On Hugos and Nebulas, Part 6: Filtered

Continuing with an analysis of the Hugos and Nebulas I read as part of a challenge, here’s another quirk that many of those books had in common: Filter constructions.

Filter constructions are those odd-sounding additions some writers use in an effort to stay with their Point of View character. They take this kind of format: [person/thingy] [verb related to senses] that [another person thing did something]. For example:

  • Bob saw that Fred looked sad.
  • George heard Sue coughing.
  • Pat knew that May had lied.

These are called “filter cons­tructions” because they put some distance between your reader and the characters. This could be bad. Too much distance and your reader floats away like a helium balloon in a hurricane, or so the great, writerly wise guys say. Instead of the kinds of sentences I have above, the savvy writer is supposed to skip the filter and get right with the action:

  • Fred looked sad. (← still has a Show, Don’t Tell problem)
  • Sue coughed.
  • Mary had lied.

What about the Point of View? How does the skilled writer avoi­d the dreaded, literary fatality of the evil Head Hopping? To avoid Head Hopping, or charging point-of-view within a scene, the rest of the scene has to obviously be in the perspective of your current narrator. Internal reactions, thought shots, behavioral quirks, special turns of phrase, and internal monologue can all help solidify the point of view character.

So, how did the pros do on filter construction? Some of the Hugos and Nebulas couldn’t go an entire page without dropping in a few filter constructions. I’m not convinced the average reader would recognize that as a problem if the story is sufficiently engaging. As long as the filters don’t become intrusive, a writer can safely use a few but only a few and only when necessary. In some cases, the filter construction might be the better choice. Sometimes the “acceptable” fix for a given problem is worse than the problem. If dodging a filter construction results in confusion or extreme cases of verbosity, just use the filter and get on with the story. When possible, lose the filter, but don’t travel around the world to the left to avoid one. A convoluted mess doesn’t serve any purpose.

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2 thoughts on “On Hugos and Nebulas, Part 6: Filtered

  1. I boycott all fiction which shows instead of telling. Consequently, I will not be deterred from telling intrusively and shamelessly instead of showing by any of your attempted taste dictatorship.

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