Don’t think, don’t feel

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.

Ready for your close-up?

Jim Bondo rolled under the table with his gun. He always had his gun handy for situations just like this one. He squeezed the trigger and a carefully controlled stream of glue was forced into the space between the loose leg and the rest of the old wooden table. He knew Sara loved this table and fixing it was the best chance he had of repairing their relationship which was a wonky as this leg.

“What are you doing under there?” Sarah dropped her keys on the table with a clatter that made Jim’s head ache.

“Fixing your table,” Jim said.

“This old thing?” Sarah kicked the table and a drop of glue fell onto Jim’s eyelid, gluing it shut. It stung a bit too.

He sat up too quickly and smacked his head. He heard a laugh which either meant Sarah had been possessed or there was a man in the room. His one remaining eye saw a pair of size twelve cowboy boots.

“Bubba’s going to need the space on your side of the closet,” Sarah said, “so be a dear and grab a couple of garbage bags and clean your stuff out. Just leave the key on the table.”

Tears ran down one side of his face, while they built up behind the sealed eyelid forcing it to bulge out painfully. He crawled out knocking the keys to the floor. He gathered what things he wanted. He walked out with a bag over his shoulder and the sight of Sarah and Bubba necking on the couch burned into his brain. He dropped his key as  he closed the door behind him, he heard the table crash to the floor along with a moan from Bubba and a giggle from Sarah.

Jim swung up his gun. Even one-eyed he could deal with this. He squeezed the trigger and glue gushed into the crack all around the door. He figured they wouldn’t find it until they got hungry. Plenty of time for it to set.


Poor Jim, the reader has to feel sorry for him, getting dumped like that. The problem is that likely the reader doesn’t. There are a couple of decent images, but most of it feels narrated. It is describing Jim doing things, fixing the table, banging his head etc. There are fifteen pronouns starting sentences or clauses, four filter verbs and one passive voice. If you were writing a movie, this would be good, as we get the visual part of the scene.

Only we aren’t writing a movie, we are working with a book or a story. One advantage print has over the silver screen is we can get into the character and show their feelings. This scene is written in wide angle. We’ve pulled back from Jim and we’re watching him act.

What would it look like if we pulled in tighter and got into his head?


Trusty gun in hand, Jim Bondo rolled under the table, ready as always for this kind of situation. A gentle squeeze of the trigger sent a thin stream of glue into the space between the wonky leg and the rest of the table. Sarah loved the ricketty old thing. Pain skewered his heart. Truth was, fixing her table might be his last chance to repair their relationship. After a deep breath to steady his hand, he added another layer of glue to the first. Slow and steady, build it up in layers.

“What are you doing under there?” Sarah dropped her keys on the table; the clatter spiked into his temples.

“Fixing your table.” Another breathe, another layer and done.

“This old thing?” Sarah kicked the table and a drop of glue fell onto Jim’s eyelid, gluing it shut. Damn it stung. The smack of his head against the table as he sat up added stars to headache and burning eye. Still didn’t hurt worse than the twist in his gut.

A bass laugh meant she’d been possessed or another man was in the room. Blurry size twelve cowboy boots said man. Not that she wouldn’t sell her soul for the right price – one far beyond his ability to pay.

“Bubba’s going to need the space on your side of the closet,” Sarah said, “so be a dear, and grab a couple of garbage bags and clean your stuff out. Just leave the key on the table.”

Tears burned one eye and cheek. The glued eyelid dammed the tears forcing the eyelid to bulge out. The gun clicked into its holster. The table tilted as his back scraped against the top. Keys slid to the floor. The garbage bag crinkled and stretched, but held everything it needed to.

The weight of the bag magnified the stone crushing his chest. Bubba had his hand up Sarah’s blouse as she sucked on his lips. Like I need to see that.  The key dropped from his hand as he pushed the door open.  As it closed behind the table crashed to the floor with a moan from Bubba and a giggle from Sarah.

The stone in his chest caught fire. Only need one eye for this. No gentle squeeze of the trigger this time. Glue gushed out of the gun to fill the crack around the door. They wouldn’t find it until hunger distracted them.

Plenty of time for the glue to set.


The first thing you’ll notice is that I haven’t got rid of all the pronouns. Some of them I shifted into first personal to make direct thought, and there are pronouns for Sarah and Bubba. The goal is not the eradication of all pronouns, but to write closer to the character. If you need a pronoun to avoid a clunky sentence, go ahead and use it.

The other thing is the action is only part of what is going on.  We read a lot more about what is happening inside Jim. I’m a firm believer that the less you name emotion, the more evocative it becomes, but that may be a subject for another article.

Lastly, the goal is to be so close to Jim we feel what he feels, no standing back to watch the action unfold. There is no narrative voice here.

The truth is writing this way is a lot more work than writing the first version. It takes a lot of concentration and attention to nuance (another article too). You don’t want to write your whole book this way. My experience as an editor and reviewer is just when an author needs to pull in tighter, they step back. The multiple pronoun starts and the rest are warning signs – here is where you need to decide how key the scene is to your story.

There are times you need a good bit of narrative summary, and others when you want to get close enough to hear a heart break and feel the heat of revenge’s flame.