I’ve written before about filter words, and how those annoying little guys have a nasty habit of getting between you and your reader. All those pesky “heard”s, “thought”s, “saw”s, and “wondered”s (just to name a few) stop the reader from getting right into the main character’s head (yes, even when you’re not writing in a 1st person POV).
But removing filter words only helps when you replace them with something better. After all, the whole point of revising is to make your story stronger. So here are two filter word replacement strategies to avoid.
The verb “to be”
One of the ways people replace their filter words is with the verb to be.
I saw a house on the hill. -> There was a house on the hill.
And that’s okay, in moderation. Until you get to a longer description:
There was a house on a hill. It was surrounded by acres of lush green grass. On either side of the door were two rosebushes which were filled with butterflies. Above that, there two windows were sitting half open that were like a pair of half-closed eyes staring back at me.
So how do you fix it? Try taking out all uses of the verb “to be” – this includes passive verbs (were filled), progressive verbs (were sitting), and any “there” statements. Rewrite it using active constructions and more dynamic verbs. Something like:
A house sat on the hill, surrounded by acres of lush green grass. Butterfly-filled rosebushes climbed up trellises on either side of the door. Above that, two half-open windows gave the impression of half-closed eyes staring back at me.
Another way of replacing filter words (especially those like “pondered,” “wondered,” “worried,” etc) is with a question. After all, the idea is to get inside the character’s head and tell us what they’re thinking, without the filter.
I wondered why he’d say something like that. -> Why would he say something like that?
And, again, this isn’t too bad – once in a while. But if your character is really thrashing out an issue, too many questions can quickly weaken your story:
Why would he say something like that? How can he expect me to just walk away from the race? Doesn’t he realize I’ve been training for years for this? Or is he worried I’ll end up in accident, like the one that killed his brother?
The key here to use more statements.
Why would he say something like that? I can’t just walk away from the race. I’ve been training for years for this. Just because his brother ended up in an accident, doesn’t mean I will.
Your character runs the story, let him or her be decisive in their thoughts. No one wants to follow a wishy-washy character for 200 pages.
So there you have it, my best advice for how (not) to replace filter words.
What about you? Ever caught yourself filtering your work? Are you a question junkie? Addicted to all forms of “to be”? Let me know in the comments.