Blocking, Prose, and the Perfect Combination

A few weeks back, when I first discovered Every Frame a Painting, I spent a lot of time re-watching Tony Szhou’s tribute to Robin Williams and the way he moves in movies. It’s one of the most succinct explanations of the importance of good blocking in a series that is full of great instalments that examine good blocking and framing (see also the episode on movement in the films of Akira Kurasawa, which is brilliant).

The bit that particularly resonated with me was a section where he examines back-to-back clips from Jumangi as an example of what Blocking actually is:

“Good blocking is good storytelling. If you’d like to see this for yourself, pick a scene and watch how the actors move…You can watch this film with the sound off, and still understand most of the story. That’s good blocking. Everything you need to know about the characters, their relationship, and how it changes, is presented to you through physical movement.”

I loved this particular episode because, as a writer, I struggle with blocking. Worse, I like to write the kinds of stories where good, clear blocking would be an incredible advantage, but I’ve never really been able to wrap my head around the way it works in fiction. The clarity that Szhou talks about – the ability to strip everything away from a scene and tell the story in action alone – is a very visual process. Delivering the same same result in prose was a much harder thing to conceptualise.

In one of those incredible acts of good timing, I was reading Jeff VanderMeer’s Wonderbook a few days after I first went through the entire run of Every Frame a Painting. In his section on editing and redrafting, VanderMeer suggest an exercise where you go through each scene and pull out every action or act that occurs there. Not the stuff that happens off-stage, or before/after the scene begins, but the action that occurs in the narrative present.

It was a singularly confronting exercise.

I tried it out on a short story I’d been submitting for a while, which occasionally got nice feedback but ultimately a rejection. The results were…surprising.
Take this example, from the first scene of a short story I’d been submitting without any real success. The moment I separated out the action, the problems became clear.

Selby talked crap.
I didn’t believe her.
Selby found me first, ahead of the others.
She said.
I nodded.
I kept staring at Selby’s hair.
She said.
I said
Selby closed her eyes. She said.
I said.

There were ten action takes within the scene – not a lot, but it’s a short scene, maybe two hundred and fifty words – and nearly half of those were either events that took place outside the narrative present (highlighted in red) or actions that were either internal activity or a continuation of an action I hadn’t established (highlighted in purple).

When you strip those problems out, I’ve got a scene where the most significant action is dialogue, a nod, and a character closing their eyes. Actions that may be significant, if deployed properly, but largely crop up in my writing as a place-holder reaction to something another character says. They’re a narrative pause, not really adding anything significant to the scene.

I found myself thinking of Tony Szhou’s quote about blocking as I did this, because suddenly a means of figuring out blocking in prose seemed possible. VanderMeer follows this exercise up with a list of questions to ask yourself about a scene – does every action have a consequence? Is there true cause and effect? Is your progression from one action to the next sound?

Increasingly, as I applied this exercise to my work, the answer was no.

But figuring out the solutions was so much easier. That scene above? Highlighting the problems like this immediately gave me solutions. Start the scene early, build a sequence around the reveal of the hair. Let that underscore the dialogue and add contrast, rather than relying on the conversation to carry the momentum of the story.

Doing it for the whole story allowed me to go through and mark out the problem actions. No more nodding. No more closed eyes. No more action that takes place outside the narrative frame. A story I thought was pretty good starts to reshape itself into something very different, very new, and ultimately better. I

But this post isn’t about blocking and editorial processes (although, yeah, try that exercise if you’ve never done it before. The feeling of control you get over your work is incredible).

What’s important is this: good writing advice isn’t always obvious. The thing you need to hear will shift by time and expertise, and what seems like ordinary or unimportant advice one day will become incredibly useful the next.

Watching Every Frame A Painting on its own would have piqued my interest in blocking, but not given me a framework for figuring out how to apply it. Wonderbook gave me a framework for applying it, but I’d read that section of the book a dozen times without seizing upon why it was really important to go through that process. It’s the combination of the two, back to back, that allowed for a moment of epiphany where problem and solution were put together in a very clear, very meaningful way.

When it comes to figuring shit out, in writing, you need to cast a broad net and you need to keep paying attention. Put bits of advice together to see how they resonate.

You need a plurality of voices, talking about similar things in very different ways, in order to find the combination that makes the best sense for you.

  2 comments for “Blocking, Prose, and the Perfect Combination

  1. 14/02/2016 at 6:09 PM

    Reading text aloud is a really good way in to what action feels redundant. I suspect that tics like that sneak up on you when writing, but the ‘nodded’s and ‘shrugged’s really pile up when you’re reading text out loud.

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