My drug of choice is writing––writing, art, reading, inspiration, books, creativity, process, craft, blogging, grammar, linguistics, and did I mention writing?

Monday, December 10, 2012

Filter Your Filtering

Sometimes licence-free images really leave me wanting.
Fiction writers pick up a few questionable habits from the world around them, but not every habit that works well in expository writing is good for fiction.  (And a lot of it isn't always even that superfly for expository writing either.)  In many cases expository writing attempts to strike a tone that is impartial or unbiased.

A perfect example of this is passive voice.  Even though there are plenty of reasons to use the passive voice, one of the main reasons most people actually do so is because they think it sounds scientific or "official."  Because journalists use passive voice, everyone thinks that's the ticket to writing journalistically.  The problem is that journalists use passive voice for a reason.

Young Newt from Aliens voice:  Journalists mostly know what they're doing when they use passive voice.  Mostly.

(Then again sometimes it becomes a terrible, terrible feedback loop of journalistic self-wankery where and it's a wonder the moguls of print media can order lunch without saying, "A hotdog will be liked.  Can a drink be added to that, by you?")

While this is dangerous enough in expository writing, it is extra super dangerously dangerous in fiction.  The problem is that such language is all around a modern reader, and so it is almost impossible to be aware of it in one's own prose without a conscious filter.  This is part of the reason that the reactionary swing to passive voice is often a brute squad going around and beating the shit out of people in the streets who don't use active voice, even though passive voice has its place.

Filtering language?
Oh! My! God!
Consider it......expunged.
Another example is filtering language. Words and phrases that draw attention to the filter of the focalizer may seem more objective or impartial, but they pull the reader from the scene.  It may not seem significant at first but through continuous use it can create much less vivid and urgent writing.  Filtering language creates a buffer between the consciousness of the reader and the experience of the character.  Most writers probably do not actually intend this buffer to be there and the result is a sense of weaker narrative that they can't figure out how to correct.

Fortunately, as common as filtering is to do for modern writers, and as honest as a mistake as it can be in the modern world, it is quite easy to find and remove once one knows what to look for.  And your prose will be much stronger for it.

Consider this simple example:

Jeff walked across the street.  He saw a child playing in the middle of the intersection.
Jeff walked across the street.  A child was playing in the middle of the intersection. 

We already know that we're in the consciousness of Jeff.  We don't really need to be reminded of that. It is more vivid and direct to consider the image directly.  The additional filter of "he saw" serves to make us more aware of Jeff himself than of what Jeff is experiencing.  It is a subtle form of telling instead of showing...which is usually not what a writer wants.

If you can't see the difference in this minor example, let me continue the scene in a slightly overblown way to illustrate the point further.

Jeff walked across the street.  He saw a child playing in the middle of the intersection. Jeff noticed that the child didn't seem to realize that he had wandered from the sidewalk into the street.  He gazed down the road, and there he saw a big rig truck tearing towards the intersection.  Jeff guessed the truck was doing at least fifty or sixty.  Jeff could see that the driver was looking out the left window at a pretty girl.  It looked like he hadn't even noticed the intersection, much less the child.  It seemed impossible to Jeff that the truck could stop in time.
Now there are other problems with this prose because I've overblown the filtering.  You deserve a kick in the soft bits if you use your protagonist's name this many times in a single paragraph, but you get the idea.  Now, we already know this is about Jeff.  We don't need to draw so much attention to him as the observer.  Consider:

Jeff walked across the street.  A child was playing in the middle of the intersection, not realizing that he had wandered from the sidewalk into the street.  Down the road, a big rig truck tore towards the intersection doing at least fifty or sixty.  The driver was looking out the left window at a pretty girl, and hadn't even noticed the intersection, much less the child.  It would have been impossible for the truck to stop in time.
Notice the immediate sense of increased urgency?  Notice how much more this scene pops?  Now we're not watching Jeff live his life.  We're living Jeff's life.  From a purely pragmatic point of view, pulling out all the filtering phrases also gave us access to a much more natural sentence flow.  We were able to use complex and compound sentences more organically since we didn't have to constantly stop and remind everyone that this was according to Jeff.

It reminds me of The Golden Child cinematography.  They kept showing these quick takes in the action sequences of people turning to see things.  THEN they would show us what it was they saw.  It got distracting after a while.  Don't show me the characters looking at things.  Show me what they're looking at.

I will concède that he is fun to look at, if you will concède that two hours of watching him looking around is only made even minimally acceptable by the demon at the end and the "just want some chips" joke.

A special kind of filtering occurs during flashbacks, so be careful there as well.  ("Chris remembered how he had once eaten an entire extra cheese pizza all by himself.  He recalled how the next day he had sat on the toilet and prayed to God.  He thought back to how, by the end, he had wished for death's sweet embrace.")  Your reader is a smart cookie.  They weren't born on a cabbage patch and spend their days drooling over copies of Byron.  They are at least literate if they're reading you, and that means they can follow the fact that you are setting a scene in the past.  You do not need to constantly remind them with phrases like "thought back to" and "he remembered" and "she recalled."

If you're really worried about ambiguity, you can do it once.  Reiterate it every once in a while if you're writing an extended flashback or using other tricks of narrative time (like I did with "Falling From Orbit") and then let it go.  ("Chris once ate an entire extra cheese pizza by himself.  The next day he sat on the toilet and prayed to God.  In the end, he wished for death's sweet embrace.")  The filter just serves to pull your reader out of the flashback and make them aware of the awareness.

Of course (speaking of golden things) the golden rule of writing is that if you can "earn it" then you can use whatever kind of language you want.  If you have a conscious reason to put an additional layer of separation between your reader and the focalizer then filtering language might be exactly what you want.

Prompts Related to filtering:  Prompt 1