Padding. It’s what happens to clothing, taxes, genital length, margins, and -ton Bears.
It also happens to plots. You don’t realize it’s happening until someone else comes along, because padding is insidious – it weaves its way into sentences and paragraphs and concepts at a foundational level, so you can’t just delete certain paragraphs and excise it. You have to go through word-by-word, line-by-line, and scour everything for the bloat.
That doesn’t sound like a fun job, but it’s actually part of the editorial process I like. I see it the way sculptors see the latter stages of their work, you’re fine-tuning the process with expert taps of a hammer to splinter off material.
Today on FiYoShiMo Day 16, we’re talking about padding a plot. Just the plot. There are other types of padding: sentence, chapter, and act, and they’re each deserving of a blogpost or two on their own, but for now, we’re going broad with plot padding.
Write out your plot. Put it at the top of the page. Take as much space as you need, write as much detail as you like.
Then under that, in a column, write out the biggest plot beats. These are the scenes you NEED to have to hold your story together. Not the names of the scenes, we all know you need a climax, I mean what goes on in the scenes.
A woman has to save her marriage by taking on a second job – a small-time crook – so she can infiltrate the crime syndicate she believes her husband is a part of.
The marriage falls apart
She suspects him of infidelity
She follows him
She discovers the Syndicate
She discovers how to join the Syndicate
Her first robbery
The police get involved
Her string of robberies
The Syndicate makes her an offer
The police get closer
She joins the Syndicate
Her husband reveals other secrets
The police and Syndicate square-off
She faces a terrible decision between marriage, police, Syndicate
You can’t remove any of those elements and leave the story intact. Whether they’re specific scenes or if I could later fold some ideas together is something that can happen later, but for now I want as much clarity as possible.
This is like when you spill all the Legos into a pile then sort them by size before you get frustrated that it’s taking so long, so you just start building. Seriously, take the time to sort your pieces out. The building will happen, just do this first.
What I’ve got above is the main plotline. There aren’t any minor characters here: no kids, no other family or neighbors, no co-workers or anyone like that. I’m only working with the protagonist, her husband, the Syndicate and the cops (it’s unclear who the antagonist is right now, that’s fine), and that’s just so I see the skeleton of the story.
Where could I add things? Well I could add kids. I could make them the B-plot. I could add neighbors or friends who do something tangential to the story, I could give the wife a best friend as a sidekick. I could write a Syndicate goon for a little comic relief. Plenty of room for character-based expansion.
What if I expanded the world? There’s no world in that list, I could set this in any city on any planet at any time. I just need a place where people are married, there are criminals and there are law enforcement.
It’s okay that I don’t know how many words I’ll devote to each part, who knows how long it would take me to write out the bad marriage opening, because I don’t need that kind of boundary yet. Everything is open and there are no limitations. Those decisions come later. Right now the only decision is whether or not something gets written about at all, not how much gets written about it.
The story does need some B-plot. I like B-plot, it gives the reader a little breathing room, and it gives me more characters and situations to explore in the MS. In a second column, I’d detail some B-plot. Let’s give her a friend, and make them the suspected paramour. All that info goes into a second column, like this:
You put your B-plot in its own column parallel to your main plot so you can see how things dovetail together. Also, working vertically allows you to see that all the elements in the column form an arc.
So far, there’s not explicit padding, but now I’ve added room for padding. How much detail do you use to cover the consolation and suspicion of her friend? I’d need a transition between suspecting the friend and letting the friend tag along on a crime spree. I’d need to spend some time developing the friend to be well-defined. All of those spots are chances for me to get a little long-winded. (Me? Long-winded? I know, you’re shocked)
Padding happens when you detour, when the boundaries and organization get a little mushy or thin. I don’t think I need a second B-plot, I don’t think there needs to be kids in this story, so there’s no third column. Sure I could write it, but does it really need to be there? What would it add to the story, aside from word count? The story focuses on this woman and her decisions, and the B-plot already reinforces that.
Padding happens when any part of the story could stand to be reinforced, but instead you distract from it. It’s very much stage magic, where you look at one hand while the other is palming the card.
Padding happens for a lot of reasons: a lack of confidence in plot, a want to show off your word skills, a hunt for validation and praise, thinking that writing more words will cover up the fact that you’re not great at wielding words, a lack of decision making, and those are just the common ones I see enough times that I can list them off the top of my head.
The solution is to trust yourself and make some decisions. I’m not saying that all stories need to be slippery smooth with no fat on them. You don’t need to trim everything down in some minimalist fashion, and you shouldn’t. But you do need to give yourself some boundaries.
How far is too far? When you’re multiple scenes and pages removed from plot. When you’re losing yourself to minutiae and extraneous detail. When you’re putting stuff in and telling yourself that you can just cut it out later. Challenge yourself to write stuff for more reasons than “it can just come out later.”
A manuscript is neither gaunt nor obese. There’s quite a range of healthy size between those extremes. It’s such a range that I don’t usually assign broad wordcount to it, because 75k is as valid as 64k is as valid as 81k, if the words are all working together to deliver the ideas.
There’s a lot to unpack and digest here, and we’re going to get more into it tomorrow, when we talk about Plot Interruption. See you then. Today, keep writing. Keep thinking about your plots. Keep developing, and keep deciding.