He thought that Andrea walked behind him

She felt the smooth surface of the cloth

He listened to the wind, and felt happy

She touched the iron bar with her finger

These are simple sentences, boring sentences, empty sentences. They don’t actually say anything except to describe what the ‘he’ and the ‘she’ is doing. This is because they use filter words.

Filter words are filters that a writer puts up between the character and the reader. It is an intrusion, where the writer swoops in to interpret what the character is feeling by telling. Filter words ‘tells’ a story, and doesn’t show it.

I have always found that a story becomes livelier and quicker paced if you unpack sentences like the ones above. Make them longer to read shorter, so to speak. You make the sentences longer by unpacking the filter words. Don’t use them. By unpacking I mean that I, in general, can’t use words like: Thinks, Knows, Understands, Realises, Believes, Wants, Remembers, Imagines, Desires, and many many more.

Here, let me show what I mean.

He thought that Andrea walked behind him

Becomes the following if I add sensory detail, motion, purpose, feeling:

Half a mile down the road to Kaffar, he swung around on his heels and walked backwards for a step or two. Then his backward motion ended, and his head turned to the left and to the right and then back again. Andrea wasn’t behind him. Where had she gone to?

She felt the smooth surface of the cloth

Becomes

The red silk cloth cascaded over the chair when Anna hurried out of the room to answer the door downstairs. Helena clasped her hand, cocked her head to the side and listened to the sound of footsteps in the stairs. He breath caught in her throat. While her eyes fixed on the half-open door, certain that Anna would come back, she let the back of the hand slide over the smooth cold cloth. To own such a piece would be heaven, wouldn’t it?

He listened to the wind, and felt happy

Becomes

The jetty turned sharply to the port side, and the boom swung so sharply that he had to throw himself down on the deck lest he be swept over the side. Lying on the back, staring up at the grey sky, the tackle slapped overhead, and a piece of the sail flapped rapidly in the growing wind. This was the life, just him, the boat, and the ocean that always surprised.

The story I started to doodle down in Cape Town, during those hours when we sat sated after our experiences and just processed what we had done and seen and heard, has a lot of filter words. I’ve been going through the manuscript today, to remove them, and it struck me that I should post something about it.

I can’t remember the last time I wrote about writing. If you write, how do you handle these little wicked buggers that dare to stand between the reader and the text?

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