How do you recognize and remove “filler” from your novel?
I’ve hit a patch like this in my current draft. It’s not that the writing is especially bad (or at least not worse than anything else around it), but it doesn’t seem to do much to advance the plot or enrich the characters. Plus, it’s in the middle of a section of the book that my alpha readers thought went on too long. A temptation is to toss the whole passage out, but there might still be valuable bits to be saved. How do you identify what’s working and what’s not?
1) Does the passage advance the plot? – Does the passage reveal anything new about the situation your characters find themselves in? Does it introduce a new crisis that they must face? I’m working on an action story right now and one of the temptations is to throw my characters into crisis after crisis, then leave them to fiddle their way out. This led one of my alpha readers to comment that my book reads a little like a video game in places. Action can be one of the most exciting moments in a book, but good action needs good setup, and even a good action scene needs to pertain in someway to accomplishing a goal.
2) Does the passage grow your characters? – Do the characters interact in a way that reveals more about themselves, their past or their relationship? Do their actions in the scene change the interaction in any way? A scene where two characters are having coffee might not do much to advance the plot, but it can illuminate how they communicate with one another, what they like to do to relax, and also provide a break from the action. It might be tempting to cut out these beats, but if they enrich your characters they might be worth saving.
3) Does the passage describe the environment, or explain a technical detail? – A large part of my current story takes place on a large spacecraft, adrift in space. The location of certain assets, the bridge, engineering, the main computer, and places to eat, factor into some of the decisions my characters have to make. Where possible I’m trying not to use the “techno-babble” approach to solving problems, which means the ship is governed by a set of rules, an interaction if systems, and a specific layout of decks. While I don’t want to take 50 pages to describe all of these in detail, I want the reader to understand where they are.
4) Does the passage show my work? – It aggravates me when characters are dumber than I am, or possesses knowledge that has been hidden from me. I want my reader to have the same understanding of the environment and the current situation as my characters do. Sometimes I cut a passage where a character is thinking about the crisis because I think it is redundant, but it may be the kind of review that’s helpful in putting the situation together for the reader. While novels aren’t TV, where you need to summarize what happened before the act break, it is still important that there be a sequence of actions, one action affecting the next. A story in which a character makes random decisions with no thought for what has happened would not be a very good one.
5) Why did I write this? – This is the broad question that encompasses the first four. If the reason was “I needed to write 1800 words today” then cut it.
6) Can I rewrite this? – Even if a passage has valuable qualities like the ones above, it may not be the best implementation. The details revealed, and the character interactions might all be valuable, but their current goal is flawed. Other sections can be sprinkled into parts of the novel that are working but need a little flavor. I’ve encountered this a couple of times in this draft, and extensively on my previous book.
7) Don’t be too ruthless – One value of alpha and beta readers is external feedback. We aren’t always the best judges of what people like about our work, and it never hurts to get a second opinion. The final decision is always yours, but input is incredibly valuable (and has already saved a large portion of the beginning of my book I was inclined to cut). And keep your old drafts around, even the ones you edited by hand. You never know when something might be useful.