Editing Discoveries [#5 – Filler Chapters]

(Reed’s Song of the Day: Purple Rain, by Prince)

Hey HEY folks! Coming to you from (finally) rainy Los Angeles, it’s yet another blogger who thinks he can tell you how to write better!

I’m using this post to stall for time while I try to figure out what content I want in my next chapter, so let’s get right down to it. Let’s talk about those “filler chapters”.

You know what I’m talking about, right? Those beloved chapters with a really great character moment or some awesome banter between your protagonist and antagonist, but very little happening in the way of plot? Maybe there’s a really cool specific part of your world you wanted to include to spice things up, but other than that, nothing’s happening? Sound familiar?

It does to me, sadly enough. In my earlier projects – of which Sleeper is one – I used to spend months writing out my world. I would gather information about society and culture, arts, money, politics, gender roles, character backstories as they applied to their home cities, flora and fauna, travel routes, seasons, time dilation, et cetera, et cetera. I would build so much world that I could barely fit it into my books.

And that was the problem – all my worldbuilding would make it into the book, but far too much to be interesting to a reader. It would come out as these long chunks of expository text – because how else are you going to explain the nuances of the world that your characters wouldn’t ordinarily pay attention to? – sitting dense and fat in the middle of my books. When I or my readers would go through them, it would simultaneously feel like nothing was happening, and too much was happening.

I bet you think I’m going to tell you to cut all those unwieldy filler chapters, right?


See, that was how I used to edit, before I really examined what editing was supposed to do. I would ruthlessly cut away everything that didn’t push the plot forward or compel characters into the next scene. I did this for one of my projects last year, Symphony of Legend. Guess how it came out?

Like a pancake to the face. Like a scrunchie made out of plot points.

It hit so fast, readers (including myself) were left disoriented, still trying to understand the basic concepts of the world while already getting into the higher-level complicated magics. It was a pretty big turnoff, and I pulled off on having people read the second and third parts of the novel for that reason.

So I’m not here to tell you to remove your filler chapters. Because honestly, in genres that take a lot of worldbuilding like science fiction and fantasy, you need to slow down every once in a while and let things sit. Let your audience absorb some of your amazing creation when there’s not a battle going on or a character about to die. Give them some time spent staring at your world.

Brandon Sanderson does it. Patrick Rothfuss does it. Most other notable fantasy and sci-fi authors do it (and it even happens in a lot of other genre fiction).

The key to a good filler chapter is not in pushing the plot, but rather the story. You don’t need to have a major plot point every single chapter, or even most chapters. But what you do need to have is something compelling the audience forward. A conversation that leads into the next chapter, maybe. A period of observation where a character is allowed to sit back and enjoy the world, but in the end they notice the thing they were looking for. A simple character-establishing scene where a minor decision reveals something about your protagonist, but also comes back to affect the plot later.

Unless you’re an incredible writer with a ridiculously deep world (read: Tolkein), you won’t be able to captivate an audience just with your worldbuilding. But what you can do is give them a taste of it in these every-so-often filler chapters while also keeping some sort of a progression. Not necessarily a plot progression, just… a progression. Of some kind.

Of course, it’s one thing to remark upon this in your blog. It’s another to sit down at your computer and try to write a chapter of just filler to input between major events. I’m having difficulties with it right now, and you may have those same difficulties. It’ll be okay. I promise. We’ll figure something out.

And the best part is, if we can get the flow right – that waxing and waning of tension and progression – we find ourselves with an exciting, very readable project. So, like all annoying parts of the editing process, it’s worth it in the end.

Hopefully I’ve stalled for enough time to form a latent chapter storyboard in my brain. I’ll keep my fingers crossed (for me and for you!)

Yours, with his numb little toes in his wet little shoes,

-R.R. Buck


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