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Noticing Filler

A big part of my job when I work with clients is to help them see their manuscripts as I see them. And what I see, a lot of the time, is opportunity to tighten the overall prose. One subtle function of wanting to pare down (other than overwriting, which we discussed in last week’s post), is noticing when you’re including filler.

Whenever you’re working with first person or close third POV, it is understood that your protagonist (or POV character) is narrating the scene. They are your lens, in effect. Especially in first person, as a few cases can be made to the contrary in third.

So when a scene is described, as in:

She noticed a man sitting in a forlorn stall in a far corner of the bazaar. She saw his downtrodden expression and heard what could’ve only been a sigh issuing from his lips.

It’s assumed that the main character is there, seeing and hearing everything, in order to relay it back to the reader. Technically, they can’t narrate what they haven’t become aware of in the first place, yanno?

There are three instances of filler here. “She noticed,” “she saw,” and “she heard.” We simply don’t need this. Don’t waste time narrating that, oh yeah, your character who’s been hearing and seeing everything that’s been described in the book so far has also seen and heard this. That’s beyond implied.

Instead, a cleaner, tighter revision might read:

A man sat in a forlorn stall in a far corner of the bazaar. He wore a downtrodden expression and issued what could’ve only been a sigh.

I’ll be the absolute first to tell you that this is an extremely nitpicky note. “Why does it matter whether or not I cut SIX WORDS from this description? It’s six words!” Or 18% of the sample in question. I know not every sentence of yours is going to have filler, but if you cut even 9% or even 4.5% out of a manuscript that people say is running too lengthy at 100,000 words, that’s 18,000, 9,000 or 4,500 words, respectively!

Little nitpicky things make a big difference in the long run, and if all of your sentences get a little tighter, the perceived difference to the reader (how quickly the pacing moves, how smoothly the descriptions read, how efficiently we get from scene to scene) will be worth much more than the actual number of words you’ve trimmed.

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  1. Christina C.’s avatar

    I also think that in first person these fillers put distance between the character and the reader. Without them, it’s like the readers hears all the character’s thoughts unfiltered.

    Excellent advice :)

    Thank you :)

  2. C. Lee McKenzie’s avatar

    I find these fillers very distracting. They make me aware that I’m not experiencing something directly, that there’s a narrator between the character and me.

  3. Kerry Gans’s avatar

    I used to have a lot of this type of filler, but I am much better at seeing it after many years of my critique partners beating it into me. You are absolutely correct, all these little words here and there add up fast and make a huge difference in pacing and in immersing the reader in the mind of your POV character.

  4. Stephen Andrew’s avatar

    Great post! I have noticed those little things as I’ve been paring down my MS, but this really gets at the heart of the issue. Keep us in the character’s head rather than reminding us there is a narrator when we know it already. It reads so much better. I’ll have to look even more closely this time through. Thanks for the tip!

  5. Claudia H Gruy’s avatar

    Thank you – it’s so much easier to see those redundancies when pointed out – suddenly it all makes sense and we experience the big AH-moment again! I found a trick reading my MS from bottom up – the story doesn’t distract me and I am more likely to pause with a silent WTH?!
    Cheers from Austria!
    http://www.writersburrow.blogspot.co.at/

  6. Melissa K’s avatar

    Great post. You get at something important here. But during the writing process it can be pretty hard to distinguish between this kind of filler and the “subtle interiority” you describe in this post: http://kidlit.com/2014/05/19/subtle-interiority/ I’d love to hear your perspective on the difference between the two.

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