How to Cut the Filler and Tighten Your Book

This guest post is by Laura Carlson.

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.

I was inspired to write this post after working with a series of clients who all had the same problem: 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.

So today I want to discuss what filler is, where it’s often found, why it’s so corrosive to your story, and how to edit out the filler and tighten your book.

What Is Filler?

I define filler as the unnecessary information 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.

Example:

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.

Scenes 1 and 2 push the plot forward. They 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.

As in the example above, transportation is often a common area where authors fall into the trap of inserting filler. The example demonstrates how easy it would be to talk about Sarah getting into the car, driving across town—perhaps getting lost—before finally making it to the next scene. A scene that takes place as your character is on the road, walking home, or in an airplane, may be important, but 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 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 a concise sentence or two that transitions the character from one scene to the next.

The Caveat

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.

About the Author: Laura Carlson is founder and editor of American Editing Services, an editing business based out of Santa Barbara, California. She specializes in content editing for both fiction and nonfiction manuscripts. She has also edited everything from articles in trade magazines to academic papers and dissertations. She is a professional member of ACES and regularly attends writers conferences.

Tell me your opinion: Can you identify any fillers in your WIP?

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. Great post!

    I recently read through one of my works that I’d been editing off and on for the past couple years. I found myself laughing, both out loud and awkwardly, in some points simply because a) I run WAY too long or b) my dialogue is just repeating stuff over and over again, stuff either earlier in the dialogue or narrative simply so my narrator can discuss things with the rest of the “cast” who isn’t as clairvoyent of everything.

    I saw in a couple of my favorite series how they would just write “I explained everything to them” without worrying about excess dialogue.

    I plan to cover this in my next entry, but one good way to combat filler is to go through your work and make a note of the repetitions and whether or not a byte has any relevance to the plot or it’s progression. I guess it all originates from writers not wanting to “throw anything away” to making sure their vision is clear to their readers… i.e. overcompensating 😛

  2. Thank you, Laura! I’m writing my first rough draft and this is my first serious work, and I know I have a ton of fillers in my story. I will definitely be referring back to this post when the time comes for revisions and will be keeping this in mind as I finish my draft. 🙂

  3. I’m on the second draft of a novel and cut two full chapters because it was nothing but filler. Where I struggle most with this work, since it’s from first-person POV, is using internal dialogue to show my main character’s emotional and mental transitions. However, I don’t want her to repeat herself beyond what’s necessary. Have you any suggestions for avoiding that trap?

  4. It’s tough to stay on top of what’s repetitious and what’s not – since we quickly becoming both non-objective and habituated to our work. The best way is to enlist the help of a beta reader or two and ask them to mark any passage they feel is repetitious.

  5. Alex Gremory says:

    So I’m writing a series right now, and I’m afraid the second book has too much filler, but it’s just because I wanted to develop some of the characters more, as well as develop the relationship between the two main characters. I also can’t cut it out and skip to the next book because the ending is important, so I’m not sure what to do. Any advice?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      In all honesty: cut it. If it’s filler and only filler, it has no place in the book. It either needs to be cut entirely or worked into the story in a more interesting way that matters to the plot.

Trackbacks

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