Fiction writing tip: Filtering images

Look at this sentence:

She noticed John waving furiously to get her attention.

As the novelist and teacher John Gardner tells us, new writers often fail “to run straight at the image.” In other words, they filter imagery needlessly through some observing consciousness. That’s what is happening in this sentence.

Gardner says:

“Generally speaking, vividness urges that almost every occurrence of such phrases as ‘she noticed’ and ‘he saw’ be suppressed in favor of direct presentation of the thing seen.

To avoid filtering the image (what she saw—the act of John’s waving) in the example sentence, change it to read:

John waved furiously to get her attention.

In context, the reader knows that the point-of-view (POV ) character (the woman) sees John waving. You don’t have to tell the reader that she is seeing him waving at her.

Another example:

He saw two dogs fighting over a bone.

Change this to:

Two dogs fought over a bone.

In other words, let your POV character filter emotions and information for the reader, but present the sensory details directly. Search for and rewrite sentences in your text that include phrases such as she noticed, he saw, she could see, she could hear, etc.

Paul Thayer
Thayer Literary Services

Paul Thayer is a full-time professional book editor with more than 35 years of experience. During that time he worked in the trenches of the real world of writers, editors, and publishers. He uses his extensive knowledge to help writers who still have a lot to learn, offering them critiques and line editing of their work.

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