Saturday, December 8, 2018

Why Blocking is Good for a Book

We're talking blocking as in plays, not American football.

When you read a play, it's not just dialogue. The author describes the setting and indicates where the actors will be placed on stage. The latter is called blocking. Instructions from the director will expound on all author instructions, so the final written version of each production generally has a lot more instructions than the author's original draft.

A book needs to set the stage too, so to speak. Certainly, much is in the reader's imagination. Think about Scout's description of her hometown of Maycomb, in To Kill a Mockingbird.

"Maycomb was an old town, but it was a tired old town when I first knew it. In rainy weather, the streets turned to red slop; grass grew on the sidewalks, the courthouse sagged in the square."

Some of us will see a town with clapboard homes and a two-story courthouse with a flat roof, others envision brick houses and a courthouse with a steep roof with a long flight of entry stairs. Generally, an author will tell us as much as we need to know and let us picture the rest.

To some extent, whether characters stand or sit in a scene may not matter, and I find it boring when an author outlines every detail of a room or the style of chair each person sits on. But a book is more than dialogue, and readers don't want to be surprised to find characters in a different room when there is no indication that they moved.

For example, a cocktail party is in full swing and two nephews are arguing about whether an uncle should leave more of his wealth to the older one, who took most care of the aging relative. Ten minutes later, one nephew shoots the other in the back garden. When did they leave the room? Did they head out there together, or did one go upstairs to grab a pistol before heading outside?

Sure, your protagonist can later recall that she was so engrossed in studying a painting that she didn't hear them leave the house. But even that acknowledges that the men didn't apparate to the garden.

Even if all the guests at your New Year's Eve party stay in the living room, it's still important to show whether someone is on the couch when they pass out or already sitting on the floor. Otherwise, the author leaves the impression that people are mannequins in a store window -- except these dummies talk.
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