The Use of "Filter" or "Weak" verbs

Writing fiction seems to be full of “rules” and the more I learn, I learn I actually know less then I thought I did. One such “rule” I just read about was that a writer should not use “filter verbs” or weak verbs. Words such as: “watched,” “saw,” “witnessed” or “looked”. This topic was recently covered by September C. Fawkes in a tumbler blog post found here: “Don’t Use Filter Words” Blog Post.

The reasoning that was given for not using these words was that they stand in the way between you (the author) and your audience, acting as a filter to the vignette in progress.

Sally watched Peter run up the hill.

This statement is considered a filter statement because the story is being interpreted through the eyes of Sally. Most fiction editors (according to this theory) would ask you to eliminate such from your writing.

Peter ran up the hill.

Sally is considered to be the viewpoint character in both statements above but the second statement is considered “more powerful” because it eliminates unnecessary words.

If Sally is not considered the viewpoint character during this vignette but someone with the viewpoint character (the MC) it still can be implied that Sally watched Peter run up the hill by use of “strong” verbs, such as the following:

Peter ran up the hill.

Sprinting and scrambling after Peter, Sally said, “Oh, no, you don’t!”

There is an additional complication to this when you are conveying viewpoint through observation of an accompanying character.

Peter ran up the hill.

Sally, watching, whimpered to herself, “Oh, no you don’t!”

You decided to stay hidden as you spied on Salley. “What is going on between those two?” you wondered to yourself.

Technically, this avoids the filter of Sally by adding the perspective of the MC but I learned that many editors would still frown on this type of usage both because it adds words that are “unnecessary” and it adds an additional layer between you and your audience.

As IF writers, we should be prepared to break this “rule” because we often present multiple viewpoints through our third person narration. In order to remind the audience who the viewpoint character is such simple and short statements are straightforward and enlightening at the same time.

When a scene shifts viewpoint characters, you can use various methods in establishing that viewpoint. The most common device is to use action:

Paul swung for the fences as the pitch came roaring towards the catcher’s mitt.

The trouble this methodology is when the focus of the story is not on what the character is doing but what the character is witnessing or feeling:

Trembling in fear, Paul swung for the fences as the pitch came roaring towards the catcher’s mitt.

Is the viewpoint character Paul, or is it the MC witnessing Paul?

What if you wrote:

You watched Paul. Trembling in fear, Paul swung for the fences as the pitch came roaring towards the catcher’s mitt.

Technically, our rule would say to take out the first sentence leaving the second to stand on its own. Would that be enough to convey who the viewpoint character is? Not in our IF writing.

There are other times that September claims writers should break this rule (such as when writing about smells) however, they are not as impactful as the above for our specialty writing. For those who are interested, this article is very informative and I do suggest taking the time to review it.

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If I recall, the most important rule of writing is that if you need to, you can break all of the other rules. :thinking: Admittedly, it’s usually assumed that you should know the rules very well before you start to break them…

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Outside of one fiction class I took, I have very little exposure or “training” in the art of writing. Most of my experience is in writing game manuals, game tutorials and script text for games.

I honestly don’t know rules and when I find people like September, who I seem to connect with very well, I learn a lot.

I also know I frustrate editor types because I break rules or such quite often. The “weak” verb situation is one that cropped up during my writing the contest entry this past year, more often then others, so I’ve been trying to understand the “editorial comments” I get back in feedback.

I have a very kind, understanding, and patience friend who is a budding editor and they turn me onto a lot of things to learn from but I also want to learn and share outside their guidance.

Because IF is a specialty writing genre, it is sometimes hard to apply things learned in a practical way. Since this blog post clicked with me, I thought it might help others as well.

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I’ve also only taken one fiction class (coughthatI’vepassedcough), so I didn’t even know this had a name. I always took it as the blanket "show, don’t tell,’ although I recognize now that it’s much more specific than that.

And thanks for the link! It’s always nice to have a little reservoir of articles and websites that more thoroughly explain the art of writing and editing especially when they don’t have paywalls.

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I would suggest that a instance where you could break that rule is where stressing that someone is watching tells the reader something about that character. For example 'He watched with interest as one man lunged across the table at the other.'
It says something about ‘him’ that he’s the kind of person who calmly watches the fight instead of trying to intervene or run away or go to get help.

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This is a really interesting bit of advice that I will definitely want to keep closer in mind in my own writing and when reviewing others’. It’s part of a larger tendency where removing extraneous words that don’t add much meaning helps writing flow more smoothly—though there are certainly times when those extraneous words do add value, so there’s a lot of judgment calls, yeah.

It also occurs to me that these phrases can be useful when you want to specify how visible something is… like “You can barely make out Flora and the stolen parachute through the leaves and fog.”

(As a pedantic aside, “weak verb” is also a technical term for a verb that forms its past tense with -ed, but that’s linguistics, not writing advice :stuck_out_tongue_winking_eye: )

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