Lately I’ve been reading some stories that suffer from an excess of what I refer to as procedural description. This is description that moves characters from place to place or otherwise handles bits of logistics, organization, or worldbuilding and that isn’t, in and of itself, particularly interesting to read. It’s an easy trap to fall into, and like most traps in the often difficult pursuit of writing fiction, can seem an almost impossible trap from which to escape. You can’t think your way out of it—you have to feel your way out.
Now, I readily admit that sometimes you actually do have to move characters around:
Bronwyn crossed the empty throne room, pulled the tapestry aside to reveal the hidden doorway, stepped through it, then walked down the staircase to the deepest dungeon where she opened the door to the treasure vault.
Before something interesting can happen to Bronwyn in the treasure vault you have to get her there, right?
Your readers need to know how she got there—what path she took—right?
Everyone reading this is keeping a D&D-style graph paper map of the castle, right?
Of course not.
The first question I ask, as an editor, when I run across some bit of procedural description like that is “Why do we care how she got there?” And by “we” I mean your readers. And this is where you have to get brutally honest with yourself. If your answer to that question is “Yes,” be prepared to back that up with more—lots more—than just “because I mapped it out on graph paper myself and want that to have been a useful exercise.”
As I’ve advised before, write as fast as you can, get into that flow state and get words down on paper. But once you start reading through after that first rough draft, constantly ask yourself: “What do my readers need to know right now to move the story forward?” Or, as A.J. Humpage wrote in “Description and Why It’s Important”:
Description isn’t about using pretty words and pages of complicated sentence structures to make a story, it’s about understanding the reason why you use it and when you use it that matters. It’s about conveying important information to the reader in strategic places.
My actual complaint here isn’t whether or not you’ve mapped it out. I’ve made more than my share of “dungeon maps” myself to make sure I’m choreographing things right. The real complaint isn’t that Bronwyn moves through this place, it’s that she moves through with no emotional connection to either the space she’s passing through or the place she’s trying to get to. That’s what you want to focus on once you’ve determined that that bit of “procedure” is necessary to move your story forward. As Ann Swinfen described in “The Role of Description in Fiction,” it very often is necessary and does move your story forward:
I want to create the physical reality of the world in which my books take place. It is very solid and real to me, and I want to share that—the taste of an eel stew in seventeenth century Fenland, the sweet scent of a hay harvest or the choking fumes of parchment curing, the feeling of bitter cold in a Russian winter, the sound of the night offices sung in an abbey church, the shimmer of torches reflected in the dark, fast-flowing waters of the Thames.
So description will always remain an essential part of my fictional worlds. As they exist for me, so I want them to exist for my readers.
I called procedural description a trap before, so how to escape from that trap?
Remind yourself that as your character moves through that space, or picks up a sword, or engages the hyperdrive, that we aren’t machines. We may not love everything we’re doing, we may not burst into tears of either joy or grief every time we turn the key in the ignition or flip on a light switch, but referring you back to a post on what to include in your story and what to leave out, if it’s important that that character engages the hyperdrive at that moment, surely he or she has some feeling about it.
If Bronwyn crosses the empty throne room, that triggers what emotion or memory in her? Or what does that show us about that space that moves the story forward? If the king and his entire family were murdered in the previous chapter then the silent, empty throne room shows that absence, especially if we’ve previously seen the room full of noise and life when the royal family was in attendance. Now that absence wears on Bronwyn, and wears on your readers just the same.
Author Joe M. McDermott moves his POV character onto a light years-distant space station—moves his character from here to there—in his novel The Fortress at the End of Time in an exceptional example of procedural description brought vividly to life by emotional intelligence:
The glass came up and I was born here, on the Citadel.
The moment I had seen gas, I was already here, and the images in my retinas of the place I had been is proof to me that it was real. Once upon a time, there was a place called Earth, and a young cadet named Ronaldo Aldo who had lived at sea with his mother and father, until he went to War College in the ancient Mexican city, and he stepped into a glass tube that quantum cloned him, creating me.
I was born, then, and I was reborn with all the sins still in my heart, my failure with Shui Mien, with my terrible pride.
This is all about what it feels like to move into that place, dragging everything personal about this “young cadet” along for the ride. This isn’t just a change in place but a change in reality for the character and the reader alike. In this excerpt there are precious few words spent on the workings of his unique version of the “ansible” compared to Aldo’s emotional journey through it.
I’ve beaten the “appeal to the five senses” drum over and over here and in my various courses and tutorials, so in this case I’ll leave it to author Robert J. Sawyer to reinforce, from “On Writing: Description”:
The trick is to appeal both to the emotions and to the senses: tell us what people are feeling, what they’re thinking, and, when appropriate, what they’re seeing, hearing, touching, tasting, and smelling.
You have much more control over the reader’s experience than a movie director does. A director can’t be sure what part of the frame any given viewer might be looking at, but when you write “there was permanent dirt under his fingernails, the legacy of decades of archeological fieldwork,” you know exactly what the reader is contemplating.
In some cases, you may find that, unlike the example from The Fortress at the End of Time, you end up spending more words on procedure than on emotional connection, but as you can see in this extended example from the Conan novel The Hour of the Dragon, Robert E. Howard frames all of this movement in and description of the setting through Conan’s direct experience—and Conan is as “direct” a character as has ever been written, so it’s not just how “touchy feely” can you get, but how character appropriate it is.
And more than looking the part, he felt the part; the awakening of old memories, the resurge of the wild, mad, glorious days of old before his feet were set on the imperial path when he was a wandering mercenary, roistering, brawling, guzzling, adventuring, with no thought for the morrow, and no desire save sparkling ale, red lips, and a keen sword to swing on all the battlefields of the world.
Unconsciously he reverted to the old ways; a new swagger became evident in his bearing, in the way he sat his horse; half-forgotten oaths rose naturally to his lips, and as he rode he hummed old songs that he had roared in chorus with his reckless companions in many a tavern and on many a dusty road or bloody field.
It was an unquiet land through which he rode. The companies of cavalry which usually patrolled the river, alert for raids out of Poitain, were nowhere in evidence. Internal strife had left the borders unguarded: The long white road stretched bare from horizon to horizon. No laden camel trains or rumbling wagons or lowing herds moved along it now; only occasional groups of horsemen in leather and steel, hawk-faced, hard-eyed men, who kept together and rode warily. These swept Conan with their searching gaze but rode on, for the solitary rider’s harness promised no plunder, but only hard strokes.
Villages lay in ashes and deserted, the fields and meadows idle. Only the boldest would ride the roads these days, and the native population had been decimated in the civil wars, and by raids from across the river. In more peaceful times the road was thronged with merchants riding to Messantia in Argos, or back. But now these found it wiser to follow the road that led east through Poitain, and then turned south down across Argos. It was longer, but safer. Only an extremely reckless man would risk his life and goods on this road through Zingara.
The southern horizon was fringed with flame by night, and in the day straggling pillars of smoke drifted upward; in the cities and plains to the south men were dying, thrones were toppling and castles going up in flames. Conan felt the old tug of the professional fighting-man, to turn his horse and plunge into the fighting, the pillaging and the looting as in the days of old. Why should he toil to regain the rule of a people which had already forgotten him? Why chase a will-o’-the- wisp, why pursue a crown that was lost forever? Why should he not seek forgetfulness, lose himself in the red tides of war and rapine that had engulfed him so often before? Could he not, indeed, carve out another kingdom for himself? The world was entering an age of iron, an age of war and imperialistic ambition; some strong man might well rise above the ruins of nations as a supreme conqueror. Why should it not be himself? So his familiar devil whispered in his ear, and the phantoms of his lawless and bloody past crowded upon him. But he did not turn aside; he rode onward, following a quest that grew dimmer and dimmer as he advanced, until sometimes it seemed that he pursued a dream that never was.
This is all about that essential difference between telling and showing. Procedural description tells your readers what someone, or worse, something, is doing. What we—your readers—want is for you to show us what it feels like to be in that place and time, doing what your POV character—the person we’ve become in order to experience this story—is experiencing in the moment. I’ve called this “emotional distance,” and will keep calling it that. Always work to decrease the emotional distance between your POV character and your readers, with the ultimate goal of making them one and the same.