Top Ten Ways To Show and Not Tell: Eliminate Filtering

By Suzanne Hartmann

Don’t use words like “wondered” or “thought”
Like the senses, these are also filtering words. They remind the readers that they aren’t actually in the POV character’s head, but are merely observers. Since the readers understand that everything in the story is shown from the POV character’s perspective, they will know without being told that the character is wondering or thinking these thoughts.

As mentioned regarding things the POV character senses, we need to drop the filtering words and simply state what the character wonders or thinks.
DON’T: She wondered if he would ever forgive her.
DO: Would he ever forgive her?

DON’T: “The train will arrive at two, so I need to leave by one,” he thought.
DO: The train will arrive at two, so he needed to leave by one.

Formatting thoughts
The rules regarding how we show a character’s thoughts have changed over the years.
1) When I was in school, I was taught that thoughts go in single quotes followed by “he/she thought.” EX. ‘When I get home, I need to feed the dog,’ he thought.

2) At some point, this changed to writing the thoughts in italics and dropping the “he/she thought.” The italics told the readers that the words were thoughts. EX. When I get home, I need to feed the dog.

3) The current trend is to use deep POV and only italicize the thoughts you want to emphasize. I think of it as a stream-of-consciousness type of thinking. It’s what we all do—think things without really putting them into words. They are just thoughts that pop into our heads and jump from one thought to another. You could call it popcorn thinking. So our ongoing example would simply be written as a part of the text: When he got home, he would need to feed the dog. No quotes; no italics.

Here’s a longer example from my novel, The Race that Lies Before Us, to show the concept better:

She knew about the Chase, the final ten races of the season when only the top twelve drivers continued to earn points towards the championship. She must be a NASCAR fan. “It’s a pleasure to meet you.” He hesitated for a moment before he remembered Charlotte and introduced her. Geez, what an idiot. . All I can think of to say is, “Thank you and meet my date?”

Although the first two sentences are things Stuart thinks, I didn’t put them in quotes or italicize them. They are just thoughts that would have popped into his head in response to what had just been said to him—things that he simply realized rather than truly thought about. I italicized the last two sentences, however, to emphasize them, but also because they are they type of thing that he probably would have put into actual words because he is speaking to himself.


Suzanne Hartmann is the author of PERIL: Fast Track Thriller #1, and Write This Way: Take Your Writing to a New Level, a blueprint for new authors to guide them through the process of writing and revising a novel.

Suzanne is a homeschool mom and lives in the St. Louis area with her husband and three children. When not homeschooling or writing, she enjoys scrapbooking, reading, and Bible study. On the editorial side, she is a contributing editor with Port Yonder Press and operates the Write This Way Critique Service.

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