The following #writingtips apply to all stories, but especially short ones where every scene must be essential. Happy Short Story Month!
When I plot a story, I tend to think in terms of action. This is probably due to my screenwriter training. In a screenplay all you have to work with is action and dialogue. And in an outline, where you don’t write dialogue, all you have is action. So naturally, when I outline, I follow the action – this takes place here, then the character does this, then the antagonist counters with this move, etc. This is a perfectly good way to plot a story, as I explained in this post: Outlining – Active Beats (aka “Show Don’t Tell”). However, a proper scene requires more than just action.
The basic requirements of every scene are:
Goal – what does the hero want?
Obstacle – what is preventing the hero from getting what he wants?
Conflict – who is opposing the hero’s goal?
Change – how is the hero different by the end of the scene?
For more details on these basics, check out this post: Outlining – From Sticky Notes to Proper Scenes.
Got the basics down? Awesome! Now we have proper scenes, right?
Despite having all this good stuff in a scene, it could still fall flat. Why? Because it might not be essential to your story. We need the No Filler Test!
To take this test, you need a scene. We’ll use one of mine (from my outline) as an example.
EXT. STREET – NIGHT
In response to the panicked call Taryn received from Kate in the previous scene, Taryn leaves her date mid-meal and gets in her car to go help Kate. Taryn pulls out and heads towards Kate’s house, then notices Mel’s car tailing her. Damn. If Mel finds out what they’re up to, they’re dead! Taryn has to get Mel off her tail before she can go help Kate. A car chase ensues through town until finally Taryn outsmarts Mel and leaves her in the dust.
As you can see, this scene covers all the basics: it’s full of action (car chase!), and there’s a goal (get to Kate), obstacle (Mel), conflict (Mel wants to find out what they’re up to and Taryn cannot let that happen), and change (from worried to triumphant when she loses Mel). As an added bonus, it’s fun because my protagonist gets to show off her mad driving skills!
Yet, when I took the test, it didn’t pass…
No Filler Test
Question #1 – If deleted, will the reader still be able to follow the story? If yes, you’ve got filler!
Question #2 – What is different by the end of this scene? If nothing, it’s filler!
Question #3 – What/Who does this scene affect? If nothing/nobody, it’s – you guessed it – filler!
Note that if even one of these questions results in “filler”, the scene should be revised to make it stronger and completely essential. So let’s look at how I faired, er, failed…
First, my scene could be deleted and no one would be the wiser. Yes, I need to get my heroine from point A to point B, but I don’t need to show her getting there. Traveling scenes are notorious filler, and I knew that, so I made this scene exciting by having the antagonist show up. Still, that’s all that happens. And that ties into the next question…
Second, nothing is different by the end of this scene. The villain shows up, the heroine gets away, and then the heroine goes back to exactly what she was doing before the villain arrived – going to help Kate. This scene changes nothing; it’s merely an obstacle with no consequence. And that leads to…
Third, nothing and no one is affected by this scene. In other words, what happens in this scene doesn’t reverberate throughout the story.
Thank goodness I can rewrite and take this test again!
Bottom line, passing the No Filler Test ensures every scene resonates and truly serves the story. Ever read a book where a whole bunch of stuff happens, but you’re still bored? I bet it was full of scenes that would fail this test.
Unfortunately, writers are notorious for falling in love with scenes that don’t pass the No Filler Test, and we’ll give you all kinds of reasons why that scene is vital – it introduces a character, or it sets the tone, or it’s a logical progression, or it reveals information, etc. All those things may be true, but they’re not good enough reasons to keep a scene.
It all comes down to change and consequences. (Doesn’t everything about storytelling?) Something in the scene must directly change/affect the plot and/or characters. If not, it’s filler. Cut it.
But what about setting up character or revealing information? No problem; just combine scenes. Put the necessary details gleaned from the filler scene and insert them into another scene. Or move an important turning point into the filler scene to make it essential. Don’t settle for a scene that “kinda should be there”; make it absolutely indispensable!
Do filler scenes plague your writing? How do you deal with filler? What do you think makes a scene essential?
PS – I really need to see Mad Max 2 soon!