The Problem of Filtering Action

Read the following two passages and think about which of them offers a more direct expression of the action:

  1. “As Larry sat on the sofa reading the paper, he heard a car engine roar from the street outside, followed by two sharp backfires.”
  2. “As Larry sat on the sofa reading the paper, a car engine roared from the street outside, followed by two sharp backfires.”

In both of these passages, the writer offers the reader a character in a setting and an experience the character has. But of course, the reader shares the experience with the character. That’s one of the things good fiction does—allows the reader to share an experience vicariously.

Look at what happens to the reader’s experience in each of the passages. In the first passage, the reader sees Larry sitting on the couch reading, and then the reader is told that Larry hears an engine roar and backfire. In number two, the reader sees Larry sitting on the couch reading, and then the reader hears the car engine roar and backfire.

In the first passage, the writer has, in effect, pushed the reader a big step further away from the action. This is called “filtering” the action, and its typical effect is to ratchet down the reader’s experience of the action. The reader is no longer sitting with Larry and experiencing the car outside. The reader stands at a distance and watches Larry experience the car. Not so in the second passage. By eliminating the “he heard,” the reader experiences the action directly.

As with any rule for writing, there are exceptions. If the action of hearing itself is the most important thing, then the writer may choose to use the filter. But in fact, that is rarely the case.


A retired English professor, Gary Guinn writes both literary and mystery/thriller fiction. You can read about him and his books at garyguinn.com and follow him on Facebook, Goodreads, or Twitter.

Posted in From the Forge