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Monday, January 29, 2018

How to Handle Blocking

Hopefully by now you know that in most of your scenes you need to have a character in a setting with tension, but there is an area of writing where I don't feel like we spend enough time talking about, which is blocking. And I'm not talking about writer's block.

The term "blocking" is borrowed from play performances. Blocking is just about anything an actor does that isn't dialogue: where they stand, where they look, how they interact with the setting, how they move across the stage, how close they are to what, how they interact with props. Often audiences pay little attention to blocking, or rather they don't think about it enough to appreciate it.

But if a play has little to no blocking, well, that's a tough play to sit through as an audience. They may not always have an eye for great blocking, but they'll notice if it's not there.

Blocking is just as important in fiction writing. And like with plays, it's likely the reader won't appreciate great blocking, but they'll get antsy and annoyed if there is no blocking, and they'll get confused if there is poor blocking.

If you don't use blocking, not only does it make it difficult for the audience to imagine where your characters are relative to the setting, but you're selling your story short by not using it to your advantage.

As an editor, I see blocking problems crop up from time to time, usually in dialogue scenes. The writer will tell me where the characters are (for example, cooking in the kitchen), but then as I read the scene, I get no sense of specifically where each character is in the room, what each one is doing, if they are standing at an island or sitting at the table, chopping lettuce for a salad, or loading the dish washer. Next thing I know, not only are they done cooking, but they are done eating and are outside getting in the suburban.

Sure, some scenes don't require much, if any, blocking. But in most scenes, you need some sense of blocking.

Likewise, you can over-block a scene--putting so much blocking in, that it becomes unnecessary, sucks up the scene's focus, and slows the pacing.

A great narrative hand knows how much to guide the reader and when to back off.

So let's get to some tips about blocking:

Watch out for:

 - Continuity Errors. One of the main problems I see with blocking in unpublished fiction is continuity errors. In one line, a character is sitting on a couch in the living room, and a few lines later, she's sitting on her bed, in the same scene with no sense of motion. Often it can happen with objects characters are holding. Misty is knitting a scarf, but then a few lines later, it says she's knitting a blanket. It can happen with food. Zack has a cup of orange juice, but later it talks about how he's enjoying the taste of coffee.

Watch out for when characters' hands are full or when you have them doing something they aren't capable of. For example, say it's been recently established that Sandra glued back together two broken figurines and she's holding one each hand. While she's waiting for them to dry, she doesn't dare put them down , and then suddenly she's buttoning up the jacket of her little boy. What happened to the figurines?

In some cases, motions can be assumed--but make sure they can be, or that you imply them somehow, so that it doesn't read like a continuity error.

Watch out for having characters sit down, who were already sitting, or characters standing up who were already standing. Characters who put on their shoes twice, or turn off the fan twice.

- Spatial Vagueness. I'm trying to decide if I see this one more than continuity errors . . . and I have to say probably. Another one of the most common problems with blocking, is vagueness. This usually happens because the setting, objects, or characters' distances from one another or other things haven't been properly established. I might get a line that says, "Joey walked down the street"--and as the scene goes on, I get no sense of what street, what city, what it looks like, what season it is, or where or why he is walking in the first place. Sometimes I don't get any sense of setting and only conversations and body language, and next I know, I read the line "Tiff walked inside." What? They were outside that whole conversation? And what did she walk into?

When blocking is vague, the audience has to fill in the blanks, which can be a problem if it's not what the author actually pictures. As an editor, this often happens to me. I'll be picturing the characters sitting in opposite places in a living room, and then suddenly I'm reading how one put her arm around the other. In my head, they weren't close enough to each other to do that.


- Specificity. Being specific isn't necessarily the same as being detailed. Details can help make something be specific, but they aren't the same thing. And with blocking, in some cases, the more detailed it is, the more it hurts the story because it slows the pacing and changes the story's focus. In my example above, "Joey walked down the street," the sentence can be more specific by adding and changing a few words. "Joey walked down Mulberry Street, autumn leaves crunching under his feet."

In certain kinds of action scenes, it can be very important to be specific in word choice, and not in details. "Joey leapt for the fire escape." "Margaret hit Lolly in the jaw." But if you try to put too much detail into action, it can slow the moment way down.

In some cases, it's helpful to establish the setting before the characters start interacting with it. This makes the setting or "stage" more specific in the reader's mind. They know there is a pool table and pinball machine in the room, so when one character slams the other into the pool table, it makes sense. Be specific, not vague. How much detail you include depends on pacing and the focus of the scene.

- Blocking to contribute to or emphasize points. This is especially true for conversations. As an argument gets more intense, a character may invade the other's personal space. If one character suddenly says something that makes the other uncomfortable, the latter may take a step back. If one character is vulnerable, whether the second draws closer or steps away can convey a lot.

Of course, you can use setting and props to do the same thing. As an argument gets intense, one character throws something at the other. If someone is uncomfortable, she might put something (an island, a couch, a car, a teeter-totter) between them. If she's feeling vulnerable, she might "hide" or "block" herself by getting a blanket, picking up a book to look at, or turning away from the speaker to pretend interest in a rose bush.

When Sherlock gets frustrated, what does he do? He stabs the mantle. He puts a bullet in the wall.

This is blocking that emphasizes and contributes to the situation or point at hand.

Even in a scene where blocking is the primary focus (building an invention, competing in America Ninja Warrior, forging a sword, hunting), how the character interacts with the setting and objects can emphasize points--how tightly he holds a screwdriver, how sweaty her hands are against a climbing wall, the way he beats the metal, how many shots she shoots.

You can also use blocking to heighten tension. "He picked up a knife and concealed it under the table," immediately adds tension and anticipation to a scene.

- Blocking to Convey Character. Similar, yet different from, the last section, you can use blocking to convey character, rather than just the moment at hand. The fact that Sherlock stabs the mantle whenever he gets frustrated is something specific to his character. It helps establish who he is. And actually, that fact becomes specifically important in season four--when we understand that he, someone who is supposedly not driven by emotion, sometimes manifests more raw emotion than any one else.

A character who sees litter at a park and picks it up is much different than one who adds to it. A character who comforts a crying stranger is different than one who ignores them. A character who always makes sure she's near an exit is different than one who could care less. Blocking is great to show character and their feelings, rather than tell them.

- Blocking to give motion to still or stagnant scenes. You may sometimes have scenes where all that really matters is the conversation between two of your characters, or maybe you need to have your character delve into a moment of introspection to solve a mystery. It might not matter even where this moment takes place. A lot of beginning writers will open a story with a character sitting and thinking. One of the reasons this is a problem is because there is no motion, there is nothing happening in the present moment.

Use blocking to add motion. Instead of having your character sit and think, maybe you can have her catching insects for her bug collection while she thinks. Not only does this create more motion and interest, but also gives you material for the two bullet points before this one, so that it can actually add to the introspection and characterization. The fact she just caught a monarch butterfly might not be important to the main plot, but it tells us more about her, and in fact, you can even use that event and butterfly as a type or symbol of whatever she's thinking about for added emphasis and tone.

With that said, some conversations are very important, interesting, have high tension, or natural draws--they may have incorporeal motion--and already carry the audience, and sometimes when you put in blocking, it actually takes away from that, instead of contributing to it, by drawing away the audience's attention. Their attention to the conversation is competing with the blocking. So watch for that.

- Blocking for natural pauses, lulls in conversations, and for beats in dialogue. On the topic of dialogue exchanges, when there is a natural pause in dialogue or a lull in conversation, instead of saying "There was a moment of quiet," you can put in a bit of blocking to convey that.

"Forget it," Fred said. "I didn't want your help anyway."

Nancy looked down at the scarf she was crocheting and realized her hands had stopped moving. She put the scarf down on the coffee table, and flattened it out as she tried to find her words.

"You like her, don't you?" she asked.

You can also use blocking for beats in dialogue. Rather than always using dialogue tags, you can use a beat to imply who is speaking what line.

"Cedric Diggory was murdered," Harry said.

"Whatever you've been told," Professor Umbridge said, "that. Is. A. Lie."

Harry shot up out of his desk. "It's not a lie!"


Watch this short scene between Umbridge and McGonagall for a good example of how blocking conveys character, emphasizes points, adds motion to the scene, and how it's weaved in with dialogue. In addition to the two professors, notice the blocking in regards to the students and what it conveys.


Intermediate Tip:

Try to have your blocking accomplish more than one thing.

Maybe it can hike up tension and convey character.

Maybe it can emphasize a point and help us follow a fight scene.

Maybe it can replace a dialogue tag and convey something important about the setting.

And remember, in some scenes blocking is more important than in other scenes.

If you would like to learn more about blocking, Writing Excuses has a podcast episode on it.


  1. This was really helpful! One of my favorite posts on any of the several writing blogs I follow. Thanks!

  2. Thank you, September, for such clear explanations on what blocking can do in a scene and how much should be included in specific scenes. The videos were very helpful.

    I've shared the post online. Enjoy your week!

    1. Victoria,

      Thank you so much! And thanks for stopping by!


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