We've all been there.
You head to the bookstore to pick up a new novel because all of your friends are raving about it. Back at home, you settle into bed with a nice cup of tea, crack open your new novel, and begin reading. Much to your dismay, it becomes clear within the first few chapters that this book is definitely not all it was cracked up to be.
It's not that the book is a complete disaster. It does have its moments, but being the crazy writer person you are, it is hard not to notice every glaring overuse of adjectives, adverbs, cliches, and metaphors. With a sigh, you shut the book and try to think of what you'll tell your friends, who will be devastated to learn that you didn't like their new favorite novel.
Sound familiar? I know I've been there a time or two myself. But as much as we can all tear a novel to shreds for its frivolous writing, I think we can also confess to being the perpetrator of such fluff-making on occasion.
After all, writing a novel is no easy task. It takes months (or even years) of hard work to crank out a completed draft, and in that time you become some close to your work that it can be difficult to see its flaws. A few eye-roll-worthy lines are bound to slip right passed your notice.
Those fluffy passages are otherwise known as filler content, and learning to cut as much of it from your manuscript as possible is imperative if you plan on writing a novel that readers won't set aside after only a few chapters.
But how can you identify your own filler content and cut it without risking your sanity or readers' understanding of the book? Let's take some time today to break that down...
We grazed over the concept of filler content in the introduction, but let's define it in greater detail. Filler content comes in several shapes and sizes, and the better you are at identifying it, the more you'll be able to cut.
On a grand scale, filler content consists of any and all frivolous lines or passages found within your novel.
Put on your thinking cap with me for a moment and imagine this: You are creating a mosaic. Every tile must fit perfectly into place in order to create the right effect. If you include tiles that are too big for the space they are supposed to occupy or if those tiles don't fit in with the color scheme of your piece, your finished mosaic will suffer for it, even if the piece as a whole is pleasant to look at.
This is also how creating a novel works. If you include filler content in your manuscript, you mar the masterpiece your novel had the potential to be. Simply put, you are writing poorly. And that will hurt readers' enjoyment of your novel.
That is why filler content has to go. But before we talk about how to identify filler and cut it from your novel, let's talk more about why filler content can kill your novel's potential from the very first page...
So why it so important to ditch filler content? Let's talk a look at a book that excels in the filler content arena: Twilight by Stephenie Meyer.
Twilight certainly has its fair share of flaws. Most of the characters are one-dimensional, the weak storyline relies heavily on provoking readers' emotions, and its message sets women back approximately a century.
But the novel's worst element is by far Meyer's murder of the craft of writing. Her overuse of filler content - especially purple prose - to this day makes the writing greats roll over in their graves.
(Dear Twilight fans, I know. And I'm sorry...but only a little.)
Purple prose is the flowery, over-exaggerated work that exists solely to sound pretty. It often makes use of an abundance of adjectives, adverbs, cliches, and metaphors meant to instill feeling in the reader, but its random placement does more to break up the easy flow of a novel than help it.
And Stephenie Meyer is most definitely purple prose's greatest admirer. She repeatedly trudges through long descriptions of Edward's perfect appearance and Bella's clumsy awkwardness as if the world depended on her sneaking an extra page of purple prose into her manuscript. RIP trees everywhere.
Now don't get me wrong. You are allowed to like Twilight. Despite its flaws, Stephenie Meyer didn't sell approximately a bajillion books for no reason. She knew her intended audience, she targeted them specifically, and she profited from it. That certainly doesn't make her a good writer, but it does prove that she knows what it takes to become a bestseller.
(And yes, I will confess to watching the Twilight movies when they're on TV. They're so bad, they're good. Ya know?)
However, I urge you not to look up to Stephenie Meyer as a role model. Despite her success, Meyer clearly doesn't hold much regard for the crafts of writing or storytelling. In fact, she's more of an excellent businesswoman than anything else. She settled for less in order to make more.
Don't let that be you, lovely friend.
You have incredible stories inside you, stories that the world needs to hear. I know it can be hard to bring those stories to the page in a way that is both entertaining AND well-written, but don't settle for less. You are capable. You simply need to put in the time and effort to improve your prose as often as you can.
Your stories deserve that much. Your readers deserve that much. And most importantly, YOU deserve that much.
So how can you write a story that shines? It's time to learn about writing meaningful prose.
Every passage in your novel needs to serve a purpose to prevent it from becoming filler content. To identify whether or not a certain passage holds meaning, take a look at the different purposes described below.
Characterization. Characterization is the process of creating characters. Pretty simple, right? This process includes creating your character's appearance, personality, backstory, lifestyle, story goal(s), motivations, development, and more!
If your passage explores any of these elements of characterization, it most likely serves a purpose. But beware of rattling on for too long about the less meaningful elements of characterization, such as appearances and backstory. Instead, focus on developing your character's personality and motivations as they will make a stronger impact on your readers.
Character Development. We mentioned character development briefly above, but it truly deserves a few paragraphs of its own.
I cannot stress enough how important character development is. Unless you're writing a pure rollicking-good-fun type of adventure story à la Indiana Jones or James Bond, your main characters need to be shaped by the events that take place throughout your novel.
After all, they are experiencing some tough situations. Their limits are being tested, and they must face the consequences of every decision they make. This is bound to change a person in real life, so exploring such a transformation in your novel is vital to creating the realism your readers crave.
So never agonize over including character development in your novel. Believe me, it deserves to be there.
Character Relationships. Your character's relationships should serve to explain their desire to achieve their story goal, add secondary tension to the main conflict of the novel, spark their character development, or encourage them to keep fighting when times get tough.
If you spend time developing a relationship that serves one of the purposes listed above - especially if one of the people in that relationship is a main character - then that passage is absolutely worth keeping in your novel.
Plot Advancement. Does your passage move the plot forward? If it builds tension between characters, creates conflict as the hero and villain attempt to achieve their story goals, or directly ties in to the main action of the novel, you're golden. Keep that passage right where it is.
Scene Settings. While it is important for readers to know when and where each scene takes place, what really gives your scene settings purpose is their ability to convey a mood. If you spend time developing a mood rather than a description, your readers will feel the emotion you're attempting to evoke and be pulled further into the story.
Transitions. If you have a rough cut between two scenes, you may need to add a few lines to polish the transition. These lines might not be particularly purposeful in that they develop characters or move the plot forward, but they still add value to your novel by stringing your scenes together more smoothly.
Your transitions can serve to show the passage of time, break tension, reveal a change in mood, switch locations, change viewpoint characters, and more. If you think your transition might be filler, remove it from your manuscript and see if the scenes still read smoothly. If they don't, you'll know that your transition serves a purpose.
This is by no means an exhaustive list of the purposes each passage in your novel can serve, but it does cover the major bases. Have another purpose you'd like to add to the list? Share it with me in the comments below!
So now that you know what creating meaningful content looks like, let's talk about cutting filler from your novel.
Every novel will have filler content. It can find its way into your manuscript if you don't have a clear vision for your scene, if you love a certain character or plot point more than you should, or if you're feeling lazy about writing with purpose.
It happens to all of us, and - as I mentioned above - it is nearly impossible to remove all filler content from your novel as you edit. Some things will slip through, and that's okay. Really. Don't get so stressed out about it that you linger on every word. Perfection is impossible and, quite frankly, inhuman.
The important thing is to cut as much filler as you can from your novel before it goes to print. So be a human and finish your book!
Here are a few ways that you can cut the filler from your novel:
1. Kill your darlings. One of the easiest ways to cut filler from your novel is to kill your darlings. Okay...so this isn't exactly easy, but it is expedient. Check out this She's Novel post for the in-depth scoop on how you can kill your darlings without losing your sanity.
2. Write in Deep POV. To write in Deep POV is to step inside your character's mind and write from their perspective, removing all marks of authorship from the page. Using this technique forces you to be purposeful about the words you choose, so its the perfect way to learn how to cut filler content like a boss. Here is another in-depth She's Novel post to help you out.
3. Show, Don't Tell. The Show, Don't Tell rule is everywhere in the writing world nowadays, but this rule is often misconstrued. If you focus too much on showing, you can actually create the purple prose we talked about above. What you really need to do is balance the Show, Don't Tell rule, which we explored in (drumroll please...) this comprehensive She's Novel post.
4. Practice Your Prose. I know it sounds crazy to think that you might one day be able to write like your favorite authors, but it is possible. You simply have to be intentional about improving your work. Stretch your skills, try new things, practice strong word choice, and read every book you can get your hands on.
You won't see a drastic improvement in your prose overnight, but compare your writing three months from now to what you are currently working on and you'll be amazing at how far you've come.
So are you ready to tighten your manuscript for a killer read? Start putting what you've learned today into practice and watch as your manuscript comes to life! Believe me, your readers will thank you for it.
Have any questions about today's topic? Sound off in the comments below!
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Kristen Kieffer is a writer of fantasy fiction and the creative writing coach behind She's Novel. She's made it her mission to help aspiring authors write sensational novels because obliterating expectations is her jam. Her other passions? Coffee and Tolkien, of course!