Thursday, August 18, 2016

Filler Is Killer: Why Spice Lies in Brevity, Mostly

Even though filler content sometimes has a good reason to exist,
too much of it usually kills the recipient's interest in an artwork.

There is this extremely successful anime called Naruto and Naruto Shippuden. The original manga series started in 1999 and ended in 2014. The anime adaptation premiered in 2002 and still isn't finished.

Because the anime would catch up with the manga at some point they started to release filler episodes. Some function as prequels, some are nice spin-offs ... The main plot didn't progress, but since it takes time for the manga to continue, the existence of filler episodes was fairly reasonable. However, when the manga was officially finished in 2014 ... Well, if you say that the final battle truly started with the reunion of the original Team 7, then the anime version of this final battle started in 2014 and continues to this day. With weekly episode releases.

According to Naruto Shippuden has a filler percentage of 45%. In other words: Almost half of the episodes do not contribute to the main plot! Considering this, it isn't hard to understand all the fans freaking out all over the internet.

Action No One Cares About

Fillers aren't a problem existing only in TV shows. Movies, too, suffer from this phenomenon. Personally I like the first Matrix movie, but as for Matrix Reloaded, I still remember that one endless fight between Neo and Smith. I still remember the shocking realization that despite my love for fighting scenes and special effects I got so bored that I left for the kitchen to make myself a sandwich. When I came back and glanced at the screen I simply had to ask: "Are they still fighting or again?" "Still," my mother answered and I was glad I hadn't missed anything.

All this meaningless action had worked like a commercial break. A perfect occasion to go to the toilet or prepare something to eat without missing anything important. Yet it wasn't a commercial. It was a movie scene that wasn't able to keep its audience's attention.

Pages of Nothing Happening

The problem exists in literature as well. Filler content is what happens when you take the advice "show, don't tell" too literally and overdo it to the point that the story flows over with empty, needless descriptions that fill countless pages with nothing happening. As you may know from another blog post of mine, I really like trash, so I actually tried to read - or rather listen to the audio book version of Twilight. While the first few chapters turned out quite amusing I quit listening somewhere about the middle of the book. The main reason were the extremely repetitive descriptions of Edward Cullen that annoyed me to the point that even after 8 years I still can't stand reading about his "bronze hair". Dear Stephenie Meyer, I'm not stupid. I did get an image of what Edward looks like when reading the first description of him. The rest was unnecessary. Really.

We read or watch a story because we want to learn something new about the characters and the world they live in. A story is something narrated, and narration is the description of a change of state. Narration means: Something is happening. Something is changing. Something is in motion. If you don't provide your audience with motion you're not telling a story. And when a story ceases to be a story it gets boring.

Interactive Storytelling Needs Much Detail

There is, however, an exception. The problem with the examples above is that the reader or viewer has only limited control over his story experience. This is a main feature of linear storytelling. In the case of interactive storytelling what's important and what not is often up to the consumer. In a video game you don't have to study every little detail - it's your choice whether you even look in that direction. Your actions are still limited, of course, you can't leave a certain area or many actions aren't even programmed, but you still have a choice. Interactive storytelling is very much about exploration. How far can you go? What can you do? What secrets are hidden right under your feet? What will happen if you take a certain decision? How will this fictional world react to your actions?

Something that is to be explored needs much detail. Detail the recipient can choose to ignore or take a closer look at. Detail the recipient can choose to interact with. Detail that creates atmosphere and immersion everywhere the recipient can possibly go. This is when potentially irrelevant content becomes important.

Yet even in interactive storytelling there can be fillers: in the form of repetitive side quests, for example, as they exist in Ubisoft's franchises Assassin's Creed and Watch Dogs. Both are overflowing with little missions that seem literally copy-and-pasted just to fill the virtual space with something to do. If you ask me, this kind of filler content isn't any better than the repetitive mention of Edward's "bronze hair". Why build a vast world to explore if you lack ideas for variation?

Even though fillers sometimes do have a good reason to exist, too many usually kill the recipient's interest in an artwork. So please don't spam your story with irrelevant content. As we Germans say: 
In der Kürze liegt die Würze.
(Literally: "The spice lies in brevity.")
How much filler content is acceptable? How much is too much? Share your thoughts in the comments!

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