Saturday, September 24, 2011

Be a Blockhead

A million years ago - more like 15, but who's counting? - I used to do some work for theater groups, mainly graphic design and sound stuff. Being around productions exposed me to a lot of physical methods of making writing come alive (which of course is what a play is).

One of the terms I still carry with me from those days is "blocking".

A play is largely dialogue, so to prevent each scene from becoming a series of "talking heads", each person should be assigned an action or a change of stage location. In essence, the director of a play blocks out the movements of each actor to keep things dynamic. It's literally, "You say this line over here, then pick up this object and move over there. In the meantime, the soldiers will enter from the right and draw their swords. Then you'll approach them and begin your speech." The set and stage are used as much as possible to convey the dialogue and keep the audience's focus moving and engaged.

Now once the scene is blocked, the actors need visual reminders for each position. Directors will have their stage managers apply multi-colored tape markers on the stage, a stagecraft technique called "spiking". These provide visual "marks" on the otherwise black stage floor which actors use to know where to move or stand. Ever heard the term, "Hitting the mark"? You can thank spiking in part for its popularity.

This overall concept can easily be applied to writing fiction. When I write, I try to envision myself as that play director. I have actors, I have a script, and I have a setting filled with any prop I can conjure up. How do I take advantage of all these elements? How do I make them all work together to get the message across and allow the reader to visualize this scene.

Example: I just thought up a brief two character dialogue scene set in a kitchen. How do I make use of the surroundings?

Well, I think about one thing people usually do when they work together in a cramped kitchen: they pass things back and forth. First, the passing will make things a little more energetic. Second, whatever they're passing has to spur the dialogue along.

Here's a possible take on the scene, stripped to just action and dialogue in a play-like format.


Sarah (chopping veggies): "Yeah, I can't believe he's going out with that... that... her."
Lisa: "I know, right? Hey, pass me that cleaver."
Sarah (grabs the cleaver from the knife block, but before she passes it on, starts talking and waving the thing around in exasperation): "She's just such an insufferable, manipulative bitch. I swear to God, the next time I see her I'm going to-"
Lisa (eyebrow cocked): "Sarah."
Sarah: "What?"
Lisa (holds out her hand): "The cleaver. I'd rather not have to testify at your trial."
Sarah (eyes the cleaver, and then meekly passes it on): "Uh, yeah. Good idea."
Lisa (starts hacking away at the meat, shaking her head): "You know the ol' saying: Friends don't let friends go to prison for murdering insufferable bitches."


I thought about the knife block, and how angry people shouldn't handle knives. What to do... what to do... Oh yeah! Put the biggest knife available in the hands of an angry woman. :) And the rest of the example kind of wrote itself.

So, turn on the lights, draw the curtains, whip out the gaffer's tape, and cue the actors. Go set your stage and throw some actors on there!

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