How to Identify and Cut Your Story's Filler
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Have you ever read a novel that was far too indulgent for its own good?
Perhaps the plot dragged on and on or the prose meandered or the author spent a highly unnecessary amount of time on world-building or the color of their characters' hair. Maybe you weren't exactly sure where the author went wrong, but you know the book could have been at least fifty pages shorter.
A touch of fluff bears little consequence, of course, but too much filler can easily weigh a story down. Knowing how onerous such indulgent stories can be, it's time we took a look at our own manuscripts and the fluff that may be lurking within. How can you identify and cut your story's filler? Let's discuss today, writers!
What is filler content, exactly?
From our introduction today, we've established that filler content, or fluff, is an overindulgence that leads to a story padded with unnecessary content. Filler can appear anywhere: in plot arcs, in prose, in exposition and description, in dialogue, and even among a cast of characters and themes.
In essence, filler content is that which doesn't serve a purpose. It has no true bearing on the story, and thus removing it would have little to no effect on the story overall. In fact, cutting such content can only make a story better. But what kinds of purposes can each of your story's passages fulfill? Take a look:
Purpose #1: A passage can deepen characterization.
Bringing characters to life on the page is incredibly important. If readers don't first make a connection with your characters, they simply won't care about your story's conflict and its consequences. Thus, scenes, descriptions, conversations, and expository passages that lend themselves to deepening readers' understanding of your characters will always serve an important purpose in your story.
Purpose #2: A passage can show Character Development.
Bringing characters to life on the page is important, as is showing how those characters develop as a direct result of your story's conflicts. Such development often plays directly into theme and gives your story some vital emotional depth and weight, even in the most light-hearted of tales.
Purpose #3: A passage can Discuss Theme.
Themes are the topics discussed throughout a story, and they often appear whether or not an author consciously builds them into their work. Taking the time to weave established themes into a story, however, can lend to that very same emotional depth and weight we discussed above.
Purpose #4: A passage can advance the Plot.
In the same way that character development advances a character's internal journey, passages that advance your plot help maintain the pace of your story and keep readers (and characters) rolling toward the final climax.
Purpose #5: A passage can ground readers in the story.
Characters and conflict cannot take place in a vacuum. Exposition is an easy place to overwrite, yet a story that doesn't ground its readers in a specific world via a little necessary description and narration will only leave readers feeling afloat instead.
Purpose #6: a passage can Transition between scenes.
On occasion, a few lines may accomplish none of the purposes listed above yet still serve one very key purpose: transition. By switching locations, showing a change in atmosphere or a passage of time, or shifting point-of-view characters, transitions are often a very necessary piece of the literary puzzle.
Each of the passages in your story should be packed with purpose, as should individual lines of dialogue and description and even characters and themes themselves. There is certainly a thin line between writing what you love and knowing when it's time to let go of that which you love in the name of telling a better story.
I won't attempt to tell you where that line stands, but I would encourage you to question whether each individual element in your story serves a purpose. If you aren't sure, it's likely time to kill your darlings and cut it from your narrative. If your story just doesn't work without that element, however, you'll know it wasn't filler after all.
But what about the filler in our prose?
We now know how to identify and cut the filler in our story's content: its passages and the story elements that comprise the narrative as a whole. But did you know that filler can also find its way into our prose?
Though a spartan writing style certainly isn't right for every author and every story, brevity always has its place. Why use three words when one would do, after all? Overwriting, ill-used metaphors, and an overindulgence in weak adjectives and adverbs are all, among other issues, a form of writerly fluff — as is purple prose.
Writers often make use of this elaborate and flowery language in an attempt to sound skillful without actually achieving that end. There's nothing wrong with working to write beautiful and inspired language, of course, but clarity will trump complexity any day. So don't leave readers bent beneath the weight of an overly complex writing style, okay?
Fortunately, these issues are often merely a result of writing inexperience. As you continue to practice the craft, make an effort to examine and strengthen your prose, cutting unnecessary lines and considering the purpose each word lends in telling the very best version of your story. Practice really does make perfect, writer. Or, at the very least, a little less fluff.