Pile the bricks without the mortar
Let me tell you this very exciting story real quick. You know what? I just tell you the payoff, so you don’t have to wait for it. Of course, this is exaggerated. We all know, that suspension is important, but this is not, what I want to talk about in this section. It’s about an often overlooked or badly handled element of storytelling: The filler scene.
Filler scenes are boring, and you skip them as a reader, wondering why the author was such a fool to build them in? You, as an author, agree and don’t write them at all? Is your story still a joy to read? I hope so, but oftentimes, it's like forgetting the salt: It’s not the main ingredient but without it, you instantly know that something is missing. And guess what, filler scenes are not limited to being written by bad authors who happen to not know any better. Without a few exceptions (one of them being the show Orphan Black on Netflix), filler scenes are an integral part of the plot. So there must be a reason for them to exist and be deliberately placed where they end up to be consumed by us.
One thing is often figuratively referred to as a “chance to exhale”. People who understand that can orchestrate their pacing remarkably well. But it’s more than that. What if I told you that filler scenes don’t have to be boring? Even though if they appear to be it on the surface, I would even go so far as to say, it shows some mastery if you know what to put, what to hide in filler scenes. If readers both get a chance to exhale and get little hints—even if they are more like metaphors—we might see these filler scenes in a different light. It’s like in a song: The loud instruments capture our attention, but you can easily hide little mistakes in a crescendo of thunder. When it comes to the soft parts of the song, even to solos, there you can see the little details, because nothing distracts you.
The undeceived reader and the bilateral arc
You have probably seen shows where they do a little flashback or flashforward as a cold opening and show you the exact opposite of what the character is currently heading to, which seems like an absolute contradiction. A child might go, “No! No! No! That’s impossible!” but we, as undeceived readers and watchers, “know” that it is very possible. We know, it’ll happen as promised. Even though, we have no idea, how this contradiction will finally be resolved. This is the first thing to get right as a writer: Create situations that are seemingly and convincingly impossible to escape. Don’t forget that we, as authors, are in control of what we show and what we hide to direct our readers' attention.
Second thing is that we can’t go and resolve this straight. We have to mislead our readers first. This is called a “red herring”—a plot device, we already talked about in an earlier post, so I’m not going into details of how it works. Of course, the undeceived reader anticipates red herrings—even though they might not know the term or how exactly that works, but they feel it in their gut—so of course, there have to be multiple layers of deception just like in the movie Inception.
Third and last thing is, how to resolve it. Of course, there’ll be a plot twist or an epiphany of sorts at some point, but it’s crucial to do it right. Otherwise, all the work we put into the first and second step doesn’t pay off. I have seen cases where it doesn’t work: Sure, you can say, the solution is something, the readers didn’t think of, but if it is something, they didn’t think of because it is impossible, and you can’t make it possible, you are lazy and that’s not how it works. That doesn’t mean, you can’t make things appear impossible from a certain point of view—because that’s what it’s all about: The reader’s perspective and the author’s perspective. They are not the same, and they aren’t for a reason. So, now we got a reason that doesn’t feel like utter nonsense after all after first reading the story. But what if we read the story from end to beginning, or just re-read it? Would it still make sense? Some lazy writers resolve stories in a way, that only works unilaterally—not full score, then.
Object permanence—or are you an infant?
I know, it’s the main character’s story, but that doesn’t mean, all the other characters have to be flat and boring. They might have things going on, the main character only catches peripherally. You don’t have to hide them, and neither do you have to elaborate on them in great detail. And who knows, maybe the story, the main character, and/or the relationship to the side character might benefit from that at some point.
“is the moon there when nobody looks”
— Albert Einstein
It’s not a computer game where the gaming engine only renders what you see. Characters aren’t put into a puppet box when they aren’t needed at that time. You know, it’s the same with your friends, don’t you? Or are you anthropocentric?
Love-hate relationships and hate-hate relationships
On a side note, when you say “I hate this character”, have you noticed that it might not be clear what you mean by this? Okay, let’s make that a little more clear: On one hand, we have a side character, boring as hell, but they sneak into scene after scene for no logical reason until we freak out. On the other hand, we have a villain who does truly terrible stuff, and even if there is no reasonable chance to succeed with their evil plans this time, they manage to do so against all odds and cause even more misery which makes you curious on how they might have pulled that off. You probably feel that your two feelings towards them are not the same. Even though they both upset you in a way, the reasons are distinctively different from each other.
While the first scenario is possibly bad writing, the second one is probably the very opposite. Although we hate to admit it, we love that villain for his ability to fuel hate in us like they were real. And if they were real, we’d actually hate them.
In conclusion, we can say, these two feelings apply to different aspects of the story: Hating the boring character is more like a real-life feeling while hating the villain is more like a canonical feeling. People often confuse these two by harassing actors and actresses in these roles because they think, they must be evil in real life because they’d done that so convincingly on screen. On one hand, this is a compliment, but on the other, it’s nonetheless relevant to criminal law, and they don’t deserve that.
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