Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Filler is Killer (In a Bad Way)

Image courtesy of Charles Rondeau at
I’ve been musing a little bit about the importance of a certain element in writing. Obviously, I have kind of had to turn off my internal editor whilst NaNo-ing, but once I’m done and it’s time to get back to editing, I’ll really have to focus on it. (21,870 words as of noon today!)

It’s also something you need to focus on while you’re drawing up an outline, if that’s your thing.  Not all people like to outline (I occasionally do out of necessity).  If you’re a free spirit (like I usually am) then sure, let your imagination run wild, and just write whatever the heck you want.

It’s funny that I say I’m a free spirit, when a few posts ago I mentioned that I have a neurosis about writing the book in order.  Well, I mean that I like to have a general idea and then just let the story happen.  When you write like this, however, it’s easy to forget a key element in literature:

Every scene must have a purpose.

What do I mean by that?  I mean that you can’t just throw in a scene because it’s “cool” or “inspired by life” unless it adds something to the story.  I stumbled across a great blog post by Karen Sandler, the author of Tankborn, called “Give Every Scene a Purpose.”  She had this to say:

“[A]lthough real life is full of the trivial and mundane, there’s no room for the unimportant in fiction.

In real life, all sorts of things can happen. You try to start your car and your battery is dead. So maybe you’re late for work and get a chewing out. Or you happen to meet a friendly stranger at the supermarket and you chat for the few minutes you wait together in line. Or when you get home from the market, you discover you got regular coffee when you meant to get decaf. Or perhaps you spend days at your father’s care home (as I did earlier this year) as he’s dying.

Could these things happen in your fiction story? Of course they could, whether you’re writing a realistic or speculative story. But here’s the big difference. All of those events, from the mundane (chatting up a stranger) to the life-changing (the death of your father) would have to have a purpose in your story. They should not, must not be there just to fill space on the page.”

I was researching this topic, because this sentiment has been echoed by countless storytellers. I was trying to see if I could find an original quote from somebody like Twain or Hemingway, but I was really fortunate to find Sandler’s blog instead.  It really tied in with what made me want to write this post in the first place: “filler episodes” in television shows. You know, a throw-away episode that doesn’t really have much to do with the rest of the season, and is simply there because the network ordered X number of episodes, and the writers only had enough plot for Y episodes.

Yes, television shows are certainly not books, but as a form of storytelling, they can teach us a lot about the way that storytelling works, and particularly about each scene having a purpose.  I feel as though we can liken episodes of a show to scenes in fiction.

One of my favorite shows, probably of all time, is Burn Notice.  I have liked a lot of shows, but one thing I loved about it was that there was never a single episode that did not connect with the season’s overarching plot.  A lot of television shows are formulaic, and Burn Notice certainly had that—there was a side plot where they helped a ‘client’ in every episode—but it felt so fresh every time, because of the connection to the ultimate goal: getting Michael back into the C.I.A.  Even the subplots connected with the whole, in that they offered significant character development.  That character development, in turn, made the overarching plot that much more significant, because you had developed a deeper attachment to the characters.  I loved Burn Notice because it never had any “filler episodes.” 

Likewise, your story should not have filler scenes.  That’s what makes Sandler’s point so great, because she emphasizes that scenes “must not be there just to fill space on the page.”

Must not. 

Anytime somebody uses language like that, it’s pretty absolute. Usually, I avoid absolutes—but in this case, it is spot-on.  Scenes shouldn’t be there just because “Oh, hey, this is cool.”  They shouldn’t be there because “This is the kind of realistic thing that happens!”  Unless, as Sandler points out, the scene further drives the plot forward:

“For instance, the battery going dead might mean that your main character gets to work late and discovers a police cordon around her office building. Then she sees the bodies wheeled out, including that of the mass murderer who just killed her boss and several co-workers.”

The battery can’t go dead just because it seems like the kind of thing that would happen.  It has to go dead to further the plot.  Give every scene a purpose.  Don’t waste space writing things that don’t connect to your story.  Why? I think that Sandler sums it up very nicely:

“Because here’s the thing, here’s the reason every scene must have a purpose. It is the nature of books and stories that as a reader reads, they are accustomed to noticing what happens to the characters. They are used to tucking away unusual events and to consider them important. If you describe your character brushing her teeth every morning, but that never factors into the plot, it will irritate your reader. Brushing teeth is trivial…unless it’s not. Unless that’s how our character is poisoned. Or that’s part of her OCD routine (maybe she has to do it at a set time and for a set number of strokes each day).

Your reader is going to notice those little details. She’s going to want her payoff later in the story. Make sure she gets it–or hit that delete key.”

This is such a great point, and I can attest to it first-hand.  It is really, really obnoxious to have things happen that aren’t connected to the rest of the plot.  The show that really drove me to write this post is Nickelodeon’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.  (I have already freely admitted in various places on the interwebs that I watch kids’ shows.  What can I say? I am young at heart.)

I can already imagine people saying, “Well, it’s a kid’s show. Of course it’s not going to give every episode a purpose.  I mean, Spongebob doesn’t have that.  Get a life, lady.”  Well, ordinarily, I agree with those sentiments.  But do you know why I started watching TMNT in the first place?

During the first season, almost every single episode was connected to the overarching plot.  There are perhaps two that could be considered fillers.  That was what got me hooked on the show.  That and the fact that Master Splinter is completely awesome.  The second season was a little less compelling.  I kept watching, hoping that it would get back to that really focused style, but more and more of the episodes were merely fillers.  There were some awesome episodes, don’t get me wrong, but I felt like the quality of the storytelling overall had slipped.

The third season is what prompted me to write this.  There have been four episodes thus far this season and I am really getting sick of the filler.  Only two of those episodes were really connected with the action of the overall narrative, and even then, each of those seemed to have only a few minutes that really did.  Of the four episodes, I have liked one.

If Nick isn’t careful, they might lose my viewership.  I never watched TMNT as a kid, so I have no lifelong emotional commitment to this.  Not to mention that Splinter hasn’t appeared in a single episode this season.

That’s the risk in having filler in your story.  You might lose your reader.  Filler is obnoxious in television shows and even worse in fiction. It’s so obnoxious in television (which is passive rather than active entertainment) that it prompted me to write this post.  Reading takes far more investment than watching television—it requires an active participation of the mind and imagination—so if I’m going to put the effort into reading something, I want it to fit into the plot. 

This is one reason many dedicated fans of The Lord of the Rings try to forget about Tom Bombadil.

Don’t get me wrong; Tom Bombadil is cool.  He adds to the depth of the milieu (the setting of the story), gives us a little bit of opportunity to learn more about the expansive history of Middle-Earth, and also provides a little character development for the four hobbits.  In addition, the section of the story sets up why Frodo’s sword proves to be marginally effective against the Ringwraiths.

But if you completely cut out 90% of that entire scene, it wouldn’t make a hill of beans difference as far as the plot is concerned.  Sure, the writing is cool, and the history is cool and all, but a lot of people (die-hard fans, even) roll their eyes at the mention of Tom Bombadil. 

I get how hard it can be to say goodbye to a scene.  As I’ve been editing my work in progress over the last year, I’ve had to look at certain things, shake my head, highlight it all, and hit the delete key.  It’s heart wrenching.  You did all that work—it was so beautifully written—it was your favorite passage—

None of that matters.  If it doesn’t further the story, it has no place.  Them’s the breaks.  Because the last thing I want is for one of my readers to feel about a portion of my book as I have about this season of TMNT.  Or Tom Bombadil.

But if you’re desperate for words during NaNo, then by all means, use all the filler you want.  Be aware you are going to have to pare a lot of it out later, unless you can give it a definite purpose.  As I said at the beginning of this post, you kind of need to turn off that internal editor during NaNo.

If you’re not doing NaNo, though, do take a moment to consider why you’re writing a scene.  Don’t over-analyze, but ask yourself if this will connect clearly with the overarching plot. 

Learn from other storytelling media: don’t have filler scenes in your finished product.

Do you agree that every scene needs a purpose?  Why or why not? Share your thoughts (and let the TMNT and Tom Bombadil flaming begin) in the comments. 

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  1. That's very true. I've got to say, though, that for pure writing enjoyment I tend to create stand-alone scenes that are basically fillers. When one truly has a message to communicate, every line should somehow relate to that theme. Ask me to explain Edgar Allen Poe's 'The Cask of Amontillado' sometime, if you haven't read it before.

    I agree about Season Three, but... Maybe because I'm immature enough to just enjoy the spirit of the show and let the plot take its sweet time, maybe because I'm just that in love with the franchise in all iterations (I really do mean all of them; The Next Mutation was ridiculously stupid, but it was funny, too.), I like these episodes a lot. Don't get me wrong; I want to get back to Splinter and Miwa ASAP (especially considering that Miwa is the only female character whom I have any respect or even liking left for), but I'm genuinely having fun with what Ciro's giving us. Oh, and I'd better warn you- more fillers are coming up fast. 'Dream Beaver' airs today, and 'Race with the Demon' will be next week. 'Spirit Quest' comes after those; from the sound of it, that'll mark the Turtles' getting back on track for their return to New York.

    1. Yes, I have read The Cask of Amontillado ("Yes, for the love of God...") before. It's pretty twisted, and Poe really is a master of the craft. We read that in my "Short Story and the Novel" class my sophomore year in college.

      I'm not going to watch "Race with the Demon." I saw the synopsis for it and decided I am not going to put myself through the frustration. There is something to be said for enjoying the spirit of the show, and in some respects I do, but it's not enough to outweigh my current frustration. (All over a kids' show. Wow, I seriously need a life.)

      On the other hand, I hope that Kelly Hu and Hoon Lee are enjoying their vacation.

  2. I don't blame you. In my case, though... Well, RWTD promises us some Casey and Donnie man-bonding, and I'm more than willing to brave the weirdness for the sake of more on-screen time for my second favorite bromance (NOT as a shipping, obviously, but still!).