To begin with, there are two kinds of filler scenes. One kind is strictly transitive. Like the wake-up scene, or the travel scene, or even the scene that bridges two plot points. These kind get you from Point A to Point B, and that’s about it. They don’t have any unique value. In later drafts, most of them will be cut.
The other kind of filler scene is necessary. It can’t be cut in later drafts, yet still feels like a boring ol’ transition scene to both the writer and reader. It holds some vital, plot-moving information, but lacks action or conflict. Maybe later you’ll find a way to weave this information into a different scene in the story. But as far as first drafts go, you’ve got to write this scene, whether it feels like fluff or not.
Problem. Filler scenes are intrinsically boring. And when we’re bored, we procrastinate, or overtax our creative system; and that transfers straight to the page. Whatever we experience is pretty much what the reader will experience, too.
So how can you make a filler scene interesting to you as well as the reader?
First: create a mood. Mood is instantly engaging. If you lack it, the scene will fall flat. If you have a strong mood, it will draw people in, yourself included. Think of mysteries or thrillers, where by mood alone the author suggests what will happen next. Mood can create a sense of tension and suspense (see point four.) It makes you want to read on. So, focus on strong descriptions to get your creative juices flowing and to give the scene a bit of flair.
Second: find a new angle.
Once a while back I quoted Terry Brooks, saying, “what makes writing so wonderful … is what I discover along the way, that I wasn’t looking for.” This is one of my favorite techniques. Whenever I’m dreading a scene, I try coming at it differently. I think of it in new ways. For those of you familiar with journalism, I find a new slant, a new angle of looking at this scene.
Sometimes the problem is that I already know what to except. There’s nothing to discover. If you change a single factor, it can change the whole dynamic of writing that scene. Maybe you change the setting—from a quiet porch, to a museum. Maybe you make one character late, and see what everyone says when he’s not around. Whatever makes you want to begin exploring again.
Third: start with an internal monologue. Sometimes I can ease my way into a boring scene by starting inside a characters head. Many YA books do this to help establish voice, and it works anywhere. Let them monologue. Give them an opinion. Have them say, “Sometimes I wonder…”
This can naturally change the slant of your scene, and really helps me when I’m stuck in the blahs.
Fourth: use suspense, tension, or conflict to create a sense of urgency. This ties back to mood. A feeling of urgency hooks you as well as readers, and makes the scene engaging. It doesn’t have to be much— perhaps the wind is picking up and a storm begins. Perhaps a character is acting odd for no reason, glancing at doorways and windows, refusing to look another character in the eye. Why? You want to find out. Use little things to infuse your scene with tension, and you’ll find yourself being drawn into it.
A few things to keep in mind –
Think small time: You want these spicy tidbits to remain minor, or they can derail the scene. For example. You want to build tension. So you have one character find someone watching her, but wait; that’s a whole new plot tangent. It could, in turn, derail your story. Try making the trigger smaller. Your character senses a shift in the wind. Clouds darkening. As she stands there flagging a taxi, she notices everyone is hunched down inside their collars, hiding beneath their hats, and she wonders—are they avoiding her gaze on purpose? You still get the tension and paranoia, but the scene is safely on track. Think “subtle.”
Watch out for pointless thrills: Whatever you do to spice up the scene, make sure it means something in relation to the rest of your story. Why make a scene so intense, if it means nothing later on? It’s like getting all excited about nothing. This can strain a readers trust. If your character’s moods, sense of danger, and stakes are constantly oscillating without any kind of gratification, the reader looks on the story as fickle.
If you can, read an author you admire and see how they handle their filler scenes. Does the mood you’re creating flow naturally from the previous scene, and into the following one? Does it match your character’s personality?
These are some of my own tricks when struggling with filler scenes. How about you guys? Do you have any tips on spicing up your scenes?