Monday, March 19, 2012

BLOCKING in Dialogue

One mistake beginning writers often make is packing too much narrative into the crooks and bends around their dialogue. I’m sure there’s some technical term for it, and perhaps “blocking” is it (most likely not), but the result is something of the strangling type. Narrative strangling the dialogue. Little literary tendrils stealing all the LIFE from your character’s words. (Yes. I actually imagine this in my head.)

So what is my point? Actually, I think an example would fare better here. Take this (very poorly) written piece:

Sheila walked into the kitchen. Her mother stood at the counter. "Jake said you needed to see me," she said.

Her mother groaned at her and lifted a glass. She sighed. "It's about your father, Sheila," she fretted. "I don't know how..." She paused and set the glass down. "He lost his job. I don't know how we're going to afford to send you to art school."

Sheila swallowed hard and started pacing back and forth. The sun was shining through the window, filling the room with moving shafts of light and she could barely see her mother's face. "What will we do, Mom?" she asked. A bird outside screeched suddenly. Sheila jolted in surprise, then reassured herself.

Mom didn't answer for a moment. Then she said, "You might need to stay home for a year and work."

Sheila came closer to the counter. She stood next to the stool her father usually sat on. "I can't do that, Mom!" she protested. "I can’t stay in this town any longer!"

 Like I said, it’s pretty badly written. In truth, though, the dialogue itself isn't hideous. It's all the junk around it that's providing issues. Take a look at your scenes that are dialogue-intense then ask yourself, "Is all this action really necessary?" For example, if a bird screeches outside, who cares? And if Sheila jumps and then immediately reassures herself, is it really important? Unless someone is taking an action that is vital to the dialogue, you can leave it out most of the time. Here are some more examples of good and bad blocking:

Good: "Don’t come any closer." She stepped to the edge of the cliff. "I mean it."

Bad: "Don't come any closer." She ran her fingers through her hair. "I mean it."

Maybe you feel a pause is needed there. Maybe you think the character talking should do something.


At least, she doesn't need to run her fingers through her hair—she’s standing on the edge of cliff!

Let’s look back to the original scene and see if rewriting it helps:

Mom was standing at the counter when Sheila came in. “Jake said you needed to see me?”

Her mother groaned and lifted a glass. "It's about your dad, Sheila. He lost his job. I don't know how we're going to afford to send you to art school."

"What will we do?"

Mom didn't answer for a moment. "You might need to stay home for a year and work."

"I can't do that, Mom! I can’t stay in this town any longer!"

 It’s still not jaw-dropping, but honey, does it sound smoother! All we needed were the requisites — the kitchen, Mom at the counter with a glass. Everything else should come across in the dialogue. No need for "she fretted," for instance, because Mom's reluctance and lifting the glass shows us she's fretting. No need to say "she protested" when Sheila's dialogue shows us she's disputing. And does it really matter what stool Sheila stands beside? Unless you're setting something up for later, no.

You don’t need to simulate movements you’d see on TV. All of that shifting around and noticing the dust on the bookshelf and recounting each and every time someone shuffles their feet or takes a sip from a glass…

If it's important to the plot or character then include it. Otherwise, throw it out. You don’t want those unnecessary narratives strangling the life out of your dialogue.

Okay, now it’s your turn. Pull out whatever project you’re working on, examine the dialogue and look for bits of “blocking” you can cut.

To read about how to make dialogue sound more natural, check out this post.

Need help with voice? Go here.

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