Image: Matthew Loffhagen
Story filler is unnecessary text that might come between two scenes that move the plot forward. It can take the form of a sentence, a paragraph, dialogue (both internal and external) or even a whole chapter. Now, when I say “unnecessary” I mean that if you were to take out that piece of writing, the story would not lose continuity and the reader wouldn’t be confused.
Whilst there mostly seems to be a negative connotation to the notion, filler doesn’t necessarily have to be a bad thing.
But how do you know one way or another?
I have a few pointers that may help you, but to do so, I’m going to grit my teeth—I can’t emphasize enough the self-sacrifice occurring here—and use D.H. Lawrence’s Women in Love as the supportive text.
Yes, I have a confession that might shock some of you devout book worms out there. I loathe Women in Love. “Loathe” is a strong word, I know, but for all the literary merits, I would really, truly rather watch paint dry than have to suffer through reading it again.
It probably didn’t help that I was forced to study it for my final high school exams, but, since that Traumatic Episode in my life, I have come to love other works I had been forced to read, such as Hamlet, Jane Eyre and The Wife of Bath. No such maturity-inspired re-acquaintance occurred with Women in Love, which clearly proves even my subconscious supports the initial childish desire to go against what the fanged, yet surprisingly dour English teachers were forcing me to read.
The above paragraph is an interesting piece of filler. It is not necessary, but it does reinforce the strength of my feelings.
Anyway, to the serious stuff…
1. Ask yourself what sort of story are you writing?
First and foremost, knowing exactly what sort of novel you are writing is essential (for more reasons than just this, of course).
Looking at our example text, Women in Love is a romantic tragedy which addresses themes from desire and repression to industry and modernity. It is a slow read, lingering on detailed descriptions of scenery, a character’s observation of another, the colors of an outfit.
Take, for example, the opening paragraph of Chapter 10:
ONE MORNING the sisters were sketching by the side of Willey Water, at the remote end of the lake. Gudrun had waded out to a gravelly shoal, and was seated like a Buddhist, staring fixedly at the water-plants that rose succulent from the mud of the low shores. What she could see was mud, soft, oozy, watery mud, and from its festering chill, water-plants rose up, thick and cool and fleshy, very straight and turgid, thrusting out their leaves at right angles, and having dark lurid colors, dark green and blotches of black-purple and bronze. But she could feel their turgid fleshy structure as in a sensuous vision, she knew how they rose out of the mud, she knew how they thrust out from themselves, how they stood stiff and succulent against the air.
The majority of this paragraph does not move the plot forward. Indeed, if you removed much of the description, the reader would still know what was happening, so it could be classified as filler. However, it does emphasize Gudrun’s thoughts, desires and mood.
It is not necessary, but it serves a purpose.
One of the reasons why drying paint is more interesting to me is the pages (and pages!) of similar descriptive prose. I find this terribly dull, BUT this suits the style of the novel and, if you are an admirer of D.H. Lawrence, this will be the sort of writing you would expect from him.
Would you or should you find something similar in a fast-paced science fiction novel? To generalize, no. Such writing slows the pace down hugely and that may destabilize the reader, knock them off course.
There is, helpfully, a ‘but’ to that generalization (isn’t there always). Filler can serve the useful purpose of allowing the reader some breathing time between the exhausting action. If you decide this is necessary, ensure you use the filler as a tool—make sure it’s good, not arbitrary nonsense about what the two ninjas ate by way of reenergizing before the fight continued.
Show that you have really thought about it and not simply attempted to increase your word count.
2. Who is your target audience?
The genre of story you are writing is inextricably linked with your target audience. Just as you must decide if it’s a crime novel or a romance, so must you decide if you are writing for adults or adolescents.
As mentioned in The ultimate guide to writing awesome Young Adult books, YA readers are not particularly interested in lengthy prose on turgid water plants. There is, in general, a faster pace and less lingering over every microcosm of the overall emotion that might be felt in the development of a relationship or a dramatic turn of events.
Adult readers, however, may enjoy a really good wallow in a character’s indecision or the vividly depicted scene of a meal shared with friends:
The food was very good, that was one thing. Gudrun, critical of everything, gave it her full approval. Ursula loved the situation, the white table by the cedar tree, the scent of new sunshine, the little vision of the leafy park, with far-off deer feeding peacefully. There seemed a magic circle drawn about the place, shutting out the present, enclosing the delightful, precious past, trees and deer and silence, like a dream.
Imagine reading the novel whilst luxuriating on a deck chair in a summer garden. You, as the reader, will be in no hurry and will have the time to really immerse yourself in the description of that particular moment of the story, even though, again, much of the text does not take the plot forward.
3. What is achieved in the piece of text in question?
So you’ve decided on a genre and you’ve thought about your target audience, how do you now decide whether that niggling piece of writing should be there or not?
Study the text and ask yourself what, if anything, has been achieved by its inclusion? Does it add to the atmosphere? Does it add to the reader’s understanding of a character? Does it really breathe life into a scene? Does it give the reader a moment of calm before the next onslaught?
Has it achieved anything at all?
If the answer is a resounding no, then, no matter how proud you are of its lyricism or construct, take it out.
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Have you got any good examples of good or bad story filler? I’d love to hear them in the comments.