September 27, 2016

Scene Blocking: What It Is, Why Do It, and How

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles
You're reading a fight scene in a book, and you're having trouble seeing what's happening. It's hard to follow. You keep backing up and re-reading the passage, trying to get a handle on the action.

Odds are, the scene is incorrectly or poorly blocked.

What Is Scene Blocking?

Scene blocking looks at the geographical space in the story, identifying where the characters, objects, and events occur. The author needs to take the time to determine the layout. In some cases, authors sketch it to see how everything interacts. One of my favorite authors, C E Murphy, checks her blocking by role playing her fight scenes with her husband. That's got to be fun!

Why Should You Check Your Scene Blocking?

Some of the issues I've observed while critiquing others' work include a weapon in a character's hand that still holds a horse's reins or grips an elbow in pain. They never put down the reins or released their elbow.  Maybe someone is punching a person who is behind them, not in front...or worse yet, nowhere within arm's reach.

If something occurs in your story that is physically impossible for the characters, then it bothers your reader. They can't follow the action because they're unsure of the environment and setting.

How Can You Identify Scene Blocking Issues?

Some questions you should ask include:
  • Where is this character?
  • What direction is the character facing? What can they see?
  • Is the character holding something? In which hand?
  • What objects are in this space?
  • Where are the objects in relation to the character?
  • What other characters are in the scene?
  • Where are these characters in relation to the first character and the objects?

What's the Best Blocking Advice I've Received?

When I needed to write a large battle scene in my fantasy series, I struggled for a long time. I couldn't get it started.  For weeks, I danced around the issue, writing everything BUT the battle. Then I spoke to Faith Hunter, another one of my favorite authors, and she gave me great advice.

I won't go into the full description here, but the idea was to get large pieces of construction paper, colored pens, and colored sticky notes, and lay out the battle. This helped me visualize the battleground in a way I had not been able to before.

Then on a second piece of paper, I created a mindmap indicating the sequence of events and how everything played out together.

This process helped me determine how many troops each army brought to the field. It helped me visualize the individual scenes within the overall battle. Most importantly, I was able to create a believable outcome. It worked, and, with these visuals in front of me, I wrote the battle. (The photo is my layout of the battle ground.)

That's scene blocking. Do you need it for every scene? Maybe not to the arts and crafts extent, but you should always be aware of scene blocking while editing and revising your work.

September 20, 2016

Getting Your Facts Straight: 5 Useful Sources

Several years ago, while taking a Creative Writing class at a local university, something bugged me about a classmate's short story.  It gave me pause until I realized the problem.  His main character, while driving at night in heavy traffic, noticed the flashing brake lights of the cars in oncoming traffic.

Did You Catch the Mistake?

I'll give you a moment to think about it. Re-read the last sentence of the previous section if you missed it.

Ok.  Time's up.

If cars are heading toward you, you can not see their brake lights.

My current writing group knows I will check their writing for accuracy.  It's not that I'm an expert on everything, because I'm not. If you're writing about guns, I probably won't catch a mistake, but if it's about something I know or love (giraffes, raising kids, growing up in the South) I'll be all over it. I'm not alone. My writing group is great in this regard. In fact our members will sometimes pre-empt any questions on accuracy by saying, "I checked this already, and it's correct."

Why Does Accuracy Matter?

This is the source of the old adage:  "Write what you know."

Just like the brake lights issue, if you get your facts wrong, your reader will stop reading...for a moment or completely. The more important the fact is to your story, the more likely they are to put your book aside and pick up something else.

Correct me if I'm wrong, but I'm thinking you don't want them to stop reading your book.

You don't have to avoid a topic if you don't know it, though. Research it so you do know it.

How Can You Avoid Fact-Based Errors?

Today there is no excuse for not doing your research. You can go about this in many ways, but here are five easy sources for getting your facts straight:

  1. The Internet:  In today's electronic world, you can't claim a lack of information for poor fact-checking.  When you use the internet, make sure you find a reputable site for your information. If your only reference came from wikipedia, keep digging. When I needed to know what a boar sounded like when shot by an arrow, I googled it. There are numerous videos and audio files about this. Who knew?  I found several and listened to them in order to get my description correct.
  2. Subject Matter Experts:  Are you writing about military weapons? Ask a veteran or current service member. They can tell you what guns, ammo, explosives, etc. they use.
  3. Librarians: You can call the reference desk of any library and ask them to help you with information, and they will do it.  Guess what?  It's their job to answer research questions.
  4. DIY:  Do you want to write about archery? Then do what I did:  try it. Nothing brings an experience to life better than your own experience.
  5. Critique Groups:  Don't forget your beta readers or writing groups. If you have a diverse group, you will have a broad spectrum of knowledge to pull from. Sometimes, one person will question a point, and others might have thoughts related to that point. A group discussion is always a good thing when trying to get your facts straight.

Even if you try all of these methods, you might have fact-based errors still, but hopefully they won't be the kind that makes your reader stop reading.

What's the worst fact-based error you've ever seen in a book?  Did you keep reading or stop?


September 13, 2016

Story Time Lines: 7 Steps to Checking For Issues

Getting the time line of your story correct requires attention to detail. (Click to Tweet)

A few years ago, I hired an editor to review my manuscript for plot issues. Most of her feedback resonated quickly and I knew exactly what to do, but one comment surprised me:

"I'm not sure how much time has passed here."  

The story has multiple subplots, and a few times when it jumped to a different plot point, she couldn't determine how much time had passed in that sub-plot in relation to others.

How Did I Fix It?

At first, I thought, No way, my story is chronological.  But I paid good money for her feedback, and I had experienced this same problem when reading published stories.  In fact, I've heard fans complain when an author messes up the timeline.

I'm a software trainer, so I popped up one of my favorite apps, Microsoft Excel, and adapted a spread sheet I use to track my chapters, characters, world-building, etc.  I read through the whole manuscript, stopping at each scene to determine how much time had passed since the last scene.

What Did I Discover?

I had some problems.  Certain events took longer than other events, yet I had them occurring at the same time. Other events occurred in the evening with the next chapter in the morning, but it was unclear to the reader whether it was the next morning or later. I didn't have to shift chapters, but I did have to focus on:

 A comes before B comes before C, etc.

And, I needed to make sure that when two plot lines converged, the time passage for both felt right.

How Can You Check For Time Line Issues?

An outline is a great place to start. Even if you created an outline before you wrote the manuscript, you might want to revisit it to ensure everything flows smoothly through time.

  1. Reread your manuscript
  2. Write Day 1 in your outline with a brief one-two sentence summary about what's happening
  3. Ask yourself what points coincide and what time of day the events occur
  4. Write Day 2 and continue the summary of your story
  5. Create shorter time frames when events shift quickly over one day (you don't want to have one section set in the evening and the next in the morning before that evening)
  6. Proceed through the entire book ensuring that the story provides some indication of the passage of time to the reader
  7. Correct any issues that arise
Time Line Chart Example

When we write a first draft, we create a mess. (Click to Tweet) We know it must be cleaned up during revisions, but our revision process can create confusion if we're not careful.  We might hone in on one point, not the whole story, so we lose the big picture.

No matter whether you have one point of view or multiple ones, outlining your time line will help you write a clean manuscript and give an agent or editor one less reason to write that rejection letter.

Focus on your story's time line and your readers will thank you!