Episode 49: Fluff, Filler or Fundamental?
Today we discuss how and when to use fluff words or filler words in your story. Choosing the right method can be the difference between a best selling novel and a book that never gets published. Get the details here!
You can listen to the episode right here. The transcription is below the player. Feel free to add your comments using the comment section below.
Episode 49 Transcript
Note: Transcripts are generated using a combination of speech recognition software and humans, as such, it may contain errors. Please, double-check the audio file before quoting anything from this page.
00:00 [JT Pledger] I once ran a little test with some students to find out how they would describe a certain portion of a scene. The results were mixed, which I was expecting. What bothered me the most, though, was that the words used weren’t the right words. Today, I want to cover this little test and explain how and when to use the right words when you are filling out your story. Stay tuned, I’ll be right back.
01:01 [JT] Here is what I am going to do. I will recap the scene writing test for those of you that want to play along. I will set up the scene as I did for the students and explain what you need to do. If you want to play along, you can then pause the podcast while you write out your words. If you do not want to play along, then there is no need to pause the podcast. However, you are boring and you will have to bring your own snacks to our future parties.
Let Me Set the Scene
01:32 Ready? Okay. The scene takes place in the middle of a suspenseful thriller novel. We are nearing the climax of the main plot, where the protagonist is heading into the antagonist’s hideout for the big confrontation.
01:48 This particular scene starts with the main character driving to an old, abandoned shopping mall. It is mid-day but the weather is dreary. In our rough draft, we have the protag driving up, parking in the parking lot and heading inside the mall. This is the part we need to add more words to.
02:13 Your job is to write this part of the scene, from the car entering the area and parking in the parking lot. I want you to describe the parking lot for the reader.
02:26 If you are playing along, go ahead and pause the podcast and get to work. If you are not playing along, I’m still mad at you and giving you a dirty look that you can’t see because this isn’t video.
Shall We Evaluate Your Work?
02:41 And we are back. Through the magic of audio, we have just traveled in time to a point where you have the assignment completed. For you it was several minutes, but for me it was a fraction of a second. I am an expert time traveler, so don’t try this at home.
02:56 Now, before I tell you that you did this wrong, I am going to make a few guesses. Let’s see. You wrote about the deserted lot with the cracked and uneven pavement. You may have talked about how much grass or weeds are growing up through the asphalt. You might have mentioned the parking lot lights that are not working, maybe flickering, or the lenses are shattered and broken glass covers the ground.
03:28 Maybe you went into detail about the sounds the tires made as the main character drove slowly through the abandoned black top and that they didn’t worry about parking between the lines that are faded with time and exposure to the elements.
03:44 If I had to guess, you have between 200 and 500 words written about this parking lot. Maybe more. Am I close? Did you try extra hard to make this parking lot come to life? Maybe you threw in a few random animals running around or looking for nibbles?
You Probably Did it Wrong
04:07 If so, then you did it wrong. Don’t worry. It is a good exercise and if you concentrated on making that mental movie projector in your reader’s mind come on, good job. The problem here, is that you missed the entire point of this scene.
04:30 The scene takes place, if you recall, as we approach the climax. The hero is about to square off against the villain. The reader has been waiting for this confrontation for 200 or so pages, and you want to slow the whole thing down to accurately describe a fucking parking lot?
04:51 Fluff and filler do have their place. There are scenes and situations when we need to be more descriptive and poetic in our words. There are certain scenes when we need to stretch a two-sentence description into a three-page filler. This test, though, is not one of those times.
Fluff and Filler can be Too Much
05:15 One of the biggest mistakes I see is that writer’s want to fluff and fill every single page. This is nice in the beginning of the book, where you are bringing the reader into the world. Their entry point needs to be a nice landing (or a very sharp and abrupt one, depending on your mood).
05:39 As we ease them into the lives of our characters and they get to know everyone around and the actions these people are taking, our readers cherish fluffy scenes full or poetry and details.
05:54 As the story moves along, though, you need to get your ass in gear. If you have a reader so hooked that they are turning pages fast enough to start a fire, and you throw 300 words at them about a parking lot, you are going to piss off a lot of people.
Decide Where to Fluff and Fill
06:12 The first step in knowing which words to use and when to fluff or fill, is knowing what is at stake. The one thing you cannot do is get these massive story wheels rolling downhill and then slam on the breaks. Perhaps the only thing that will close a book faster is writing about shiny vampires.
06:38 Unless you, too, are marketing to 12 year-old girls who still write tiny hearts instead of a dot over their i’s, each scene will dictate what needs fluff and filler and what needs to get the fuck on with it, already.
Creating a Fluff and Filler Formula
06:54 Let’s see if we can find some winning formula. Of course, your own writing style, as well as the genre, purpose of your book and the scene you are writing will all dictate what needs to be said, there are some basic guidelines we can use.
07:12 First, let’s grab the old dictionary and define these terms. Fluff is the use of poetry and prose to lengthen or expand a sentence. I refer you to the common “show versus tell” example from Anton Chekhov. “Don’t tell me the moon is shining, show me the glint of light on the broken glass.”
07:42 This is an example of fluff. Filler is using extra words to say the same thing without being flowery. To piggyback from Chekhov, instead of fluff, the sentence with filler would be: Don’t tell me the moon is full, show me the light through a window.
08:08 Neither example is wrong. Neither is right. It is a matter of what you are writing and how important it is to the story. You will hear a lot of old timers telling you to move the story forward. Every word should push the reader to the next one.
08:28 To an extent, I agree with this. However, there also needs to be a welcoming, comforting feeling to your book. So, we start our books with the proper landing for the reader. You have to remember, our story takes place at a certain point along a timeline. The characters were doing their thing long before page one, and will continue to do their thing long after the end of that story.
Think Like a Reader
09:03 As the writer, you decide where the story starts. It should be in a spot along that timeline where the reader can be dropped in safely. You want them to have the time and opportunity to get to know their new surroundings, meet their new friends and understand what is going on (the plot) and why it is happening (the stakes).
09:32 In these chapters fluff is more prevalent that filler. We ease them into our story and writing style. We start giving them questions they need to have answered and this is what propels the story forward.
09:50 By the time our main character pulls into that abandoned parking lot, the stakes are too high, the plot is at its peak and the reader doesn’t need or want your fluffy words.
10:04 You still have to set the scene, of course, but now is when fluff is eliminated and filler is only used on an as-needed basis. Is it important that the parking lot is abandoned? Not at all. We can add a broken down truck to the middle of the lot if we wanted. We can add all the broken glass that cracks under the main characters feet as they rush to the boarded up front doors of the mall.
10:34 We can use these filler words to show the truck and the broken glass, or the weeds, or those branches from last weeks storm. The best way to do it, though, is to have the character notice them. Perhaps she checks the truck for a weapon or to make sure no one is hiding near it. You can put that dilapidated truck in the lot, but it doesn’t need to be poetic or take up 2 pages of the climax. Get on with the story!
It’s a Roller Coaster!
11:10 After the climax, when we are coming down the other side of that story arc, we can once again make the landing a bit softer. Of course you want to be careful here, too. Too much fluff and filler can lead to a bad ending.
11:28 I always like to imagine my story is a roller coaster. At this point the giant loop-de-loop is over and the reader is trying to catch their breath and slow their heart rate. I may throw in a few small turns on the roller coaster track, but nothing too serious.
11:48 Filler works well here, instead of fluff. It is still soft and welcoming, but it’s not enveloping. If we go right from the climax where fluff and filler are nearly non-existent, and start using a lot of fluff again, the landing will be too jarring. Ease your reader into that next slow turn before you ramp it up again.
Trial and Error and Beta Readers
12:19 Playing with fluff and filler can be difficult. This is where trial and error along with utilizing Beta readers, will come in to play. The best course, though, is to picture yourself as the reader along this journey you are creating.
12:40 Start by giving them the absolute essentials; location, time of day, clothing, vocabulary, a mission. From there, decide how much of that scene needs to be expanded. You want to make each scene inviting and complete, but if it stall the story, then less is more.
13:05 Play around with your descriptions and actions, along with your dialog. If you are still having trouble, stop by the blog and let me know what’s going on and I will help you get it sorted. Just leave a comment and we will get you back on track.
13:22 Until next week kids, have fun; write words.