Key points: blocking is how you let the reader know about the setting, characters, and their relative motions. Try to make your blocking also convey how the character feels about something. Make sure your blocking is clear. Use blocking early to set up later actions. Blocking also is good for beats, reminding readers that there is action around the dialogue. Use rough blocking to keep writing, then fix it later. Use blocking to convey a passage of time without dialogue. Establish terrain before using it. Use diagrams to get it right. Make your scene interesting and emotionally powerful, then make sure everyone is standing in the right places.
[Mary] Season eight, episode 18.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Blocking.
[Howard] 15 minutes long.
[Mary] Because you're in a hurry.
[Dan] And we're not that smart.
[Brandon] I'm Brandon.
[Dan] I'm Dan.
[Mary] I'm Mary.
[Howard] I'm moving to the left, swiftly.
[Brandon] Okay. Let's talk about blocking. We will also do a little bit about fight sequence stuff in here, because blocking is very important to fight sequences. However, I do believe we've done like an actual fight sequence episode, so we'll try not to repeat ourselves too much. Let's define blocking. This is actually a stage term. So, Mary, I'm going to give it to you.
[Mary] Certainly. Blocking refers to where the actors, or in this case, your characters are on the stage and where they have to move on the stage. So point A to point B, and where the starting and ending positions...
[Brandon] As we use this in writing terms, it's the way by which you make the reader aware of where everyone is standing, where they are moving, and where they are in relation to one another. So this can be vitally important, and it can be also completely unimportant in some scenes.
[Mary] That's true. One of the things that I'm just going to add to that, that you have to do in writing that you do not have to do on stage is you also have to tell people where the scenery is.
[Brandon] Yes, you do. That's right.
[Howard] Yeah, I was going to say where the people are in relation to each other and where they are in relation to the gun on the mantelpiece.
[Brandon] All right. So, let's talk to our listeners about how to do this correctly and how to not do this. Now sometimes I say it's not that important. It really depends, we say this every week, on the type of writing you're doing. 90% of the cases, this is going to be very important. For instance, in the beginning to Ender's Game that you've already mentioned a couple months back, it was not so important because it was just supposed to be a white room. However, most of your stories are not happening in a white room with disembodied voices speaking to one another. In that case, your reader is going to want to imagine and visualize what's happening. Now this as always is going to be a balance. You don't want to put in so much blocking and detail that you're weighing the story down, yet you want to give enough that they are able to evoke the image in their heads that they want to.
[Mary] I find that where possible, I try to have my blocking do two things. On stage, we say action is reaction. That where you move is part of conveying how the character feels about something.
[Brandon] Okay. Excellent.
[Mary] So when I'm doing that on the page, I feel like it's very much the same thing. That if I'm taking the trouble to move my character, that I am doing it for a reason.
[Howard] If... Let me give you a sentence. "He stepped closer and lowered his voice." In the context of a conversation, this could be a romantic moment that's getting more romantic, or it could be a violent moment impending. Either way, what you've conveyed there is, I think, much more effective than saying, "He said angrily," or "He said tenderly."
[Brandon] Right. This is a show, don't tell sort of thing. One thing to keep in mind with blocking is when I run into troubles with blocking, it's because I'm taking a reader out of the story because I haven't done my blocking correctly. For instance, sometimes as I'm doing revisions, I'll run across a line edited by the editor... Recently it's been Harriet with A Memory of Light. I'll say the character did such and such. She's like, "Wait a minute. That character was on a horse." I'm like, "Well, to me, I conveyed rode up and then entered the building as being..." But in her head... Wait a minute. She just put the horse in the building because I didn't say got off the horse and went in the building. Some of these things are going to be details that you don't think are necessary. You're going to have to decide as a writer how far you go. Usually, I want to be as clear as possible, so if even a certain small percentage of people are going to be confused, is the horse entering the building? I want to be as clear as possible, because a horse could enter a building. It would be a very different scene if he rode the horse right in through the doors and said something. So...
[Mary] Yes. At the same time, when you're doing this, you do not want to be so clear and detailed that it's, "He rode up to the horse. He rode up to the horse? He rode up to the house, swung his left leg over the back of the horse, feeling the strain of the ride..." You don't need to describe every single moment. You can, in fact, just say he rode up to the building, got off the horse, and went in.
[Dan] All of this depends, again, on what you're trying to convey.
[Dan] If you want to make a specific point about how much he loved this horse, then you'll spend a few lines telling us that he tied him up gently and patted him on the neck and gave him an apple or whatever because that says something important about the character.
[Mary] Yes. That gets back to the thing that I was saying where I try to make sure that my blocking is doing something, that I'm having someone move for a reason. One of the things that you can also do is set up an action later with your blocking beforehand. For instance, if I need a character to pick up a gun from a table, instead of having him cross to the table right when he needs to pick it up, I can move him to the table on a line earlier, and have that express some emotion. Like, in the heat of the moment, he turned away from her and strode over to the table. Then he's right by the table, I already have him there, and I've already said that there is a table in this room.
[Brandon] Right. Another thing to use blocking for, we've mentioned before, is beats. Meeting at the start of a sentence, it gets a little bit boring sometimes to always say he said or she said, yet you do need to keep repeating these things sometimes in stories where there are three or more people having a conversation together. So you will use short blocking beats to remind the reader that this is happening in a room, that there are other people there, that people are moving around, that things are happening. The balance is not to distract from the conversation, but if you say Mary slammed her hands down on the table, that is what we call a beat. The next line that comes will be hers, unless it's on another line. You don't then have to say she said.
[Mary] Sometimes when I am unclear as I'm writing about what exactly is in the room or what that body language is, but I have the... I've got the flow of the dialogue going, I've got the energy. I will go ahead and what we call from Peter, rough block it. So I'll say... I'll have my line of dialogue She turn... I can't believe you said that. Then I'll have bracket body language bracket. I'll come back and fill letting later so that I know exactly what it is that I want them to do. Basically, I write the script and then figure out the blocking afterwards sometimes.
[Mary] Not all the time, but every now and then, that's very useful for me.
[Howard] Another thing that blocking can be used for is to convey a passage of time that might not be clear. There are lulls in conversation. If you say, "Nobody said anything for a minute," that's kind of boring. But "Bob put his hands in his pockets and scuffed one foot against the floor, looked around at Mary, looked at Dan, looked back at his feet, and then said something..." You've conveyed the passage of time and you've conveyed some emotion in a way that you couldn't convey otherwise.
[Brandon] Man, Howard, you're good at this for somebody who never actually has to write it, who can always cheat.
[Howard] You know it's really tricky for me, is communicating that passage of time in the comic strip without having to draw a bunch of pictures that have no text. The solution for me is to draw pictures that have no text. It's... Every so often, I will throw in a scene break... A little scene break bar that indicates time has passed, the setting may have shifted a little bit, and often that's a setup for a punchline. But if I have characters who have been yelling at each other and now they are going to scowl, I have to draw them scowling and I have to trust the reader not to just scan past that panel. "Oh, this isn't important, there's no dialogue." No, look at them. I put that picture there for a reason.
[Brandon] Let's do our book of the week. Our book of the week is Monster Hunter Alpha.
[Howard] I'd be happy to plug this. Monster Hunter Alpha is the third in Larry Correia's Monster Hunter International series. First book was the one that put him on the map. This third book is a little different from the first two in that our protagonist is not Owen Pitt, it is... It's the werewolf boss.
[Dan] Earl Harbinger.
[Howard] Yes, Earl Harbinger. Without going into any more detail, I'll just say that it's lots of fun and full of action scenes that Larry has carefully blocked out. He's pretty good at blocking the action so that you can tell what's going on, so there's tension happening. This is a good one to have a look at.
[Brandon] All right.
[Howard] Or to have a listen to. Go to audiblepodcast.com/excuse, start a 30 day trial membership, and download a copy of Monster Hunter Alpha by Larry Correia for free.
[Brandon] Very good. So, how do we do this... Oh, Mary, you wanted to jump in?
[Mary] I was about to answer that question.
[Brandon] Well, how do we do this and what advice could you give our listeners?
[Mary] The thing that I would say first of all is that you want to establish your geography before you have to use it. So that means taking a few moments to establish what terrain we're in.
[Howard] The establishing shot.
[Mary] Yes. This is... I'm going to point out a... Jackie Chan films, the early Jackie Chan films, the fight scenes were excellent at establishing the geography and showing you where everything was before he started to use it. The way...
[Howard] Oh, my goodness, there's a step ladder.
[Mary] Exactly. And what is he doing with that? Jackie Chan films that are shot Hollywood style, the more recent ones are terrible at this because he doesn't have as much creative control. They will get so tight in that you can't tell where the action is happening, just that there's a lot of action. That gets very confusing. On the page, where you can only show the reader one thing at a time, the importance of giving them that information in the order in which they need it becomes really huge.
[Dan] If you don't set up your location before it's required, really what you're doing is a very small scale deus ex machina. All of a sudden your character needs a gun on the table and oh, good, I just added one in one sentence before he needed it...
[Mary] One of the tricks again when you're rough blocking something is to... This happens on stage sometimes, that the director will run up, put the gun on the table, and then you go back later and figure out when... How that gun gets there. It's okay...
[Howard] Now, that said, it's okay. Bob reached into the desk drawer. Mary screamed something at Bob. Bob pulled his hand out of the desk drawer. There was now a gun in it.... In his hand.
[Howard] Let me fix...
[Dan] Bob put a gun in the desk drawer and closed it. "I'm not going to shoot you," said Bob.
[Mary] As you know...
[Howard] But you see... Showing the hand go into the desk drawer, showing something come out of a hiding place isn't deus ex machina.
[Dan] Yeah. That's when you're specifically trying to surprise somebody.
[Mary] However, pulling it out of a desk that you didn't know was in the room in the first place? That's problematic.
[Dan] That's the Bill and Ted scene. We really need a garbage can right there. Bink! There it is.
[Mary] If you're having trouble with this, one trick I use sometimes is I will go ahead and draw a diagram. I'll do the ground plan where I show everything from above and kind of move it around. Sometimes I will even act the thing out in a room. If I am really having trouble. It's like, "How long does it take me to cross a room?" Here's a blocking thing, very small blocking thing that drives me crazy in books. People who are drinking beverages and it's like the number of cups of coffee that someone will go through in a single scene would be enough to hospitalize most people. And whiskey... What are they doing? It's like actually think about how long it takes to drink a glass of milk. How long it takes to eat popcorn before you have your character get up and get more of it.
[Dan] I love your idea of diagramming a scene or a room, because I did that at the end of my book A Night of Blacker Darkness. Because that book was heavily based on the kind of stage play farces like Noises Off. So when I get to the final sequence where everyone's closing doors and the right person has to be in the right place, I did. I diagrammed what the whole floor plan of the house looked like so that I could do it right.
[Mary] What are the tricks you use, Brandon?
[Brandon] I was about to say, we should talk a little bit about fight sequences. Blocking wise, I kind of rely on the reader a lot. In fact, blocking is one of those things that I frequently get wrong in first draft. We talked about my story The Emperor's Soul. There's only one sequence in there where the blocking matters a lot, but the blocking was fairly off in my early draft. It would confuse people about what she was doing where and things like this. Fight sequences are where that really comes to a head for a lot of people because people are rushing about and they're getting intermixed and it is very important to know what specific characters are doing. So for fight sequences, I actually... I write them through going with the rhythm of the moment, what's exciting, what's interesting. My cardinal rule... We talked about this in the fight scenes podcast, my cardinal rule is to be interesting. Simple blow-by-blow is not interesting. The simple blow-by-blow is actually the blocking. Who is hitting who, where they're standing, all of these things. That's important. I add it in afterward. I make sure I have a scene that's interesting, that's emotionally powerful for the character. Then I make sure that they're all standing in the right places.
[Dan] I really like the fight scene in your novella The Emperor's Soul because it's basically a short story in which there's a very... Two very clear arcs. One is I wonder how I can take these skeletons down. She figures out that by removing certain bones, she can do it. The second one is can I kill them before they do enough damage that I can't hurt them anymore. So it's a very clear I've dropped one but I took this wound in the arm so I'm weaker now. Now that limits my ability to fight the next one. You can follow that very clearly through.
[Brandon] Yeah. You make a narrative structure. I like my fight sequences to each have a mini-narrative structure with delineated goals and objectives. Breaking it down very... To its most simple parts. Can I survive long enough... Can I get them all before I'm too wounded to fight back? Or how do I wound them? That sort of thing works very well for me in a fight scene.
[Howard] I've seen fight sequences done in obviously lots of different ways, but the way I categorize it is, in terms of done right, there is the solid blocking, where you know pretty much everything that's happening which is what happened in The Emperor's Soul. Then there's what Larry Correia described as the screaming slap fight where you've got fog of war going on and the point of view character can't really tell where the bullets are coming from or where the fists are coming from. It's the authorial equivalent of shaky cam. It's much more effective than shaky cam, because shaky cam just disorients the viewer and makes us angry and nauseous. Michael Bay, are you listening? Whereas this technique gets you inside of the character's head and helps you to feel the fog of war the way that character would feel it.
[Brandon] Right. When I'm doing a sequence like that, my trick is to fog of war, everything is chaotic, zoom in on the single individual fight. Then once that's done, we look up and we see a little bit of what's going on, like the fog lifts a little bit, but then it's still chaos and whatnot and you focus in on the individual fight again. So it's kind of a back-and-forth, it's like the narrative rhythm we talked about before within the fight itself.
[Dan] The specific blocking that you use and the amount of knowledge that you give your characters can say a lot about how competent they are.
[Mary] Absolutely. One of the things that... Believe it or not, I do have fight sequences in my Regency, but one of the things that I do is because my POV character is not experience at this, she will look away from the fight for a moment and then look back and I have moved everybody. So I've... Instead of having to explain the entire fight sequence, I can just show you the beginning and the end of it. Which is handy sometimes. It's cheating, but I'm very fond of that.
[Brandon] It's not cheating in the stories you write.
[Mary] No, it's not cheating in those. In others, it would absolutely be cheating.
[Brandon] Yup. All right. Let's do a writing prompt.
[Mary] Write a fight scene.
[Brandon] Okay. Let's add something on top of it. You're going to write a fight scene and I want you to have four people involved...
[Dan] You're going to write a Jackie Chan fight scene.
[Mary] No, four people is too many to juggle at first.
[Brandon] I think four is good. It's going to force them to stretch.
[Mary] Because you're a novel writer.
[Brandon] It's going to force them to stretch. Four people, fighting and keeping track of them all and where they are.
[Howard] One of them can die early.
[Brandon] Yeah. One of them can die early. You don't think... You think four people is a lot, huh? For a fight scene?
[Mary] I think when you're learning to write things...
[Dan] You went to a different high school than Brandon did.
[Mary] Oh, I know. Gotta watch those Mormon boys.
[Brandon] That's right.
[Howard] So, single POV... Single POV? Fight scene?
[Dan] Write a fight scene. Details are up to you.
[Brandon] This has been Writing Excuses. You're out of excuses, now go write.
[Howard] A fight scene...
[Brandon] Between Mary and Brandon.