The Attraction of the Procedural

There’s a general rule in writing, one that probably should go without saying but it is violated regularly. It’s simply this: Everything you write should advance the plot and build your characters. When I criticize my own writing on this metric (which I should do more often), I chunk things by paragraph. Did that paragraph move the plot AND develop character? No? That paragraph’s not working hard enough then.

If Robert Jordan had had a decent editor or some ability to see his own work objectively, his Wheel of Time series might not have spiraled into unreadable disaster, filled with entire chapters of fluff. As the books got thicker, the number of things that actually happened decreased.

Of course, during NaNoWriMo, that metric is thrown out the window. This is about quantity, not quality. It’s perfectly all right to have non-performing paragraphs in a first draft; that’s what revisions are for. Over the last week and a half, I’ve written a lot of non-performing paragraphs. I’m even giving Jordan a run for his money.

I had no intention of writing a procedural, but it turns out I’m writing a lot of scenes that fall into that category. In a procedural, the author liberally sprinkles long passages through the book that are merely lists of things people did. In my case, the procedures are usually medical. First the doctor did this thing, then that thing, then another thing. It’s all very technical and makes the author sound like an expert, but it doesn’t move the story. It’s filler. Filler that procedural fans may enjoy if done well, but the only thing the story would lack without all that detail is page count.

(I’m pretty sure my long scene in which the doctor inserts a tube into the lung of a pneumonia sufferer is ludicrously inaccurate.)

In my limited exposure to procedurals (mostly on TV), all that stuff is used to make a story fit in the expected size. A novella becomes a novel (with a novella-sized plot), a 30-minute drama becomes a 44-minute drama (with 14 minutes of test tubes and music).

Or, in the case of my NaNoWriMo effort this year, 10% plot, 30% procedures, and 60% aimless drifting and tedious conversations about things not germane to the story. (Some of the conversations are interesting, I think, they just aren’t connected to anything.) Not my best November effort. Not by a long shot.

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