Filtering Pt. 4 – External Filters

This series grew longer than I expected, but I hope it’s clarified what filtering is and how to handle it. We’ve looked at the basics of filtering and broke filtering into three categories: Internal, External, and Action Filters. So without further ado, what are external filters?

External Filters

The name should be self-explanatory, but just for consistency, external filters are:

Environmental effects experienced by the POV character they can: feel, hear, see, taste, smell, etc.

For whatever reason, we write external filters naturally. I think it’s part of the way we progress as writers; we have to mimic the world so our stories feel real, but we go overboard and lose sight of how a person experiences the world and instead narrate outside of the perspective. It just makes sense to describe what’s going on, even more so when we incorporating our senses into descriptions.

External Filtering Example 1:

Outside, the cool breeze felt amazing compared to the stifling heat of the forge. Maroc could smell the sweet aroma of lilac carried on the drifting currents.

We get a nice picture of what is going on by letting the character’s senses describe the scene, but are “felt” and “smell” filtering our experience? My first reaction is to nix both, but let’s dig further.

“Felt” is acting as a state-of-being verb (is, am, are, was, were, etc.), stating the “breeze was amazing.” The subject is not a person; it’s the “breeze.” So while the person who “feels” the breeze is implied, we are only stating the situation.

Therefore, if the subject in the sentence is not the POV character (opposite of internal filters), there is no filtering. This is opposite because internal verbs are describing someones thoughts, and you’d be head hopping to describe what someone else thinks. But external filters are what we do to experience the world around us, which can be seen by our POV character if another person smells a flower or feels a rock. Perfect, that takes care of the first filter word.

How about the second filter word “smell”? Let’s check. Maroc (our POV character) is the subject and “smell” can’t be replaced by “was” without the sentence losing meaning. So we are filtering.

The good thing about external filters is, they’re easier to identify and remove. The fix is replacing the POV character as the subject with something else and removing the filter:

External Filtering Fix 1:

“Outside, the cool breeze felt amazing compared to the stifling heat of the smelting factory. The sweet aroma of lilac carried on the drifting currents.”

Implied Vs. Explicit Subjects

Since removing filters changes the explicit existence of the POV character to an implied existence, can we just take out the POV character as the subject and leave the filter? Let’s try:

External Filtering Example 2:

Hearing the ringing bells, Maroc checked his watch and ran.

“Hearing” and “checked” look like filters, external and action filters respectively. But are they both filtering? “Checked” is an action, and it produces an experience (see Pt. 3 – Action Filters), so we’re filtering. For the second clause, if we drop “Maroc” as subject, the sentence doesn’t have another subject to take over. So the subject and both filters are bound together. We need to rewrite the sentence.

External Filtering Fix 2:

Three notes resounded from the nearby clock tower. “Crap,” Maroc said, launching into a sprint.

It’s implied that Maroc heard the sound, and this way, we can develop more urgency through his words and actions, without giving stage direction. But that’s pretty much it. External filters are more straightforward than other filters, and the only exception is filter words that describe a state-of-being.

Conclusion

While external filters don’t always cross into the bad side show vs. tell, they still add unnecessary narration and bloat your word count.

If picking out parts of a sentence is like a different language to you, just swap the external filter with a to-be verb and see if it works, if not, ax it. The reader already knows whose eyes they’re experiencing the story through, so we don’t need to mention our POV character.

Overall, we’ve covered a lot of in-the-weeds information. So, for easy reference, here’s our list of guidelines for determining what is and isn’t a filter.

Internal Filtering:

  • If internal filtering is performed by someone else and observed by the POV character. You’re head hopping. Delete it.
  • Remove internal filtering by showing the reader the clues that helped the character reach their conclusions.
  • If the internal filtering is narration of the POV character’s past thoughts, you can leave it. But always opt for showing how they reached their conclusion.

Action Filtering:

  • Action filters show an experience, or involve the POV character’s senses. But filter words that show an effect are not filtering your writing.

Unsure if it’s an experience or an effect?

  • Swap the action filter with a new verb and check again.
  • Isolate the clause with the verb.

External Filtering:

  • Filters and the sentence subject are tied together, so if your POV character is the subject and there is a filter word, you are likely filtering.
  • If the filter can be replaced with a to-be verb, the filter is providing a state-of-being for an object or situation.

Do you have a sentence you’re stumped on? Post it in the comments and let’s work together!

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