Writing advice blog: Padding

Susie Helme

Photo by Marianne Krohn on Unsplash

I have edited or reviewed so many novels that feature a lot of ‘padding’. As a trained journalist, I’ve been schooled to cut out as much of that as possible (though I still err). You want: Who, What, When, and Where, and maybe How and Why. Then you need to stop. If you’re going into detail about how many nostril hairs one can count on the guy’s nose, there has to be a reason why we need to know that.

Writing instructor and mentor Rebecca Horsfall taught us, ‘Never, ever, put something in there just because “it’s interesting”.’ This is a big challenge for me. I have such a hard time ‘killing my darlings’. I’m not talking about that, about waxing lyrical on the history of the Crusades just because I spend days and days researching the Crusades and want you all to know how smart I am. I’m talking about the boring stuff.

I think of my son’s early essays: ‘I went to school and I came home and I ate lunch and I went outside and I played with the dog.’ It was adorable because he was my son and he was, like, five. I expect more grown-up stuff from you. You don’t need to inform me every time you go to the bathroom. So, why should you write it in your novel?

If the story doesn’t have any zombies or dead bodies or chase scenes or ticking timebombs to get the blood pumping, the reader is going to get awfully bored with long stretches of dialogue featuring nothing more interesting than people handing each other beers and saying hello to each other. If the scene is important, why not jump straight into them sitting in the backyard, drinking the beers?

A great example of a writer who knows not to waste our time with the boring stuff is Hilary Mantel. On minute Cromwell is at Austin Friars talking to his son about the king, and in the very next line, he’s walking in the palace gardens with Anne Boleyn, also talking about the king. We don’t need to read, ‘he got on his horse and he rode to the palace and he waited in the courtyard for the guard to announce him and Anne said hello to him and she was wearing a yellow dress and he said hello back’. Who cares whether her dress was yellow? What we’re interested in is what they all thought about the king. Padding takes away the impact from the important stuff.

It may have been Rebecca Horsfall who said—but she wouldn’t have been the first—everything that’s there should be there for a reason.

There are some reasons TO include padding. You need a certain amount of scene-setting, to take the reader along with you into the scene, be as detailed as you want in order to place us right there. If it’s important to the story to establish that Grandma was very welcoming, you can talk about the offers of tea and the invitations to sit down. If you’re doing it to fill out column-inches, cut it out. This is your opportunity to use mot-juste adjectives, poetic metaphors, to flex your muscles as a writer. Make sure you’re doing it in the Voice of your character. Talk about what they see, smell, feel, hear. You also need to Show, through dialogue or description, elements in the personalities of your characters or how they feel about things.

If you’re writing a love story, we don’t need to hear every detail about every date and everything they say to each other. We certainly don’t need to hear them professing their love for each other ad infinitum. Personally, I also don’t want to read details about people having sex, but that’s my personal thing. You only need one scene—or sometimes exposition (description, explanation)—every time there’s a ‘beat’, a shift in the relationship, or a development in the plot.

Anything that doesn’t either accomplish one of the above purposes or move the plot along, delete it.

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