Rules Regarding Filler in a Story

by Paige

Question: What is the right way to do filler material in a story?


Lots of the middle of my story would technically be classified as 'filler', being that most of the characters, settings and circumstances introduced during that time do not return to the story later in the plot, and some overall do not affect the story very much.

The important thing to note is that I feel I had reason in introducing these parts of the book- they were not added simply to make the book longer or to fill in gaps between points on the through-lines.

I feel that each of the 'filler' chapters helps to define and flesh out the world and illustrate things that have been mentioned in it. Even if the characters that are introduced are never seen or heard from again, many of them leave lasting effects on the main characters or affect how they develop as a character, as well as illustrating flaws or acting as foils. Does it matter that the characters never return or may not directly affect the plot at all?

I feel that I've adequately used the filler chapters for character, plot and world-building, so they shouldn't feel cheap to the reader. I was wondering, do you have a set of rules or guidelines pertaining to filler material in a story? I'm fairly confident that I have handled them well- but I'm very interested to hear your input.
And thank you! This is my go-to novel website.

Answer: Anything you can honestly call "filler" should be cut. That's the plain and simple truth. However, I'm not sure if all the material you are referring to is filler.

The definition of filler is material that is not integral to the reader's appreciation of the story's meaning. It is material that is not part of a story arc, whether that is the overall plot, the main character's growth, or the other throughlines.

You can also have events that are essential to the story's thematic message, even if they are separate from the main plot.

And you can have subplots that explore other aspects of theme and character that fill in holes for the reader.

What you have to ask yourself is whether leaving any of this material out would weaken or strengthen the story. Often you will find that removing "filler" makes the story flow better and holds the reader's interest better. In other cases, cutting something may leave a hole in the story in which the reader no longer understands why something happens or feels the characters' actions are no longer justified (so that the characters seem more two-dimensional).

Most importantly, no part of your story should ever feel like filler. By the end, it should seem like every part is essential to the reader's complete appreciation of the story's meaning.

Another way you can assess the importance of a scene is to look at what arc or throughline it fits into. Each plot or character event should be a stepping stone in an arc, without which the arc would be discontinuous.

Theme events are a little different. A theme event should be like a stone placed on one side of a scale. You want to tip the scales in a way that delivers the message you want (e.g. X is better than Y) without being heavy-handed. If removing a theme-event will have no effect on the thematic message, then you should probably go ahead and remove it. On the other hand, if removing a theme event will alter the balance of the message the wrong way, then it should stay (or possibly be replaced with an event that does the same job but more efficiently).

Finally, with events that are designed to illustrate part of your story world but feel a bit like filler, you might see if the illustration can be incorporated into another scene that is more integral to the plot.

Comments for Rules Regarding Filler in a Story

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Jan 13, 2014
Not filler exactly ...
by: John Jenks

Okay, so I've been treating the main "how-to" pages like a series of exercises and they've been fantastic for letting me design something I actually want to write. I've managed to put together something that resembles an actual fleshed out outline without the muddled and aimless middle I would end up with doing it by the seat of my pants.

My question concerns chapters that aren't exactly filler, but also don't exactly match up with any of the key signposts for either the main plot or any of the subplots. Maybe they further character development, maybe they develop setting, maybe they are just there to serve as a description of long action sequence. I have used "filler" as shorthand in my outline description as a label since I'm trying to match it up in sequence with the index cards for all the actual signposts.

I know that when in doubt anything that is truly filler should be cut, but I haven't yet seen anything that discusses the treatment of this "other stuff" that fills in the "in-between" of all the signposts. The stuff that separates a sandwich cookie from one with chocolate chips.

Jan 13, 2014
Response
by: Glen

Regarding what you're calling "filler"...

If you want a tight plot, a chapter should be about an event, a change. An action sequence should be a key event in your plot, just as a sex scene should be about a change in a relationship, otherwise they're just gratuitous.

Similarly, "character development" chapters are generally about changes that are part of the character arc. Generally, this means characters coming to a new decision or realization. It's the change that makes them interesting and drives the story forward. Even backstory should be about a change that happened in the past that explains what drives a character in the present.

As for developing the setting, try to incorporate this into some other event. In a fantasy, this may not be so easy, since the story world may need and deserve more time allocated to it. But try nonetheless.

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