In my article on Show, Tell and Narrative Summary, a reader kindly pointed out to me that using words such as thought/felt/saw/heard are a form of telling. They are ‘filtering’ words in that the experience is filtered through the MC rather than coming to the reader direct. Filters add distance between the reader and the story.
Dang, Rebus thought, the Sheriff’s going to be able to smell that mash all the way out to the highway. He ran in the moonlit woods like a deer through corn. He didn’t know what he would do, but he had to try.
A strong arm gripped his shoulder and pulled him back from where he saw the still steaming in the stark white light. The hand over his mouth felt like old leather and steel.
Rebus relaxed and watched the inevitable. His uncle John wasn’t a man to be messed with, and he’d lay a beating on Rebus soon as look at him.
The Sheriff crept into the clearing gun in hand.
Rebus heard a rumble of laughter from behind him.
“See what happens to anyone who crosses me,” Uncle John said.
When you’re writing you want to avoid the words in bold they weaken the immediacy of the story. That isn’t to say you never use them, but it is worth looking at each one and deciding if that is the way you want to leave it. Let’s have a go at removing the filter words.
Rebus’ eyes watered.
Dang, the Sherriff’s going to be able to smell that mash from the highway. He ran like a deer through the moonlit woods. Likely it was too late to do anything about the still, but he had to try.
The still steamed in the stark white illumination. A strong arm gripped Rebus and pulled him back. The leather and steel of Uncle John’s hand covered his mouth. Rebus gagged and the leathery palm moved slightly.
“You be still, boy,” Uncle John said, “Pay attention to what happens to them that cross me.” Laughter shook the crazy old man.
The Sherriff crept into the clearing, gun in hand.
That’s better. You want more interaction with the senses, but without labelling the sense. We get the smell from Rebus’ watering eyes. We don’t need to label who’s thinking as the POV is Rebus, so he’s the only one we should be able to hear thinking. When he gets to the still, we know he’s seeing it. So you don’t need to tell the reader he’s seeing it, watching it, noticing it, or any of the other ways we try to make it clear that our character is taking in the scene in front of them. The feel of the hand and laughter works the same way.
I’m not happy with the scene yet, but at least I’ve removed the screen between the reader and what is going on.
Like everything else in writing this is not a hard and fast rule. You can’t just go through your book cutting every filter verb. Sometimes you need the filter verb to maintain the rhythm of the prose. Sometimes they aren’t truly filters but deliberate action. Telling us someone remembers a scene from the chapter before is filtering. Give us the scene and we know they’re remembering. But if the character is trying to remember something, then you need to tell us when they succeed. The rest of the filters work the same way, when it is a deliberate action, not a flag post for the reader, you need to keep it.
You’ll know which are which when you find you can’t possibly write around the verb.