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How Do I Use Filters
in My Novel?

The problem with filters in a novel

Imagine you’re at the theatre, engrossed in a gripping play. Then the writer appears on stage and proceeds to give a running commentary on everything that’s going on. Pretty soon this is going to get rather irritating. The narration is a distraction from what the actors are doing – diluting the drama and dragging you out of the fictional world you’d been immersed in. You’re also likely to find it rather patronising; did the writer feel you wouldn’t be able to follow what was going on without being spoon-fed information?

All in all, you may well decide to leave early – and never go to see anything by that writer again.

The overuse of filters in a novel can have a similar effect, breaking the tension and imposing a barrier between author and reader.

Filters in fiction writing put the emphasis on how a character experiences something, rather than the experience itself. Let’s take a look at the filters used below.


Jim felt the wind cut into the back of his neck as he walked along the pebbles. He saw the huge waves crashing towards the shore and heard an ominous clap of thunder overhead.


The filters (in red) slow down the narrative, telling the reader things they could have worked out for themselves. The author is telling us what Jim does instead of allowing the reader to experience it for themselves from Jim’s perspective.

Here is how it could read without the filters:


The wind cut into the back of Jim’s neck as he walked along the pebbles. Huge waves crashed towards the shore and there was an ominous clap of thunder overhead.


The second version is shorter, sharper and crisper, with less narrative distance between the reader and the character. We don’t need to be told that Jim is feeling, seeing and hearing things – it’s all implicit.

An important rule of fiction writing is to show rather than tell. The reader should see events unfold through the eyes of the character rather than be told what’s happening by the author.

By spelling things out with the filters, the author is inadvertently reminding the reader that they are reading a work of fiction, created by someone else for their benefit.

In the second version, the reader experiences the world directly from Jim’s perspective, something that creates a bond with the character rather than putting a barrier in front of them.

In a longer stretch of text, the distracting and laborious effect of filters is even more apparent:   

Jo knew the gun had to be in there somewhere and decided it was now or never. She walked through the semi-darkness and felt her foot kick something hard. Jo heard it scrape across the floor. She looked down and saw the gun lying a couple of feet away.


And without the filters:


The gun had to be in there somewhere; it was now or never. Jo walked slowly through the semi-darkness and her foot kicked something hard, scraping it across the floor. She looked down; the gun lay a couple of feet away.

When can filters be appropriate in novels?

As is often the case in fiction, there are no cast iron rules regarding the use of filters. While overuse should be avoided, the occasional use of them can add variety to your prose.

There are also occasions when a filter is necessary to convey meaning:

Sarah pondered her next move.

Mike realised he was no longer alone.

In these examples, we need to know that Sarah has pondered and that Mike has realised. It would be hard to get across the meaning without using filters.

There may also be times when the reader wants to use a filter for dramatic reasons:

Joe was just thirty yards from safety when he felt something hard move slightly under his foot. He looked down slowly at the landmine.

We could rewrite this to remove the filters:

Joe was just thirty yards from safety when something hard moved slightly under his foot. A landmine.


Some authors, however, might instinctively prefer to retain the original version. What Joe is feeling and looking at is so terrifying that removing the filters could reduce the impact of the sentence.

Slowing down the narrative allows the tension to build until we get confirmation of what Joe is standing on. The reduction in pace may also be mirroring Joe’s state of mind – with things seemingly happening in slow motion as he realises what’s happening.

Context is everything – it may well be that even in a short passage of text, the author chooses to avoid filters in some places but use them in others.

For example, the text may begin:


Alan knew it was a trap but decided he had no choice but to carry on.

He felt something brush against the back of his neck; he felt nothing more for some considerable time.


The author may decide to rewrite the first sentence to remove the filters which make it unnecessarily slow and clunky. But they may feel the filters in the second sentence provide a dramatic way to end the scene.

The writer, then, may revise the text to:


It was a trap but there was no choice but to carry on.

He felt something brush against the back of his neck; he felt nothing more for some considerable time.


The filters in the second sentence are more effective because they haven’t been used in the first sentence. By avoiding the use of filters when they are not appropriate, you ensure they will have a greater impact when it is appropriate to use them.


Filters in novels: Conclusion

Filters have their place in fiction writing but it’s vital to use them only when they add to the effect you’re seeking to create.

Avoiding the unnecessary use of filters in your novel can be an effective way of adding pace and drama while ensuring the reader remains engrossed in your fictional world.

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