Blocking a Novel Like a Stage

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Yesterday I got to fulfill a decades-long dream: seeing Les Miserables live on stage.

I was enthralled on multiple levels — enjoying the beauty of Salt Lake City’s Capitol Theatre, loving the music I’d grown up on, analyzing how each actor/singer fit his or her part, remembering scenes from the book as they unfolded, trying to catch all three sets of lyrics during the overlapping melodies. The romantic in me savored the emotional moments; the pergola-builder in me geeked out over the technology of the sets . . .

And the writer in me studied the craft of the story.

Earlier that morning, I’d been polishing the blocking in some of the scenes of my manuscript, adding descriptions of what the characters were doing to make sure that a reader could get a solid picture in his or her head of what was happening in each segment of the story. When I mentioned to Hubby that I’d been working on “blocking,” he said, “What’s that?”

Well, that afternoon at the matinée provided a tangible example. There on the stage? That’s blocking. Where the sets are placed, where the actors enter and exit, where they stand, where they face, how they move, what they do, the choreography of fight scenes and kisses.

It all has to be calculated; every object, every person and every movement arranged with purpose: to show the story.

In Les Mis it’s especially crucial that the blocking be efficient — every detail adding to the story — because in a three-hour production (and that’s the short version of Les Mis, with super fast songs) you can’t waste one motion.

Writing teachers talk about it in terms of “show don’t tell.” Most recently, I noticed it in novel form when I read Heather Dixon’s Entwined; Heather is a storyboard artist, and that book was so well blocked that I got to see every emotion on the character’s faces. Such a delight! (And makes me want to take storyboarding classes.)

My manuscript is based on Peter Pan, and yesterday I thought about the play version again. If you’ve never read J. M. Barrie’s stage notes for Peter Pan, I highly recommend it. Here’s a taste from the very beginning, showing Mrs Darling’s character, my favorite parts in bold:

[She is the loveliest lady in Bloomsbury, with a sweet mocking mouth, and as she is going out to dinner to-night she is already wearing her evening gown because she knows her children like to see her in it. It is a delicious confection made by herself out of nothing and other people’s mistakes. She does not often go out to dinner, preferring when the children are in bed to sit beside them tidying up their minds, just as if they were drawers. If Wendy and the boys could keep awake they might see her repacking into their proper places the many articles of the mind that have strayed during the day, lingering humorously over some of their contents, wondering where on earth they picked this thing up, making discoveries sweet and not so sweet, pressing this to her cheek and hurriedly stowing that out of sight. When they wake in the morning the naughtinesses with which they went to bed are not, alas, blown away, but they are placed at the bottom of the drawer; and on the top, beautifully aired, are their prettier thoughts ready for the new day.

As she enters the room she is startled to see a strange little face outside the window and a hand groping as if it wanted to come in.]

MRS DARLING: Who are you? [The unknown disappears; she hurries to the window.] No one there. And yet I feel sure I saw a face. My children! [She throws open the bathroom door and Michael’s head appears gaily over the bath. He splashes; she throws kisses to him and closes the door. ‘Wendy, John,’ she cries, and gets reassuring answers from the day nursery. She sits down, relieved, on Wendy’s bed; and Wendy and John come in, looking their smallest size, as children tend to do to a mother suddenly in fear for them.]

Isn’t it lovely? And by the end of those stage directions, we have a very good sense of exactly who Mrs Darling is — based on what she does.

I learned the value of this sort of description as I fleshed out my characters last summer with avatars and bios. As I wrote the bios, miniature stories unfolded, similar to this one about Mrs Darling tidying her children’s minds. They were little scenes such as how two characters first started dating, or how a character started pursuing a certain hobby, etc, and they helped so much in allowing me to picture each character more fully.

Now, after seeing Les Mis and thinking again about the stage notes for Peter Pan, I’ve decided to try writing stage notes in the margins of my manuscript as an experiment in blocking. If this story were a play or a movie, how would I tell it? What would you see happening on the stage? What would you hear? How would it work? Where is each character and what is each one doing?

Whatever bits in the margins work especially well I’ll then transfer into the actual blocking of the scenes, but the main point will be making sure that I can visualize each scene well enough to write and polish it.

I spent this past week writing chapter summaries of no more than eight lines per chapter, just to make sure that each chapter does what I need it to, and I love how much that’s helped me see the cohesion of the novel and where I need to tighten the plotlines. (With the secondary purpose that agents and editors sometimes want to see chapter summaries as part of your synopsis, so now I’ll have that ready.) Stage notes seem like the next logical step, making sure that all the physical details of the novel are blocked out and working right.

Sure, I already said last week that I need to get the details right. But sometimes the hardest part is figuring out a method for doing it. Now that I have a revision plan, I can move a little faster than the nit-picky line-editing I slip into when I’m lacking a plan.

Thoughts? Been impressed by the blocking of a story recently, whether play, movie, novel, comic, etc? Know where I can take storyboarding classes? Ever blocked a story before? Other ideas or suggestions?

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2 responses »

  1. This post was wonderful. It opened up a whole new view of the world for me. I’ve never known much about the process of writing a book. This is the first blog post of yours that I’ve read, and it was a wonderful one for me to start with. I love the imagery that you shared from Peter Pan. Now how I do straighten the thoughts of my children while they are sleeping?……

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    • Launna, thanks for stopping by! I’m glad you liked the post.

      And I agree: it would be great to have that super power of Mrs Darling, shoving any bad words they heard under the rug and placing the nicest moments of the day on top. My husband does a little bit of that by asking them at bedtime what was their favorite part of the day. I wonder if that’s part of the trick. 😀

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