Modern Fiction: My Filters are Broken

Modern fiction tends to force itself into absurd positions. The writers thereof cling to a philosophy that is ultimately insupportable: a pretense that they aren’t writing words on a page that tell a story. At some level, modern writers actually believe they are creating worlds that can be experienced with the senses. As an extension of their human frailty–that is, their lack of godlike powers–they then place limits on the way their audience will experience their worlds. Readers must only view these mini creations through 1st- or 3rd-person limited perspectives. Because of their frailty, the powers that exist at the top of the pyramid in publishing and in creative writing programs have written a Constitution of Rules for All Writers to Follow, Lest Point Of Most Holy Restricted View be Violated.

In order to avoid violations, writers undestand they must never use sentences that are too declarative or knowing. Their narrators aren’t gods and, therefore, there are many facts of the story-world that they will opine about, but that they couldn’t possibly know with absolute certainty. So they hedge with weak words such as “feel” or “seem.” After a while, though, the text slips from grasp like water because it’s seeming rather than being. It seems there is a story with facts and such, but it’s difficult to tell, really, when one gets down to it. How does one tell after reading a book whether anything exists at all? One pinches oneself and is still unsure.

Those at the top of the pyramid have been roused from sleep to add a few amendments to the list of rules. New Amendment 1: Thou shalt not use words that filter the necessary sensical experience for your readers (e.g. seem, feel, look, hear, see). New Amendment 2: This amendment reinforces the pre existing rule of thou shalt not use declarative sentences because neither you nor your narrator is a god. New Amendment 3: Thou shalt use declarative questions aimed at the reader, for the purpose that the reader will believe he/she is the one asking the question (e.g. Why did those pimples have to infest her chin right before her police academy graduation, wondered Stacey? Her fellow cops would never take her seriously now!)

This author, although she is no rule follower, decided she should check her own text for filter words. No, I decided I would do that. I’m only schizophrenic on Fridays, and today is Saturday. I checked and found a handful of filter words here and there–not too many. Look turned out to be a troublesome word in my text, yet often necessary for orientation. I cut out about half of them and probably left my story a mess of awkward phrases. To be honest, I was quite pleased with myself, having so few seem and feel and touch type words–not because I’m a rule follower, mind you, but because….I want my story to contain strong language? Yes, that’s the truth!

But then I read a blog post, in which somebody had added know to the list of filter words to avoid at all cost. Didn’t that defeat the point, though? The point is to never allow that anybody knows anything because we’re trapped in limited perspective boxes where no god dares to tread. Sigh. I threw know (and then knew–darn those irregular past tenses) into my global search function. Imagine my astonishment when I discovered I had used versions of this verb over 500 times in my less-than-300 page book.

Apparently, I do, after all, have a god complex. I believe I know things. I’m obsessed, in fact, with knowing things. And owing to my obsession, my characters also believe they know things. Or they really want to know things because they don’t know what they need to know to survive in this world I’ve created for them. As soon as they know things, they’ll be all right. I’ll be all right. We’ll all be able to breathe a little easier before we step out into traffic.

It seems I’ll be cast from polite writer society now. I removed as many knowings as I could from my text, but I couldn’t throw them all out. I didn’t want my characters to panic. This whole debacle of filtering has made me feel a little iffy about my place in the writing world. I need to hear voices and touch people, if not look up from my computer to truly see them.

The bells are dinging. The food on the stovetop sends an acrid smell to my nose. The shouts of laughing children fill the air. I run my hands through my tangled hair. I taste fear at the back of my mouth. And I am done. I am done. For now anyway.

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13 comments

  1. I guess this is just one of those things where I’m not entirely sure I agree wholly with the conventional wisdom.

    I need to go back over a few of the things I have written to check for the “filter words” and see what the difference is.

    The more I stick with this gig the more I think that I prefer to just evaluate the story as the story. Because otherwise these things become tics–“avoid all use of the word “that””–that stand between the reader and the story.

    I was thinking of DM Dutcher’s criticism of Rothfuss’ use of flashback narrative and his dismissal of that as “poor story-telling”. I think that’s a perfect example of how writers can get so hung up on head-knowledge as a source of comfort that the overlook the fact that the story itself is powerful, engaging and well-crafted.

    Since writing is SUCH an insecure avocation as it is, it’s very easy to use the rules as a crutch. (I’m NOT saying you’re doing this…I’m thinking with my fingers here. Fingking) Over on GoodReads I see a LOT of writers jump on a book with “This book is full of X violation of Y Rule.” Nine times out of ten it comes off like a jealous dismissal born as much out of envy as out of any sort of concern for the mechanism of storytelling.

    The tenth time is usually a writer trying their best to articulate why the story actually doesn’t work for them. But readers? Readers just read a story and like it or don’t like it.

    1. But knowing the rules might make you feel like you’re in the club. And if you want to be in my club, then you’d better start studying…..ha ha….just kidding (so I don’t get a cyber slug).

  2. Again, I’m agreeing with Coble. I thought about this some more, and my take on it is that, as writers, the more aware we are of how style affects the reader’s experience the better. I can think of perfectly good reasons to include filter words to intentionally create distance. In fact, as I look over my satire, I can see where I’ve included those filter words just to ramp up the silly factor of the story. However, if close POV is what I’m going after, then removing those filter words is essential.

    1. And, honestly, I was creating distance purposefully (though not cognizant of what I was doing). I’m glad to be aware of what I was doing instinctively.

      1. I think your instincts are good, Jill. I was never once bothered by “filter” words when I was reading the first half of your novel. I do think that distance is necessary in some instances and because your character is detached, I felt the style matched her personality… (And that’s something I like to do: match the writing style with the main character’s personality. It keeps me from boring myself.)

  3. The rules are there to force you to look at your writing and see if what you have included is necessary instead of habitual. Break them as you will, but you need to look and see if the breaking matters. Writers can include words, story elements, and framing devices as a matter of habit than thoughtful use.

    One rule that stuck with me was that many times, prologues are useless. I don’t agree fully with it, but one of the points was you can skip many of them, and lose absolutely nothing because you still need to tell the main character about what the prologue covers anyways. They won’t know what happened a thousand years ago when the ring was lost, or that the ring will kill the bearer, and that sometimes it’s more powerful just to develop it in the story rather than tease it.

    It made me think about prologues, and if I choose to include one, it would convey information in a way that I couldn’t do-so easily in story. Take the rules like that; they aren’t a popularity contest.

    1. Where do you keep hearing these rules I’ve never heard of?!?!?

      I swear. This is the first I’ve heard about prologues being useless. Like, ever.

      1. Katherine, I’ve heard of that rule, mostly from the time I spent perusing publishing industry blogs (written by agents, editors, etc.) It’s silly. Prologues can be quite necessary. I just read a book in which reading the prologue was absolutely essential. There could have been another way to give that info, but that would have been an artistic choice, rather than a by-the-book choice.

        1. I learned this prologue “rule” from Kristen Lamb, who learned it from someone else. James Scott Bell maybe? Not sure. In my case, it was true. The beginning of my story was weak. I knew this intuitively and that I needed to hook my readers somehow, so I tagged on a prologue. Then, I hoped the reader would slog through 6 chapters or so until things got *really* interesting. When I heard the rule and realized I’d done this, I also realized I needed to drop the prologue and restructure the entire first half of my novel to bring the inciting incident much closer to the beginning. The story still starts out somewhat slowly (the inciting incident isn’t until the second chapter or maybe even chapter four depending on how you want to define it), but I like it that way, so I’m leaving it.

      2. To be honest, I don’t know. I read so much that I should start recording where I hear these things, or start keeping files. Some are from books, many from the net or blogs.

  4. Well my book doesn’t have a prologue But the last three I read did. And all of them have sold a gajillion copies.

    I have a suspicion. That suspicion has been growing for awhile now.

    I think these rules are a convenience for editors. It’s easier to have a static thing existing outside of the writer and the reader which can be blamed. You can either say “Suzy, this isn’t well-written” or “Suzy, you’ve violated rules 3, 11, and 16.” The former hurts Suzy’s feelings and quite possibly sours a relationship between Suzy and the reader. The latter, however, turns an essentially subjective process into an objective one. Suzy’s feelings aren’t hurt because she thinks “oh…It’s a rule” instead of feeling personally attacked.

    I can see people using filter words as a crutch. I can see them using prologues as a crutch. I can see a million crutches happening. More often than not, though, the crutches come about because the storytelling isn’t organic to the writer.

    This would be why I vastly prefer the “read anything and everything you can get your hands on” method. You learn what works by observing it in the field.

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