Filtering the World through a PoV Character

Writing a vivid and emotional story is built out of a lot of factors. It requires voice, stakes, balanced descriptions, relatable characters, and a strong plot. Often when trying to increase the vividness of a scene or the depth of a POV, authors are told to add sensory details. This is good advice, but the advice often get misapplied. Aside from doing too much details, many authors use grammatical structures that hinder the impact of their sensory details. The most common issues is to use too many sensory verbs. While sensory nouns and adjectives will add to a scene's drama, sensory verbs tend to do the opposite.


This problem can occur in both first and third person point of view when the author describes the character sensing or thinking about things, rather than to describe the sensory details, emotions, and thoughts directly. The misunderstanding is that labeling the senses or thoughts as belonging to the point of view character will bring the reader and character together, but in fact it does the opposite. By focusing on the character's experience, it pulls the readers away from the action of the book and doesn't allow them to feel it and experience it for themselves. The overall effect ends up being distancing.


For example:

I saw the monster coming towards me. I couldn't look away from its large, red eyes. I heard each paw land on the road with a rumble as it walked towards me. When it reached the light of the house, I could see the monster in vivid detail, it's thick black fur becoming visible. I looked at its mouth to find it was filled with enormous teeth. Slowly, I watched it place a huge paw on the grass, sinking into the dirt and digging in with its foot-long claws. There it paused. Behind it, I noticed a thorny tail whipping back and forth, as though it was enjoying its hunt.
It's excited to eat me, I thought. I shuddered and pulled away from the window, desperately searching for anything I could use to hurt it. I found books, blankets, and a plastic trophy, but could locate nothing that would slow it down.

Now compare to the following version:

The monster was coming towards me. It's piercing red eyes were fixed on mine as it thundered forward in slow, rumbling steps. As it reached the yard, the light from the windows spilled over its terrible form, enhancing each gruesome detail, from its thick, black fur to its toothy snout. Slowly, it placed a huge paw on the grass, sinking into the dirt and digging in with its foot-long claws. There it paused. Behind it, a thorny tail whipped back and forth, as though it was enjoying its hunt.
It's excited to eat me. I shuddered and pulled away from the window, desperately searching for anything I could use to hurt it. My eyes skimmed over books, blankets, and a plastic trophy, but there was nothing that would slow it down.

In the second version, the reader is presented with each detail directly, focusing on the monster and the danger it presents. This allows them to be afraid of the monster personally, rather than simply watching the point of view character be afraid. It creates a stronger emotional reaction and makes them sympathize more with the point of view character.


Here are some common filtering words that are used to take the reader a step back from the story.

  • Saw

  • Looked

  • Watched

  • Heard

  • Listened

  • Noticed

  • Realized

  • Understood

  • Thought

  • Felt


This doesn't mean you should never use these words. They all have their time and place. But you do need to be careful about where you use them. When describing something that the character is experiencing, think about whether the experience or the character's sensing of it is more important.


Sometimes the sensing of the information is a relevant detail, such as a character hearing the murderous lure of a siren's song. The song itself has no effect on the story until the character hears it. In this case, you do want to list the sensory verb in order to create the tension.

Then the siren's song began.
I heard the first notes of the siren's song and lowered my hands from my ears.

Make sure to consider which is more impactful to your readers in this moment, the detail or the observation of the detail.


In the unfiltered monster example above, the only time readers are told what the character is looking at is when the character begins to look for a weapon. At this point, the character's actions are important. The surrounding room means nothing to the readers unless they know that the character is hoping to find something to defend themselves with.


By paying attention to your sensory verbs, you can check if you are filtering a vivid detail unnecessarily through the character's awareness of it or if the character's awareness is the real point of your sentence.


If you are having trouble getting your point of view character's emotions across, consider searching for filter words. Make sure that important sights, sounds, and feelings are being given to the reader directly instead of being labeled as the point of view character's experiences. This shift can create a dramatic difference with some very slight rewording and help you boost you descriptions to the next level.


Happy editing!


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