Thursday, November 27, 2008

Block Party

block--both a concept and a device, each of which is vital to the storyteller's success in keeping the story alive and in motion.

As a concept, block becomes a verb which goes to work by way of mapping the setting of a particular dramatic landscape, dramatizing it with the details and sensory attributes that fit the author's intent and which contribute to the discomfort of the characters. A scene that has been blocked out is a Google map which shows the reader who is positioned where, what shifts in position there are, how the characters pursue their separate agendas, how they respond to other characters, at the same time suggesting the subtext of the truthful regard each character has for all the others. A blocked scene also contains relevant information about temperature, time, smell, taste, relative states of light and dark, color, as well the relative openness of space or the pressure of a closed-in space. As an extreme example of this construct at work, imagine a claustrophobic character and an agoraphobic character in the same setting, first a small, cell-like enclosure, then in a commodious locale with a breathtaking vista.

Storytellers who do not at some point in the writing process block out each scene and every bit of narrative connection run the risk of having the work appear one-dimensional or confining. Knowing where everyone is or will be in a scene helps determine as one example, of the benefits to be had from blocking, whether the characters can whisper to one another or must shout in order to be heard.

As a device, block becomes a presence or condition that prevents a character from pursuing a stated agenda; it may also be a condition having its effect on a large number of individuals who are rendered fearful of acting or frustrated that they cannot act as they might wish, or resentful that they have been issued an order not to perform a particular action even though they may have ardently wished to do so. Thus block becomes an obstacle which makes itself felt, repeat felt, by a character whose options to keep the story alive are direct opposition, seething resentment, disappointment, immediate embarkation on a counter offensive, or abject surrender. Fear is another exceptional dramatic obstacle; so is conscience. Macbeth is quite prepared to kill Malcolm as a necessary step to further his goal. Screwing up his courage to commit the murder, Macbeth observes a servant carrying a dinner tray to Malcolm, whereupon Macbeth's conscience steps in to block him, to become an obstacle. Macbeth cannot for a time bring himself to kill Malcolm. The obstacle creates dramatic tension, building to suspense. In this sense, story is like the bait-and-switch of advertising and retailing technique: a desirable product is shown at an attractive price, but when the customer appears to claim it, he is either told it is no longer available or the customer is shown another, more expensive product. In either case, the customer is diverted from his original intention. Readers not only want to be baited and switched, they expect it.

The writer who knows his characters well enough to see and manipulate the obstacles or each character remains in control of the need of the story to be shoved, driven, propelled against obstacle. This knowledge will lead the writer to understand how vital blockage is for the reader. As a story develops, the reader begins to take sides, root for particular characters to achieve their goals. But if the characters achieve their main goals too soon or too easily, the story is seen as a cheat or at best a dismal failure. This understanding of block-as-obstacle produces the useful dictum: Never take the reader where the reader wants to go.

Once the characters arrive at a point where the reader wants them to be, the story is over. A story that continues to generate activity and resulting movement after its major dramatic effect has been established is appropriately diagnosed as suffering from anticlimax.

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