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Keep Your Readers Close: Filter Words and Narrative Distance

Filter words are some of the most common words I remove when I edit, and yet many people don’t know what they are or how they function. So, let’s look at what filter words are and how they can distance readers from your story.

First, we need to define narrative distance. Narrative distance refers to the space between readers and the narrator of a story—in other words, how much readers feel connected to the narrator.

We can look at this through narrative style:

  • Omniscient narration generally has the most narrative distance because readers see the story from multiple angles at once.

  • Third-person limited narration has slightly less narrative distance than omniscient narration because readers experience only one character’s perspective at a time.

  • First-person limited narration has little narrative distance because readers experience the story directly through a character using the pronoun I.

  • Second-person narration has arguably the least narrative distance because you are addressed as the character.

Each of these distances serves a different function, and it’s important to consider how close you want readers to your characters as you pick a point of view to write from. For more on this topic, see “What is narrative distance?” by Louise Harnby.

Even when the narrative distance is larger, though—in omniscient or third person point of view, for example—you want to immerse readers in the story to the point that they don’t want to put it down. If the narrative distance is too great, readers will likely feel disconnected from the story and won’t want to read it.

Now we can talk about filter words.

Filter words create unnecessary narrative distance by reminding readers that someone is telling them a story—they’re not really experiencing it through the character. These are a few of the most common filter words: felt, watched, realized, noticed, knew, decided, wondered.

Like with any word, filter words have a purpose. Sometimes they’re necessary to clarify what’s happening in a scene, or maybe increased narrative distance is more effective at a certain point in the story.

Generally, though, cutting filter words can make the narrative more engaging by decreasing narrative distance, helping readers feel more immersed and more connected to the character. Deleting filter words is also an easy way to reduce word count and wordiness.

Let’s look at an example. The two paragraphs below are written in third-person limited perspective from Jamie’s point of view. The first paragraph uses filter words, and the second paragraph does not. Which paragraph is more engaging?

Jamie sat at her desk, looking out the window. She noticed the plants outside waving in the breeze, and she sighed as she realized she’d have to put her hair up at the park later if she didn’t want it blowing in her face.

Jamie sat at her desk, looking out the window. The plants outside waved in the breeze, and she sighed. She’d have to put her hair up at the park later if she didn’t want it blowing in her face.

The removal of noticed and realized in the second paragraph decreases the narrative distance by showing the reader what’s happening without signaling how the thoughts go through Jamie’s head. In other words, readers don’t need to know Jamie noticed or realized something because the narrative is already from her perspective. Those words add unnecessary distance.

Exercise: Look at a page from your work in progress and highlight all the filter words. Are those words necessary for clarity or flow? If not, revise the text to remove the filter words. Read over the page again and see if/how the narrative distance has shifted.

For more on filter words, editor Louise Harnby has a fantastic article called “Filter words in fiction: Purposeful inclusion and dramatic restriction.”

Looking for an editor to help revise the filter words in your manuscript? Apply for editing now to work with me!


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