Most Common Writing Mistakes, Pt. 37: Unnecessary Filler
“Brevity is the soul of wit.” However, creating that quality of brevity isn’t so much about writing short as it is about making every word count. As we continue to discuss the most common writing mistakes, we’d be remiss to leave out the all-too-prevalent faux pas of unnecessary filler or padding.
The 4 Reasons Unnecessary Filler Might Be Happening in Your Story
Unnecessary filler is almost always the result of one of four problems:
1. The writer is still trying to discover what he wants to say.
2. The writer is too in love with his own words.
3. The writer isn’t confident in and/or is avoiding what he really needs to be writing about.
4. The writer doesn’t trust the reader to understand the subtext.
How to Clog Your Scenes With Unnecessary Filler
How can you spot unnecessary filler when it shows up in your story? The first symptom is always that it’s boring. If there’s no life in the scene–if it’s high point is just two characters exchanging monotone dialogue about a subject readers either already understand or simply don’t care about–that’s a good sign it’s a bad scene.
Another sign of filler is a scene that’s full of social conventions or routine conversations that readers either participate in themselves in their daily lives or are super-familiar with from television and other books. Personal introductions and daily routines are frequent culprits, but so are court-room rhetoric, the Miranda rights, most political speeches, ordering at restaurants, and chatting with grocery clerks–among other things.
Anything repetitious is almost always going to end up (at the best) being unnecessary filler. If readers were with your character when she got the bad news about her cancer at the doc’s office, then they don’t need a blow-by-blow recap when she asks for prayer in church.
Consider the following clogged-up scene:
Diana sat in her American history class and doodled in her notebook.
The teacher, Miss Kyle, scribbled her name on the chalkboard, then faced the class. “Good morning, everyone. I’m Miss Kyle. I’m going to be teaching you American History. But, first, roll call.” She consulted her clipboard. “Peter Parker?”
“Here,” Diana mumbled.
Miss Kyle finished roll call, then grabbed her brick of a history book off her desk. “And now, let’s all turn to page 12 and learn about the disappearing settlers at the Roanoke Colony.” She started reading.
Let’s say Miss Kyle’s selected passage about the Roanoke Colony is super-important to your plot. Even supposingthat, this scene is still nothing but fluff. We might even go so far as to overlook the complete lack of a goal from Diana and the equally complete absence of any conflict between her and her super pals. But what we still can’t get past is the absolute uselessness of all this routine chalkboard-writing, roll-calling, and history-book-reading. It’s filler, plain and simple.
How to Clean Up Your Scenes by Keeping Them Tight and Focused
Fixing this one of our most common writing mistakes is easy-peasy. If it’s filler, cut it. And keep right on cutting until you get to the part where something good actually starts happening. Anything crucial in this section–such as all that juicy info about Roanoke–can be framed much better in a scene that actually matters to your story.
Sometimes filler can end up being an authorial darling. We had so much fun writing that scene! All those alter-ego names? Squee! Our inner nerd is geeking out. Just the thought of axing it raises a tear.
Sadly, however, squeeing is not reason enough to keep a scene. Work your nerd moment into a different, most integral scene, or just surrender to the fact that it really does belong on the cutting-room floor.
Our previously clogged-up scene might end up looking completely (and blessedly) unrecognizable:
Diana ran into school, late for History once again.
Carol Danvers caught up in the hall. “Crazy homework project, wasn’t it?”
Homework? Diana stopped short. “You’re not going to believe this…”
Carol gaped. “You forgot to do your homework–again? And it was really cool this time: that whole Roanoke thing with the disappearing settlers. I swear one of the drawings in the book looked just like you. How could you have missed that?”
A chill prickled Diana’s arm. “They looked like me?” This was the clue that would unravel the whole mystery of her existence! And she’d almost missed it.
Turns out we don’t even need to be in class with Diana when her teacher starts expounding about Roanoke. And we definitely don’t need to meet Miss Kyle or hear that egregious roll call. Even better, this version spices things up with an actual goal and some actual conflict.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with writing all this filler. Sometimes we just need to get it out of our systems. And sometimes we need to write through the filler in order to find the true heart of any given scene. But don’t get attached to useless blathering. As soon as you recognize the core of your scene, go back and cut out all the unnecessary filler leading up to it. The result will be a lean, mean, fascinatingly on-point story readers won’t be able to resist.