Writing | On Filtering


Filtering ― or, how to keep your reader at arm’s length.

I’ve been doing a fair amount of proofreading / light editing and have found myself talking about filtering a lot as of late. Since I’ve been looking for stuff to put here, it seemed like I could burn some pixels in rambling on about it. Readers may not notice filtering in the same sense it jumps out to a writer/editor, however, they will notice the effect it has on their immersion. A story that has a lot of filtering makes the reader feel as though they are watching from a distance. However, like many “best practices” in writing, it is not an absolute case of good and bad.

What Is Filtering?

The simplest explanation is when a writer “filters” their world through the presence of their character rather than just presents the setting to the reader. The writer inserts the character between the reader and the action with certain phrases: he saw, he felt, he heard, he knew. (There are quite a few other ones, but you get the point.)

What is happening here is the writer is describing their character experiencing something. They are not allowing the reader into that experience, instead keeping them at a safe distance and pointing. See that? Caleb just heard scratching noises and then saw a pack of rats swarm out of that trash right at him. (It feels like the reader is standing at the far end of the street watching Caleb, safe from the rats.)

Why is it bad?

By inserting that extra layer (the character) between the reader and what is happening, it lessens the immersion of a scene. The reader is observing someone rather than sharing the experience with the character. While filtering is not “bad” in the same way that typos or grammatical errors are, it (much like adverbs) weakens the writing.

Here is an excerpt from my short story “A Ghost Among Fireflies” as originally written:

     The strange feeling of having been here before beckoned her. As if by memory, she navigated a minefield of old toys, broken computer equipment, and the shattered remnants of once-furniture, now thick with mold. She glanced at a desk to her left, her eyes at the level of its surface. An old, broken holo-terminal there glimmered in the weak light from the window, reflected curtains the only image on the screen.

Here is the same excerpt modified to use filtering. Does it feel different to read?

     She felt strange, as if she had been here before. She remembered the room, navigating a minefield of old toys, broken computer equipment, and the shattered remnants of once-furniture. She could smell the thick mold on everything, even a desk to her left as tall as she was. Atop the desk, she saw an old, broken holo-terminal, its dark screen reflecting from the weak light in the window.

Aside from ‘she saw’ getting repetitious, the second passage doesn’t put the reader into the room with the character as much as lifts them far enough away to observe the character experiencing the scene.

Is it always bad?

Sometimes, it is more important to point out that the character became aware of something. Your protagonist can approach a room containing something dangerous (let’s use a rattlesnake) and notice it before he walks in. Jake paused by the door when he saw a rattlesnake lurking under the bed.

When calling attention to the character’s perception of something is more important than just setting a scene, filtering is not a bad thing. Here, the intent is to indicate the character has sensed something―when whether or not they do is the focal point of the moment.

Sometimes, words often considered signs of filtering are the most direct way to convey something, or to preserve meaning. “He had heard that before, many times” would not carry the same connotation as “They said that before, many times.” The first way makes the character seem as though they are tired of hearing it, linking a sentiment to the idea. The second example is a statement of fact, lacking the characterization.

The Bottom Line

In a scene where it is not important to point out the character is aware of something, (the reader will expect a character is aware of their surroundings unless told otherwise) avoiding filtering lets your reader immerse themselves in your story and experience it alongside the character. They are no longer “reading a book” but existing in the world you have created.

It also prevents them from getting fatigued from seeing the phrase “she heard” or “she saw” repeated.

There is no clear-cut “this is wrong” or “this is right” regarding filtering. Anything works, sparingly. (Even adverbs, which I loathe.) Overuse of filtering will lift your reader right out of your narrative and leave them watching with binoculars from the sidelines.


Stiltskin | Andrew Buckley


From the moment I read Death, the Devil, and the Goldfish, I knew I wanted to read more from Andrew Buckley. Stiltskin did not disappoint. The story follows the moderately hapless and ever-gangly Robert Darkly as he is going about a very odd day. Robert is no stranger to strange days, as strange things have strangely been happening to him for as long as he can remember.

After being cruelly deprived of a much-needed warm respite by the presence of an irritable dwarf in his bathwater, Robert gets dragged screaming and confused into another world. Once there, he sees the creatures that inspired classic fairy tales from the other side of the looking glass.

We have been a touch misinformed.

As Robert chases the mad dwarf, he runs into a bevy of characters he thought familiar but prove to be anything but. Mr. Buckley has created a fanciful story that appeals to the little boy or girl inside every one of us―the one that likes to light things on fire when no one is watching.

Filled with quirky humor and classic British understatement, Stiltskin had me laughing out loud quite a few times, much to the dismay of others in the room. The jokes and situations are spot-on, the dialogue is perfect, and the characters practically leap off the page―and grab you by the jubblies. The story, alas, is ill-suited to faint-hearted goats who may not take well to certain scenes of hircusine violence.


Updated Release Information

Greetings all 🙂

An update to the release calendar here. Caller 107 is trading places with Virtual Immortality to facilitate its submission to the School Library Journal for review (needed more time). This means that Virtual Immortality will be up next, releasing on May 19th.

Division Zero (ebook) is out now, many thanks to all who have purchased it. I am expecting the paperback version to become available on Wednesday this week (3/12).

Release Calendar:

Division Zero – Paperback 3/12/2014
Virtual Immortality 5/19/2014
Caller 107 7/22/2014
Division Zero: Lex De Mortuis 9/8/2014
Prophet of the Badlands: The Awakened Book 1 11/3/2014

Theocracide | James Wymore


In Theocracide, James Wymore creates a world where people have become dependent on technology. So much so they are terrified to take off the wearable computers that keep them immersed in a web of fantasy. No one cares what happens outside of their personal comfort zones, as everyone creates their own version of the perfect environment in which to live.

Jason Hunt sees through the charade. Looking at the real world without an electronic filter, he discovers that his father’s survivalist paranoia holds more truth than he had ever thought possible. A suspicious government continuously warns of the danger of alien invasion, but Jason begins to doubt that they even exist. He inherits a destiny he does not want, and is forced to choose between the good of society and the woman he loves.

Fast paced, thrilling, and thought provoking, Theocracide offers a chilling look into a future not so far removed from our own. Technology is portrayed as realistic and fantastic at once, eerie in how possible it seems. The emotions between Jason and his girl are deep and believable, and his relationship with his strange, fragmented family is portrayed expertly. Even having read this months ago, I still recall vivid details of the egg-cars and the beautiful scene where his love interest creates a work of art in a place filled with desolation.

Book Description:

Aliens bent on conquering the world are closing in on a weakened America. Epidemic alien-flu leaves people afraid to go outside their homes. The Undying Emperor is drafting Americans of all ages despite the plummeting population.

Nobody really cares.

Jason, like everyone else, lives in a fantasy facilitated by computer glasses that project images right over the parts of the world he doesn’t like. With a sports scholarship and an amazing new girlfriend, he leads his college team from one victory to another. As long as they ignore the constant barrage of terrible news, their lives would turn out to be perfect.

Until the government discovers his father’s secret. Until his artificially perfect world comes crashing down. Will Jason and his allies survive the manhunt long enough to finish his father’s work – to commit theocracide and set the world right?


James’s Page: