, as an added bonus, I found another misused word that none of my betas have caught so far and that I missed in three separate drafts.  Sheaf is not the same as sheath.

About M. H. Lee

M.H. Lee is a speculative fiction writer currently residing in Colorado whose stories are sometimes dark, sometimes funny, sometimes darkly funny, but hopefully always thought-provoking and entertaining.
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2 Responses to Spotting “Errors” and “Filtering”

  1. Keri Peardon says:

    I’ve never heard of filtering… which is probably why I commit it continuously. I agree with you in the John/Fred example that the second sentence does sound like it’s from Fred’s POV (although it might not given more context).

    I write in the third person omniscient (not third person personal, which is what I think “unfiltered” writing is). In my books, you are NOT my character, and what he/she is seeing, smelling, etc. is not something you are meant to experience personally. You are supposed to empathize, but not actually step foot in their shoes. If I had wanted my reader to do that, I would have written in first person.

    Personally, I like your filtered examples better and think you shouldn’t sweat it. Write what’s natural to you; I think you’ll actually make fewer errors if you write what sounds right versus trying to abide by “rules” you aren’t sure you really understand.

    • mhleewriter says:

      It may be a term that came up on that thread on Absolute Write, because a lot of people on the thread weren’t familiar with it.

      I agree with you on writing the way that’s natural. But I also thinks there’s a value in going back through with an outside perspective and trying to tighten things up. Removing the filtering on my scene descriptions did help. I definitely don’t believe in slavishly following any advice or rules.

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