Writing as Stage Blocking and Choreography
One of the biggest complaints I have had as a book reviewer is to get into a story and not know exactly where the characters are and what they are doing. That may sound pretty basic, but sometimes that isn’t always clear. I’ve even had to go back and reread passages because I suddenly was confused about the action. What was the most frustrating was to find out that the characters were standing on the other side of the room or on opposite sides of each other and I would have to pause and switch them in my mind in order to proceed. That can really interfere with an action sequence and it can spoil a mood in a juicy love scene you wanted to savor.
I must confess that sometimes my confusion was due to my own miss-reading of an initial blocking cue. But more often than not it was stage direction that was put in later in the scene. For some readers, that may not be a problem, but for me, I need all of the cues I can get.
As I have been writing The Bowdancer Saga, I find that initially my first drafts are mainly ways to get the story down—basic dialogue, plot sequences, and stage blocking. Having done a lot of community theater in all aspects from set building to props and sound to acting and direction, I realize that the play hinges on stage blocking—where the characters are on stage. Though theater is a visual medium and books are not, I still feel that it is necessary to block all of the scenes.
Some stage directors actually make little models and move their characters about before they give stage directions. Then there are those that create on the spot. These directors have no clue what they want until they get the actors on stage and then they move them about, visually checking to make sure they are creating pleasing stage pictures. Those directors are the most frustrating for me to work with because it often is a waste of my time (and these are the ones who call everyone to rehearsal whether your scene will be covered or not!).
Most directors, like most authors, work somewhere in the middle. I do know of writers who sketch out elaborate settings and mark how their characters move about. They are usually the ones who do books of character backgrounds and write up 20 page detailed outlines.
I, for one, work a lot more loosely. I do keep notes on my characters, sometimes having to go back and make a slight physical change as the character develops or the plot requires it. I sometimes sketch out loose maps of areas or rooms so that I know what is where and who is sitting or moving somewhere.
Most of the time, though, I block as I write. But it’s often like the general blocking that is done at the beginning of a stage rehearsal. This gets the actors moving and the action flowing and allows the actor to memorize lines and actions, which often makes learning a script easier. Later, the director will add stage business, things the actor can do while in a particular location, or the director will modify the blocking. I try to make sure I know where the characters are, what they are doing, and usually which hand they’re using to do the action with. As I edit, I go back in and add details or fine tune it more.
This works remarkably well when the scenes involve only two or three people. But in the fourth book of The Bowdancer Saga, The Lost Song, I’ve had to block large groups, making sure they are sitting according to rank or prestige or that they are doing activities in the background that enhance the scene (much like stage extras or walk-on parts). Sometimes, I’ve had to choreograph the actions of an entire group to act as one or even choreograph a dance for readers who are not dancers, using language that is not modern dance terminology.
Group blocking is problematic, but it is not a catastrophic chore. Using just the main character’s point of view, though, it can become more complicated or simplified, depending on how much the author wants to portray. This is usually when the pad of paper and drawing pencils come out and writers start moving people about.
Once all of the blocking is done, I try to read over the passage a few times to make sure that I can see in my mind everything I wanted to show and that it doesn’t seem awkward. Often, though, I’ll find problems later when I do the fine editing of the whole book and the scene is not so well ingrained in my mind.
Stage blocking and choreography are vital tools for an author. Using them can make books come alive.
© Janie Franz 2010 all rights reserved