Novels are a mixed bag of scenes and chapters. It takes balance to maintain good flow, keep your reader interested, and reach that word count mark. If every scene was a major plot twist, would they stun us as much? If every chapter contained a life-changing event or turning-point for the main character, would the reader be able to keep up? This is where filler scenes step into the spotlight. What’s a filler scene? They are the builders – relationship-builders, world-builders, character-builders. They may not have the MC discovering her hidden power, or defeating the enemy, but they are necessary anyway, for many reasons…
THEY PACE THE NARRATIVE
If every scene was monumental, then in essence, nothing is monumental. Everything is ordinary. Filler scenes provide the valley, so when your MC reaches a mountain top, it truly seems important.
THEY BUILD CHARACTER ARCS
Imagine if The Hunger Games had started off at the Reaping. Would you have felt as strong a bond between Katniss and Prim? Or realized what kind of a horrific world Katniss really lived in? The opening scene of Suzanne’s Collins bestseller begins relatively “slow”. Katniss wakes up and goes hunting. To any ordinary eye, this scene doesn’t seem all that important. Except it is. So much of Katniss’s character is revealed in these first few chapters – her skill in hunting, her completely destitute lifestyle… both qualities that will be important later. These scenes are the “before”, and post-Reaping is the after.
In our own writing, we apply character-arc scenes throughout the book. In fact, practically every scene should show something of the main character’s personality. Every action reflects their heart. However, it is sometimes in the quieter moments when we see their true feelings. Their true heart.
THEY BUILD RELATIONSHIPS
Let’s go back to the Hunger Games example. Those first scenes not only develop important characters. They also develop important relationships – with Gale, Prim, and even Katniss's mother. If the story had started at the Reaping, we would never have met Gale, and Katniss would never have introduced that complicated arm of her love triangle. If we had never seen Prim’s innocence and Katniss’s absolute need to protect her, we may not have felt so shaken when Prim’s name was drawn for the arena.
In our own writing, a simple conversation can show incredible depth. Every sentence in our novels adds another layer to the story, even if that layer is not a bright, burning, action-packed one which completely turns the novel on its head. Think about your own lives. Is it the few huge moments in your relationships which mean the most, or the smaller, constant ones? Do you love your spouse (or parents, or siblings) because of the wedding, or the vacation they took you on, or that monumental moment which changed everything? Or do you love them for the lullabies they sang every night, or the dozens of times they’ve held you while you cried?
THEY FLESH OUT THE WORD COUNT
Let’s be honest… word count IS important. The issue, however, is that oftentimes we sacrifice quality for quantity, and write lots of extra fluff which is unnecessary. Although the term “filler scenes” sounds negative, they should be positive. Any filler scene whose sole purpose is to literally just fill up space needs to go. Any scene which does not add to the story should be cut. But does every “needed” scene require an explosion or plot twist? The obvious answer to that question then propels you to ask, “Well then what is the difference between a filler scene and an unnecessary one?”
Filler scenes may be the chinking between those larger scenes, but they are actually the skeleton of the novel. Sometimes you just have to have that one scene which might seem boring, but cannot be deleted. If we cut every travel scene, every campfire dialogue or conversation between love interests, what would we have? Lots of unimportant, flat characters who have no relation to each other, fighting wars which we don’t understand, and which have no consequences. How did they get from point A to point B? We can’t know without a journey scene. Why won’t the main character let herself love that boy? We might have known from that important conversation.
What else is left if we took out all the fillers? A very short book. Think of your favorite books, and then try to pinpoint scenes which might be considered “slow”. There are quite a few, aren’t there? What if you took them out? That 350-page novel just became a 150-page novella. So while these filler scenes are vital for a well-rounded and fleshed-out world, they are also necessary for a well-rounded and fleshed-out word count.
THEY BUILD THE WORLD
Everyone’s heard the advice show-don’t-tell. (If you want to read more about how to conquer that commonly used phrase, check out my post here.) Descriptions should be sprinkled throughout your novel, as they become important. Notice, however, that word… important. Clearly, then, descriptive scenes still belong in our story, right? Would you describe them as monumental, though? Most times, descriptions are fillers too. Since several thousand words of any book are spent describing a setting or appearance, this is the easiest place to cross the line between necessary and not so necessary. Readers want to visualize the world. The characters. Give them a rich setting, one deserving of a rich and gripping story. Just remember the balance. How, though, do we find that balance…
HOW DO WE FIND THE BALANCE?
If you need filler scenes for both “builders” and word count, how do you make sure what you are writing is still important? How do you tell where quiet becomes slow, and where slow become unnecessary? When do you edit it out?
Here’s a quick test: Pick a scene you are unsure about. Then ask yourself… what do we gain here? What is this scene adding to the story? Does it strengthen a relationship? Develop a character arc? Get us from place to place or describe a setting? If so, keep it. If not, what is its purpose? Is it just padding to lengthen the word count? Cut it out. Is it just an irrelevant scene you happen to absolutely love? As hard as it is, cut it out. Keep it for another place, where it will be truly appreciated.
Novels are a patchwork of explosive scenes and quiet ones. Valleys and mountains, fillers and twists. Try to pace the story in such a way where the quiet scenes reflect on the monumental ones. If a reader comes off of a twist and slams right into another one, they don’t appreciate the first quite as much. Give them a quiet scene to catch their breath, and they’ll be reeling from that twist for the rest of the chapter. And hopefully, the rest of the book.
What’s your opinion on filler scenes? How do you attain that perfect balance? Comment below! I’d love to hear your thoughts!