Filler Versus Content

Today I’m going to discuss a real writing problem I’ve run into for which I have no solution.

Filler is bad.  This I trust to be a universally recognized fact.  What exactly constitutes filler is up for debate; it’s easy enough to define it as “anything that isn’t content,” but that just shifts the question to what exactly constitutes content.  The old chestnut that content advances the plot or builds character strikes me as too limited.  Vivid descriptions neither advance the plot nor build character, yet they are essential; strengthening the themes of the story (say, through a parallel side plot) is another kind of content.  But we all know filler when we see it: Those dull passages where people you don’t care about do things you don’t care about.

Common wisdom states that filler should always be removed; a good story is composed entirely of content.  I believe common wisdom is right, but there’s an equal and opposite problem: If every scene in a novel is important, it can start to feel like too much.  The reader might be overwhelmed and unable to keep track of the plot if zie is constantly faced with one thing after another without any downtime, and the whole thing may feel too rushed.  But how can you slow it down without adding filler?

Most of the possible solutions are not really solutions at all.

  • Add subplots: If the problem is that the main plot advances too fast and if the overall story isn’t too long, a subplot can be a great breather.  Make it something lighter in tone than the rest of the story and without high stakes or too much complexity.  But if your novel is already on the long side — or if an excess of complex subplots is the problem — then that’s not a good answer.
  • Remove subplots: The inverse solution.  This is a good idea if your novel is too long and too full of convoluted plot threads for anyone to keep track of, and most of the time it falls under the “no filler” rule as you prune subplots that don’t actually contribute to the overall narrative.  But what if the story is neither too long nor too short?  What if all the material that’s in there is good, but it simply happens too fast?
  • Rearrange scenes: If there are particular important scenes that are getting lost, taking a close look at your organization may help.  Space out those important scenes, especially side plot scenes that may not obviously tie in with the main story, in between slower-paced, less important scenes.  But reorganizing is no help if many scenes are getting lost or if there are no less important scenes to juxtapose them with.
  • Add description: I feel the need to mention this one for completeness.  Sometimes a novel may be paced too fast because it’s too terse.  Descriptions serve an important pacing purpose by preventing the plot from reading like an outline, and they also work as a moment of downtime because they rarely contain essential information.  But there’s a limit to how much description you can include without sounding like Bulwer-Lytton.  So, again, this only helps if your story was too short and description-light to begin with.

Do you have any other suggestions for how to slow the pacing of a novel without adding filler?

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