I am writing a book, and no matter how much I have going on during a given day, I make sure to spend at least an hour on it. A few days ago, about a third of that hour was spent researching Filipino dishes. As I began googling, I worried that I was wasting my writing time. Or rather, the invisible critic looking over my shoulder mocked me for wasting my writing time. I believe its exact words were “isn’t this just an excuse for procrastination, you loser hack?” In retrospect, I’m glad I ignored it. I’ve used research as procrastination before, but I’ve broken that habit, and this time, it was necessary.
I don’t have much trouble with the big scenes; the foreboding setups, the twists, the climaxes and resolutions and so on. The ones that give me trouble are the scenes that have to get me from each of those to the next. They are the scenes between the characters meeting and having the big fight that threatens the relationship, which show the readers what each character is like, which in turn makes the readers decide whether they want the characters to stay together or not. They are the scenes which show the conflicts of personality and prevent the fight from being a plot device that springs from nowhere.
My metaphor for these scenes is packing peanuts, because that encompasses what they are at both their best and their worst. Imagine a story as a package you are sending to the reader. The shiny toy or appliance or whatever else is in the package is the essence of the story; the major characters, the big events, everything that would go into Wikipedia summary of the book. The journey the package takes from your house to theirs is the actual reading of the book, and only once the last page has finished does the reader have your story. Just as a packages often require packing peanuts to get to their destination in one piece, a book needs to be more than just the major events. It needs descriptions, quiet moments of introspection, foreshadowing, small scenes that don’t further the plot much but do help the reader understand the characters and the world they live in.
However, when there are too many of these scenes, or they are written sloppily, they become dreaded “filler.” In this metaphor, those are those boxes so stuffed with packing peanuts that as you root around for the actual product, you wonder if you were shipped an empty box by mistake. Or perhaps they are those plastic shells that are impossible to take off without slicing your finger open. They get in the way of the reader getting to the story, instead of helping it to get to them.
They are often also the hardest to teach someone how to write, because, just as you have to adjust the packaging to every package, you need different packing peanut scenes for each story. They are also what make your story unique. Its in these scenes that you have the space to shape your characters into people more than just Spunky Sidekick or Messiah Archetype. It’s where you make your villain’s traitorous reveal seem like it sprung from who they are, not the dictates of the genre.
These scenes need to be told as vividly and carefully as any other in your story. I find that to write a scene, whether a major event or a packing peanut, its not enough for me to know what’s happening. I need to see it. I need to smell it. In the scene I was working on, my character’s sister’s boyfriend is meeting the family, and my character doesn’t want to deal with him. She is, for very good reasons, terrible with people, and while she wants him to feel welcomed she also can’t stand being around him and her sister and their lovey-dovey normality. She tries to escape the situation without offending anybody by hiding out in the kitchen, and I realized I didn’t know what was in there. I made a list of Filipino foods, I looked up how to cook them, I put myself in the head of the cook to decide which one he was making that night (this one is too difficult, that one too expensive, this one not special enough for the occasion), all so that, when I wrote the scene from the perspective of the character making her escape, I would know exactly what the kitchen smelled like, and what dishes were piled in the sink. Twenty minutes of research for a few sentences in a scene most readers won’t remember by the time they get to the end, but that would make that scene real in my head. Because it was real in my head, in came out feeling real on the page, and because it felt real on the page, that packing peanut will get the readers to the scene where… well, spoilers. Point is, it was worth it.