I am reposting here a guest post I wrote on Friday for Wordplay: Helping Writers Become Authors. I was inspired to write this post after working with a series of clients who all had the same problem: including too much filler in their books. The topic of filler, which I define below, is both difficult to identify and difficult to discuss, perhaps because we see it so much even in published books.
Have you ever read a book that was underwhelming, but you just couldn’t put your finger on what was wrong? The characters were okay, but the book just never went anywhere? That might be because the author had too much filler and not enough plot-driven scenes.
So today I want to discuss what filler is, where it’s often found, why it’s so corrosive to your story, how to edit filler out of your book, and the parting caveat.
What Is Filler?
I define filler as the unnecessary information that writers insert between two scenes. In order to understand filler, you must understand what a scene is. There’s a general formula for scenes, but for the sake of simplicity, I’m going to say that a scene pushes the plot forward in some way. Filler does the opposite. A book’s forward momentum comes to a halt when a writer inserts filler.
Scene 1: Sarah interrogates Bob and learns the location of a stolen item.
Filler: Sarah gets into her car, hits a few stoplights, admires her grungy surroundings, and spends some time finding a place to park.
Scene 2: Sarah is ambushed once she arrives at the location.
This example illustrates that scene 1 and 2 push the plot forward—these scenes also increase the book’s momentum because they’re exciting. Meanwhile the filler slows down the two otherwise fast-paced scenes by describing the ride from the interrogation room to the divulged location.
Where I Often See Filler
Early drafts and new authors are the usual victims of excessive amounts of filler.
Like the example illustrated above, transportation is often a common area where authors fall into the trap of inserting filler. The example above demonstrates how easy it would be to talk about Sarah getting into the car, driving across town—perhaps getting lost—before finally making to the next scene. While a scene can occur that takes place as your character is on the road, walking home, or in an airplane, many times this is just the author filling in the time between two scenes.
Another example I see a lot is a character beginning the day at the moment they wake up. If something important occurs later in the day, don’t start the scene in the morning, start it when the conflict starts.
Why Do Authors Fall into the Trap of Inserting Filler?
It’s so tantalizingly easy to connect one scene to the next, and the alternative—ending one scene and beginning another—can initially appear too abrupt. It’s not.
Filler is usually the result of having too few exciting scenes in the book. Often if you add in more exciting scenes, you’ll find yourself taking out the unimportant ones to make room for them.
Why Filler is a Bad Thing
Having sections of text whose only purpose is to connect one exciting event to the next is not only a waste of time and space, it can halt the momentum of your book and lose reader attention. Worse, I’ve come across writers who have “scenes” of filler; whole days dedicated to doing nothing of importance.
How to Correct Filler
This is the easy part. Delete. This is the beautiful simplicity of removing filler. If it is unnecessary to the story, then it doesn’t need to be there. Now you might be worried that the transition is too choppy. This is where you insert a scene break, or you insert a concise sentence to few sentences that transition the character from one scene to the next.
I’m sure by now you’ve all thought of a few examples that disprove this general content edit—and you’d be correct. That’s because this is a content edit that is a matter of degree, rather than an absolute rule in writing. It is also untrue to say that a segment of text either is or is not filler; there is a gradient. Most things in writing are not black and white, and this discussion is no exception.
Laura Carlson, Editor
American Editing Services