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.”

“Bruce Wayne?”

“Here.”

“Hal Jordan.”

“Here.”

“Diana Prince.”

“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 supposing that, 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.

Tell me your opinion: Can you identify any recent filler scene in your work-in-progress? How do you deal with this 37th of our most common writing mistakes?

Most Common Writing Mistakes, Pt. 37: Unnecessary Filler

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. Lorna G. Poston says

    Fluff or filler is my #1 struggle. I am always short on word count, so when I look for ways to add words, it always ends up being fluff or filler instead of something that matters to the story. 🙁

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      One of the critical causes of this problem is lack of conflict. If the character has a goal that is being obstructed, you’re almost always going to get meaningful scenes.

  2. thomas h cullen says

    To me, filler’s finally become a completely more or less invalid concept. Speaking strictly, it always was anyway: a person can hardly be blamed for filler when it’s the only way an agent will consider their product.

    Getting back to the original point, what in fact constitutes as filler and what doesn’t is very arbitrary; the extra bit of conversation, or the extra bit of description the author may feel the need for. The character(s) may mean too much to them, as well as the form of narration.

    There’s what the creator has made, and their interpretation of it, and there’s then the identity of the consumer.

    (There’s just I suppose genre-packaging, and an author being judged relative to that standard.)

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      You’re right: ultimately, filler is a very subjective concept. In the end, it’s that place where the author’s opinion coincides with the reader’s that determines what needs to stay and what needs to be cut.

      • Good note — as a reader repetition bugs me… I’ll forgive one slip. But if an author reminds me MULTIPLE times (or reminds me once or twice about multiple facts) I get REALLY frustrated! I never thought of it as filler, I just felt like they were insulting my intelligence (that I would need to be reminded over and over again).

  3. I know for a fact that I put a lot of filler in my first book. Every time the characters went to a metal concert, I would state that they crossed the bridge, parked, had pre concert parties and then got searched before going into the venue. I realised now that was too repetitive. I only needed to mention pre -concert parties at three concerts because unique occurrences happen at those. I hope I’ve learned my lesson with my second and the one I’m working on now.

  4. I’ve been struggling with this. I have a scene that just hasn’t been working for me, and I KNEW it was all filler until the end but I didn’t want to admit it. At least now I know how my revision will go today. 🙂

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      It’s ironic: but sometimes we just can’t admit something isn’t working until we’ve finished working on it. :p

      • I just finished cutting 5000 words from my novel. most of it cutesy unnecessary dialog. My editor said I needed to get to the meat and potatoes, so this was a day my babies would die.

  5. I’m still working on recognizing and cutting filler from my stories, so thanks for this post! Oh, and props to you for using all those super hero characters in your example. I’d love to read more of that scene between Carol Danvers and Diana Prince. 😉

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Hah, yes, I realized after I finished the post that I missed a good opportunity to explore some Amazonian lore instead of the Roanoke colony. 😉

  6. Mary Garcia says

    I’m bad about filler, especially in the beginning. Eventually it gets cut out. If its a passage that I’m particularly fond of – I put it in a misc. file that can be used in the future. It may take a tweak or two, but sometimes it may be better in another storyline.

  7. Lydia Hansen says

    So if the scene is hard to write, or boring to write, is this a clue that it could just be filler? As I’m writing now, I have scenes that are not interesting to me as I write them, and don’t seem to have the pace and punch of other scenes. Is this a clue that they’re filler or fluff, or does it just mean that I’m not as emotionally connected to those scenes as I’m writing them? I ask because I tend to use scenes to show information to the MC and reader, rather than have a character come along with all the things the MC needs to know. But some of those scenes seem dull and uninteresting as I’m writing them.

  8. I’m so glad that I discovered this blog series before I start editing. Making notes and checking them twice. 🙂

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      It’s probably a series that will stretch to infinity. There are so many more ways of writing things wrong than writing them right. :p

  9. ~sigh~ waves hand in air, “Guilty as charged yer ‘onor.” When I can reduce my first draft from 128,000 words to 57,000 by the 3rd draft, yeah, you might say there was a bit of filler 😀

  10. Filler stops the story, and I find plenty when I read my work aloud to myself. I perform my stuff in advance of reading it my critique group. It’s a great way to discover what’s boring. I bore myself! What a horrible feeling to bore myself with my own writing. But what a relief to know I can fix it before boring others.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Reading to an audience (even just one person) is a fabulous way to see a story in a whole new light. We immediately become more aware of the listener’s (comparatively) objective perspective.

  11. katemartyn says

    Great post, lots of good advice on this blog, and thanks for the free book I got on subscribing to your mailing list – I’m looking forward to reading it.

  12. Katherine Nederlof says

    I’m going back and editing my first draft so that I can send it to my critiquing group and I’ve found that about 30% of it, if not more, is filler. Most of it is the useless conversations and minute details of how they got from A to B: It rained, the rain let up, the rain started again, it rained harder. That type of thing. But some of it is character of world development that I absolutely love, but I know I have to cut because it’s too boring and blatant. I’m really trying for the whole subtext thing with those parts!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      This is actually a great thing to discover if, like me, to tend to write first drafts that are way too long anyway.

  13. Great post, but I have to say I’m a pantster and I love filler… but only during the writing of the first draft because that’s when I’m telling the story to /myself/.

    I need to know about the roll call, or Roanoke [whatever that may be] and all the other boring bits that only authors can love. Every one of those ‘bits’ helps make the world come alive in my head, and sometimes they help me work out exactly what I don’t want to say.

    Then, when I have this bloated mess of a first draft finished, then comes the part where I start writing the story for the reader. This is when foreshadowing and pacing comes into it, and restructuring as I discover ways to say more with less. This is also when I cut out everything the reader does not need to know, then or ever.

    That said, there’s more to writing lean than just getting rid of bloat. Every sentence should also be multi-tasking – furthering the plot in some small way, building tension, revealing character etc.

    That’s the theory, at any rate. Still working on the practice. 🙂

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      You are totally in sync with the needs of your own personal process–and that’s *exactly* as it should be. Kudos to you. Nothing wrong with filler in the first draft–as long as it gets excised before readers can see it.

  14. Great post, Katie!

    If a scene I’ve written is boring to me, I figure it’s going to be boring for readers too.

    I ask myself a series of questions:

    What do I want this scene to tell the readers?
    Is this scene moving the story forward?
    Am I repeating anything I’ve already shared?

    These questions usually help me make a scene better.

  15. I think when I myself am beginning to be annoyed with the character it’s time to cut some fluff. I just wrote a scene the other day where my protagonist goes to get flowers from her garden and meets her father. The scene was supposed to have conflict (the protagonist needs to get the flowers as inconspicuously as possible), it just ended up being boring. I’ll definitely cut this the second go around.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      The jolly good thing about the fact that our own boredom is such a good indicator of something gone awry is that we never *have* to write a boring scene!

    • I love that you say ‘annoyed with a character’ Care. I was annoyed enough to knock him unconscious. Admittedly that turned out to be useful later. However, it was a clue that he’d been annoying me and I needed to do some killing – of darling conversations.

      Incredibly useful post, especially the well put together examples. Thanks.

  16. I know I’m slipping into writing filler when I start to get bored with the scene I’m working on. 🙂 As soon as I realize this, I go back to the part of the scene that I was excited about and ask myself what the next meaningful beat will be.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Our own boredom with any given scene is a huge indicator that something’s gone wrong. It’s always a sign to stop and reevaluate.

  17. This happens to me all the time. Usually I already know while I’m writing it, that it’s a filler. I’m just too much in love with my story world and probably would love to live there myself. I get lost in writing everyday routine. But at least I know where these fillers are located and that I sooner or later have to cut them out.
    But sometimes they really help me to get to the next scene, help me to start with my writing session, to get in mood and also create new ideas.
    Still, they need to be cut out….

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      From one perspective, writing something you know to be filler is just a waste of time. But, from another, if you’re enjoying it, why not just have fun writing it before deleting it for the reader’s sake? We write first and foremost for ourselves because we love it. So enjoy every minute!

  18. One of the most common reasons for this, I think, is not understanding how details and emotions are conveyed. Authors will write that something is sad, and repeat it over and over again, due partly to the fact that they can feel that the emotion isn’t there. The actual solution isn’t repeated emphasis, but rather showing instead of telling. Repeating isn’t so much conveying as insisting.

    But that’s just one of a number of different causes for overwriting.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Great point. I edit for someone whose first reaction to a comment that a sentence isn’t working is to read it back to me with twice as much emphasis, as if that’s going to somehow convey the meaning more clearly. :p The same principle applies for any kind of insistent repetition in the actual writing itself.

  19. Good article! Although I’m confused on one point–is there a hard-fast rule determining what is filler and what is not? I don’t go overboard, but I love writing casual dialogue scenes between two characters, say when they’re on their way down the hall to meet another character. Within the context of your article, such scenes might be considered fluff, but I consider it world-building (if the character’s surroundings are mentioned) and at the very least, character-building. I like to know how the characters interact on a casual level, and I think it helps make them seem more real if you can see them going about their daily business. Would scenes like this be considered filler?

  20. Karen Ginther says

    Great article, though I’m quite sure I error the other way. Squee! I LOVE THIS WORD. Squee! Squee! Squee!

  21. I’ve added some stuff to my story that was originally going to be filler, but ended up opening things up for plot points in book two, while still being relevant to the story in book 1. That’s not to say I don’t have useless filler. There’s loads of that. I plan on going and cutting it down, especially since my overall word count is now 10,000 words longs than my ideal count would be.
    How I’m going to cut the filler, I haven’t decided yet. I shall face that next week. First I take a break to catch up on reading and blogging that I haven’t been doing cause I’ve been in book land.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      It’s endlessly fascinating to me how the writer’s brain works: we can start out writing something that is mindless filler, but our brains immediately start looking for ways to make it pertinent.

Trackbacks

  1. […] How to Identify Clutter in Your Writing – A great and helpful article by K.M. Weiland. […]

  2. […] self-editing. Susan Silver explores the “unthink” editing process, and K.M. Weiland discusses how to recognize and cut unnecessary filler in our […]

  3. […] Back to my point. The post I read was Most Common Writing Mistakes, Pt. 37: Unnecessary Filler. […]

  4. […] K.M. Weiland’s most common writing mistakes series, part 37: Unnecessary filler. […]

  5. […] But the easiest way to find that fluff is to look at a scene and see just how much “lead in” to the scene there is compared to the word count of the scene. For more on cutting excess stuff in your novel, check out K. M. Weiland’s post, HERE. […]

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