Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Filler doldrums

Our detour into my books is over, at least for now. Back to writing yours.

On October 14, 2011, Jenna Royal wrote, ...I have problems with filler scenes. They're important for the flow of the story - I can't have just conflict or it gets crazy, but the in-between is hard.
Then, on Feb 11, 2012, Brianna wrote, ....I've got a ton of ideas for big scenes that move the plot along, but obviously I can't jump from some guy threatening them in their house to her being shoved in a locker at school to jumping off a cliff. The one thing I have trouble with is the things that go in between, the sort-of mundane things that we don't think about but we have to make them interesting enough to keep the reader hooked.
    ....I never quite get how some authors can take normal school life and write an entire novel...

The key may be the over-arching problem of the story. Let’s take Brianna’s three action scenes: the threat, the locker lock-up, the cliff leap. Mila, who dropped out of high school three years earlier, who broke the principal’s arm but was never even charged, who lives in a shack on the edge of the sewage treatment plant, tells Nadia that she’d better not go home (okay, she’s supposed to be at home for the threat, but I forgot and only realized later) after school or she will live the rest of her life in an unpleasant altered state. That’s the threat.

The reader is told through Nadia’s thoughts that her little brother, Petey, is home with a fever along with his babysitter, Oona, who’s on break from college.

Now we have to get to the locker incarceration scene. In Chemistry class, which follows Mila’s threat, Nadia texts a warning to Oona but gets no response. Nadia is frantic with fear. Is someone or something in the house, or is the target Petey or Oona? Or Nadia’s parents? In class, Ms. Pashkin drones on about the Periodic Table. Nothing can happen until the bell, and there are three classes after Chemistry.

We have Nadia’s thoughts to keep us interested, because she’s so distressed. She’s looking around. She’s not supposed to go home, but maybe someone else can. Her friend Quentin is a martial arts master, and he would be happy to help. But should she send him into danger? What else can she do?

In the middle of everything, Randall, whom Nadia has had a crush on since fourth grade, sends her a note, asking if she wants to study with him after school. She can’t really enjoy this, and she just shrugs, which makes him turn bright red with embarrassment or anger. Nadia doesn’t, but the reader wonders if Randall is in league with Mila.

The rest of Chemistry passes in a blur. You can do this, make a scene just go by if there’s a reason, and in this case there is. Nadia is too freaked out to concentrate. In the hallway between classes she calls her dad but his cell goes to voice mail, and he doesn’t text. She calls his office and is told he hasn’t returned from lunch, which is odd because he brought a sandwich to work. Same with her mother. In Language Arts she texts home again and again gets no response. Mr. Handel, the Language Arts teacher, sees her repeatedly pulling out her phone, and he takes it away from her. In growing desperation, Nadia decides to sneak out at the end of this class and go home. She was warned against heading home after school; maybe during school doesn’t count.

But when she gets to the lobby Randall is there, ostensibly waiting for band practice to begin but really on guard to keep Nadia from skipping out. He’s the one who stuffs her in the locker and leaves.

The locker area is deserted this time of day, and Nadia doesn’t have a phone. She has to wait, and she fills this time by worrying and listening. She can also sing or even fall asleep as people sometimes do in times of high stress, low activity. A few paragraphs will do.

At the end of the school day kids come to their lockers, making so much noise that they fail to hear Nadia’s desperate pounding until only one student remains, who finds the school custodian to get her out. Then you need the scene with the principal who wants to know who stuck her in the locker. Probably this won’t be dull because we’re so worried, but if you want to pile on the excitement, you can have her name someone who didn’t do it.

Finally she starts for home, running along the edge of the cliff above the Salitachee River, where the spring rapids are in full flow. Not hard from here to imagine circumstances that force her to jump.

So, worry about the larger issue will help pull the reader through the slower scenes. And you can drop in smaller events that feed the worry and ramp up the tension, like when Mr. Handel takes the cell phone.

You may want to reread the first part of my post of October 12, 1211, for more ideas about ancillary scenes.

It’s sometimes a juggling act. Suppose in the example above that Randall is innocent, that he doesn't put Nadia in the locker, that he’s just waking up to how appealing she is, and suppose you want to show the reader his charms, too. Also, suppose Nadia’s best friend is upset because her grandmother is very ill and she wants comfort. But with Nadia’s brother, his babysitter, and her parents in danger the reader may see this other stuff as distractions and may even skip pages to find out what’s going on with the house. You may want to introduce these less life-threatening issues before Nadia is threatened or after she gets through the cliff scene and finds out everyone is okay for the time being.

If you don’t have a larger issue, then the slow scenes will be particularly hard to write, and even the action ones may lack impact because the reader won’t know why she should care. I’ve written in other posts that a book doesn’t have to have major conflict, but it does need something that will draw the reader through. The pull could be Nadia herself, an extraordinary character whom the reader loves to love or loves to hate, and in every scene, the one with the threat and the one in Chemistry class, the reader wants to see what Nadia will do. Or the pull can be an amazing place that has an effect on whoever is there. In this instance the place could be a special school or Nadia’s house, which is special in some way.

The larger issue, if you have one, doesn’t need to be of thriller magnitude. Nadia’s big problem can be that her friends are all mad at her or that she feels useless or stupid. Readers who read only fantasy may not be satisfied, but many will. Some like only realistic fiction. Or this kind of trouble can be dropped into a fantasy setting. In Fairest, for example, the basic conflict is that Aza feels (with some reason) unattractive.

On to prompts:

∙    Here are three action scenes: Tess is in her bank when it’s robbed, and she recognizes one of the robbers; in her fencing class her instructor duels with her and she realizes he’s using a real sword with a lethal tip; she is followed through her local shopping mall by three strangers. Figure out an overarching problem and start the story, including the scenes that get her from one place to another.

∙    Here are three potentially dull scenes: Tess is home on a summer afternoon with her childhood friend Victoria; Tess is in the kitchen with her dad who is making lunch for the two of them; she’s straightening her room. Without a serious overarching problem write these three scenes and make them interesting.

∙    Keep going with Nadia’s story. Write the scenes that follow; don’t just summarize them as I did.

∙    Write the story from Randall’s point of view.

Have fun and save what you write!


  1. Thanks so much for answering my question, Gail!
    This should really help a lot. :) I like the first prompt, I will have to be sure to do that one! I might even use one of those situations in my novel, if you don't mind....
    Thanks again!

  2. I love the prompts! Actually, the post itself was piquing my interest - I wanted to hear more or Nadia's story! Oh well, I guess I'll just have to write the rest of it on my own - I suppose that's the joy of being a writer:)

    I have a question and I'm not really sure if you can help me or not,but I'll ask just in case.I know you've already written a post on writing fight scenes, but I’m still having trouble. You see, I understand how to narrate a fight scene, but I just don’t have the knowledge of how to plan and explain one. When my brother (who also has limited knowledge of the subject, but it’s more than I have) helps me plan one, I tend to use the exact same words over and over. One time he gently reminded me that there are other words for hitting someone than, “punch.” If I were smart, I never would have written a book with fight scenes in it but…well, obviously I’m not smart. This is two questions in one: first, how do you plot out the scenes, not having any knowledge of what works; and second, how do you write it vividly? I’ve tried looking up fight moves before, but I came up empty. I need help!

  3. Hello!
    I just wanted to tell you how lovely it was to meet you today, at Miami University. I was a girl in the second row with curly hair, who first asked for a signature and then rushed off.

    Anyways, Ella is my favorite book, my comfort book that I've read hundreds of times when I'm traveling or stressed or worried. 13 years after I first read it, it's still an amazing book. The language is sharp and every page is chock full of heart. Thank you.

    I'm about to graduate wih degrees in Theatre and Creative Writing. In two months I'm planning on rushing to LA and hopefully will become a screenwriter. I'll be living in Frell again, for half an hour before I go to sleep.

    Thank you for visiting us! It was a great day.


  4. October 12, 1211? Wow. This blog's been going longer than I realized. :)

  5. Hello!
    I absolutely loved this post! I have a lot of trouble with filler scenes too and this really helped.
    I also have a question. This might seem rather silly of me, but I've always wanted to know. Is your last name pronounced Le-VINE (like a grapevine) or Le-VEEN? I absolutely love it, however it may be pronounced. It's such a good name for an author of fantasy and fairy tales!

  6. writeforfun--I think you need to do more research, maybe talk to some people who know about fighting, like a martial arts instructor, for one. Maybe a gym teacher. And of course a thesaurus will help with the words.

    Charlotte--I remember you! I didn't know you use CHAR or I would have said something. Thanks for the kind words!

    Sophia--It's LeVEEN, not phonetic.

  7. Gail - You're right, I do, I just wasn't sure how. Those are good ideas, though! Unfortunately, I'm home schooled, so I don't have a gym teacher. There is one kid in my church that knows karate; I suppose I could talk to him about it (although I might regret it. He's ten, and he already thinks he's QUITE awesome!)

  8. Writeforfun, I am also homeschooled! So when I write I skim over school stuff, although I lovvvee being homeschooled but it is a bit of a handicap

  9. writeforfun-- I'm homeschooled too, and for me the best way to "experience" things is to RESEARCH! I used o have absolutely no perception on how football worked, so I googled it and found a great article on Another good book on fighting techniques (and other random fantasy tips) is The Complete Guide to Writing Fantasy (vol.1): Alchemy with Words edited by Darin Park and Tom Dullemond. (My favorite author in the book is Tee Morris, who also has the best name.) Hope that helps. You don't need to experience something to write about, which is EXACTLY the point of writing about it! :)
    Oops, I've been pronouncing Levine wrong for all these years... glad someone thought to ask. :O

  10. Agnes - exactly! Sometimes I love it, sometimes I regret it!

    Briana - thanks for recommending that book - I will definitely be trying to find it! I wish I could find such a helpful fighting article as the football one you found! And you're totally right; one of the best parts of writing is the research.

  11. writeforfun, Agnes, and Brianna - I'm homeschooled too! And it's SO hard for people to understand that homeschooling is actually the best way to experience the world! It's WAY better than sitting in school learning about it. And then you get to write about it! Even though you don't need to experience something to write about it, it helps if you do. And I think homeschooled kids have a much better chance of doing just that! :)

  12. I was homeschooled through 5th grade....I wish I still was :(

  13. One more quick copyediting question for Gail...
    After an ellipse (...), is there a space before the next word? Example:
    "No...I don't think so." AND
    "No... I don't think so."
    ?? I've seen it both ways. It seems like there should be a space, and it's driving me loony... :)

  14. Brianna--Opinion seems to differ about spacing when it comes to the ellipsis. THE CHICAGO MANUAL OF STYLE seems to favor no spaces either before or after. Other online sources think otherwise. THE CHICAGO MANUAL OF STYLE suggests, if I'm understanding it right, that you can do as you like as long as you're consistent. Interesting!

  15. Hey'a!
    I'm a big fan of your books and your blog. A writing challenge in the back of Ella Enchanted was what got me to write my first book, and your blog posts are always helpful and interesting.
    That being said, I was wondering if you could give me some tips on coming up with names for what I write. I used to be able to do it, but since November or so, I've barely been able to come up with titles for anything, even once I finish a story. Can you help? Thanks!