Dialogue and Blocking

The Writing Excuses podcast just released an excellent episode about blocking, dialogue, and description.  There were many things of note (including the awesome-sounding “Pyramid of Abstraction”, and kitten noises), but there were a few things in particular I thought were very interesting indeed.  One thing was blocking.

Blocking, basically, is description inside blocks of dialogue.  “Sure.”  He picked up the scalpel.  That description of what the character is doing acts as a signature– we know that the man who picked up the scalpel is also the man who said “Sure.”  These are not two men, one with his hand hovering over the scalpel as he waits for the other to consent to be operated upon.  It is one man, speaking, then picking up a scalpel.

As I realized when I reviewed Partials, blocking replaces speech tags.  “Sure,” he said.  “He said” is a speech tag, and when you have a long string of dialogue, you don’t want “He said, she said, he said, she said, he said…”  Instead, you use blocking.

However– and this is a big however– you do not use blocking for every line of speech.  Most of the time, conversations happen between two people, so you can rely on the reader to figure out which one is speaking.  You don’t need a tag.  Also, though the characters may be doing things as they speak, blocking just isn’t necessary.  If we know the man is unpacking his surgical implements, we don’t need to describe every tool in his bag.  No, blocking is used for a specific purpose: pauses in the conversation.

“Can you slice the bologna extra fine?” asked Bill.

Joe picked up the scalpel.  “Sure.”

“Thanks.”

You sense the pause between the scalpel-wielder’s and Bill’s words when you read that blocking, and that’s what it’s for.  Pauses in the conversation don’t translate well into written word, but if you know how to do it, it works.

Another point they brought up in the podcast was making your descriptions do double or triple duty.  In Cornelia Funke’s latest book Fearless, she has two point of view characters: protagonist and antagonist, human and Goyl.  (I’m still trying to figure out how she managed to keep up the suspense while giving antagonist POVs, unlike Eoin Colfer’s Reluctant Assassin, but that’s a post for another time.)  The Goyl are basically living statues; stone skin, with an aversion to light and water and a great disdain for soft-skinned humans.  One chapter from the Goyl’s point of view began somewhat innocuously, but it instantly told me we were in the Goyl’s perspective.  Why?  The word choices.  I could instantly tell the narrator hated humans.

You’ve probably heard the rule that every character must have a distinctive voice– if you were to read only dialogue by them, you should be able to identify their personality.  The same goes for description, and especially for narration.  Description should both show the setting and show the character at once.  It’s good to figure out what that means for each of your characters.

So this is what I thought of that last episode, which you can check out on http://www.writingexcuses.com/ .  I’m sure I missed a bit, because it’s been a few days since I listened, but that’s all the more reason for you to listen yourself.

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14 Comments

  1. I always wondered what that term was called…. I do use blocking some, though I’m not really sure how much. 🙂

    Distinctive voices. Yes. That’s the problem I’m having right now. In my latest story I have two first-person narrators, one of whom has a very distinct personality and narration, but the other… I’m still trying to find her voice.

    Reply
  2. I think Blocking is what the ladies over on Go Teen Writers refer to as “Action Beats”. One of the problems in my WiP is, instead of having “he said, she said, he said, the other guy said…” I have “He nodded, she raised an eyebrow, he blinked, and the other guy swung an axe.” Too much action.

    Ditto magicandwriting583 on distinctive voice.

    Thanks to you and Jill Williamson, I’ve started listening to Writing Excuses. It’s great.

    Reply
    • I think the Writing Excuses guys have a different definition for action beats, but I might be confusing that with something else. They don’t mention it often.

      It is great. I’m glad you’re listening.

      Reply
      • Okay, so I actually listened to that episode. Their definition of action beats is the same as GTW, I just had no idea what blocking was.

        That was a good episode. I’ll probably listen to it again some time.

      • Yes, it was a good episode. I’m glad the definitions lined up.

  3. I’m only really familiar with the word blocking because of acting. Thanks, drama! But obviously, it’s a bit different here.

    Reply
  4. I think I needed a lesson on that.

    Reply

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