4 Ways to Cut Fluff and Boost Conflict in Your Writing

G'day, chickadees! I'm so excited to welcome Abria Mattina to our cozy corner of the internet. Let's pull up a chair and see what she has to say about cutting the fluff from our writing, shall we?

Writing fluffy prose is a lot like wandering around an empty parking lot at 3 a.m. It’s pointless and often makes you feel stuck. It’s unnecessary padding; an authorial whim that adds words without adding value to the reader’s experience of the story. Fluff must die.

Elmore Leonard, when asked about his writing and revision process, said, “I leave out the parts that people skip.” Every part of a story needs to pull its weight and draw the reader in. The parts that don’t — definitely fluff.

Pointless fluff will inevitably work its way into your draft as you write. I tend to put much more of my thought process on the page than the reader needs to enjoy the story, and end up cutting enormous chunks out while editing. Overwriting helps me get a grip on my stories and characters, but I know I can’t be precious about these scenes. When it comes time to revise, I have to do it with a chainsaw.

Whether you cut fluff in the post-draft process or as you write, you need a good strategy so you can be strict with yourself and stay consistent. These are four of my favorite ways to cut fluff while boosting conflict.

Combine Minor Characters and Plot Lines

Cut Fluff: Every character should think he or she is the main character in their own version of the story. That means every character, no matter how minor, has individual desires, motivations, biases, and qualities. The more characters you have, the greater your potential for conflict as these characters work together or fail to work together.

But too much conflict (or even smooth cooperation) between minor characters can bloat your book with action that isn't integral to the overall plot. By combining or eliminating minor characters, you'll eliminate their minor conflicts as well.

Boost Conflict: When you eliminate the minor, petty conflicts of your story, you create more room on the stage for your story's central conflicts. Readers will have an easier time focusing on the problems that are paramount to the story.

A streamlined story is easier to appreciate, because there's less to hold in your mind as you read. That's not to say that the story needs to be sparse -- there's plenty of room for subtext, subplots, and nuance. The key is to pare down the bits that aren't driving your plot forward like a sledgehammer through drywall.

Use Character Bias to Set the Scene

Cut Fluff: As a kid, your teachers may have told you to describe settings or "set the scene" from the outside and work your way in. You start with the broad strokes -- time of day, climate, prominent physical features -- and move on sensory details: the smells, sights, sounds, tastes, and tactile sensations.

This is a great way to introduce the concepts of setting to new/young writers, but it's an elementary technique that results in fluffy prose.

Instead, describe your settings according to character bias. If your point-of-view character wouldn't notice the shape of the floor tile, don't mention the floor tile. If s/he is sensitive to smells, focus on scent. Hone the descriptions of your scenes, sharing only what your readers need to know, by focusing on what your characters would notice. It not only reduces fluff, it sharpens the focus of your perspective lens. Readers can't mistake that they're looking through the eyes of one particular character. It not only makes that character memorable, it's a sign of strong characterization and storytelling.

Boost Conflict: What your character notices, fails to notice, or perceives (perhaps incorrectly) can have an enormous impact on the progression of your plot. A mis-observation could send a character off on a wild goose chase, cause them to wrongly blame or suspect other characters, or give them false confidence.

Every interaction with the environment is an opportunity for things to go wrong for the characters. It's a lesson straight out of Plotting 101: things must go wrong for the protagonist, and then go wrong again, and go wrong some more. Seize these opportunities to let your characters take a wrong turn.

Sharpen Your Language

Cut Fluff: Don't use three words where one will do. Popular writers are often remembered for their storytelling ability, but the ones that live on in literature syllabi are usually the authors who made brilliant use of language. They shaped it like blown glass, forming the most poignant sentences in the most succinct, clever, or original terms.

William Shakespeare is a prime example of this technique. Was he the best playwright of his era? No, not really. Were his stories groundbreaking and original? No, not really. But the dude did invent hundreds of words and phrases that are now in common parlance today. His novel use of the language influenced practically the entire English-speaking world. That's part of his enduring popularity -- he could have used staid, common language, but he sharpened his linguistic blade and never stopped jabbing it.

Boost Conflict: Use action-oriented, polarizing, and specific language to emphasize the conflict, define the opposing sides, and escalate the drama… without sliding into melodrama.

A well-told story makes it clear to the reader exactly what is at stake, and relates the characters' attitudes and actions with unshakeable authenticity. Every word is chosen precisely, its punching power calculated for its ability to drive the story forward or influence the reader's perceptions.

As a young author, it was a revelation to me that characterization -- and particularly dialogue -- is just as much about what isn't said as what is said. Subtext is a powerful storytelling tool. It's also difficult to get right if you're not confidently entrenched in your plot, your characters, and your literary voice.

A special thrill runs through me every time I pick up a new book and see that the author was acutely aware of what they weren't saying as they wrote. I think to myself, "Yeah, this is gonna be a good one."

Reverse Outline Your Draft

Cut Fluff: You made an outline before you started drafting this book (you did, right?), but stories have minds of their own and are wont to wander from the original outline as inspiration takes over.

To assess the fluffiness of your story, compose a reverse outline. Open a new document and make a tiered bullet list of everything that happens in your story, as it is currently drafted. With this bird's eye view of the story before you, you'll be able to spot the weak points, the tangents, the deviations that cost you momentum, and can plan your next draft accordingly.

I find I need to take this step when I'm 3/4 of the way through my first draft. That's the point where I feel mentally bogged down by all the plot threads I'm trying to weave. I've been staring at the same story, same characters, same settings, for months, and it all looks like a tangled snare. The reverse outline give me some distance. Reducing the mess to a list of bullet points makes it seem manageable.

Boost Conflict: When you're planning your next round of revisions with the reverse outline, don't just focus on what to cut. Think about what you can add, shift, or expand in order to strengthen your existing conflicts or replace minor conflicts with stronger ones.

This is also a prime point to tackle any sections of your story that give you a niggling feeling of, This just isn't working. You can't ignore those points in bullet list form. Take it as an opportunity to test out alternatives to your current approach. If you’re a visual thinker, try making a story web to explore several alternate plot lines until you find the one that give you chills.

Remember: Perfect Is the Enemy of Good

It’s impossible to erase 100% of the fluff from your prose, because at least some of that fluff comes from personal style. Perfect prose is elusive because the standard is entirely subjective. Regardless of your writing and editing style, aiming for perfection will slowly drive you mad.

The goal isn’t to ruthlessly cut everything you enjoy about your story — to “kill your darlings” by removing style. You’ll sterilize your prose. The goal is to make every sentence, every word, serve your reader’s entertainment. As you trim away the parts that are too long, too wordy, or just irrelevant, remember to boost the conflict along the way. When all is said and done, you’ll be left with a tightly written page-turner that readers won’t want to put down.

Abria Mattina makes resources for genre fiction writers, and is currently at work on two novels. She teaches authors how to turn their book into a lead magnet and build their mailing list organically.

Thanks so much for joining us, Abria! Happy writing!

[Edited October 21, 2019: Abria's website is no longer live, so I've removed any links and will add them back in the future if I discover differently. :) ]