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Character blocking in fiction is a critical part of writing. In writing terms, “blocking” refers to the part of the narrative that conveys where your characters are and how they are moving, as well as what they are doing in relation to one another and the scenery.

It might sound foundational—a part of writing that you don’t have to think too much about—but being intentional with your blocking can be an incredibly effective way to strengthen a narrative. It can also be a challenge to get right.

Some scenes will require a lot of careful blocking to ensure readers don’t become confused by many characters interacting, and some scenes will require very little blocking (such as a sequel to action that is mostly introspection). One of the tricks of this technique is finding the right balance in each scene.

To start, let’s take a look at ineffective blocking.

Two lines of lockers inside a green locker room with a mid-height window at the end of the row.
Photo: Kiến Nguyễn on Unsplash

The first is under-blocking. An example might be a scene set in a locker room. Readers are told that there are three soccer players talking as they walk in. The dialogue continues, but readers aren’t told where any of them are standing, whether they put their bags down, showered, or got changed before the scene ends, rather confusingly, with them walking out again in their kit. Readers will wonder how on earth they ended up in different clothes when none of them seemed to move beyond the entrance.

Under-blocking can also cause inconsistencies. A character might pick up a dish of hot potatoes, and a few lines later, give their puppy an effusive two-armed cuddle. Where did the dish go? Or they might get out of bed, and the next thing readers are told, they’re on a train on their way to work. Or they might pull a knife on a different character, but readers didn’t even know they were armed. It can be disorienting to read a scene that doesn’t block simple movements—we end up unaware of where a character is, what they are doing, and where they are in relation to other characters and the setting around them.

The opposite can also be true. Scenes might suffer from over-blocking, where the description of a character’s movements is unnecessarily complicated and perhaps irrelevant to the purpose of the scene. This confuses readers while also slowing the pace. As an example:

A woman's arms clothed in knitted pastel jumper clutch a coffee mug on a white tablecloth next to a spray of pink flowers.
Photo: Alexandra Gorn on Unsplash

I leaned on the palm of my left hand and reached across the table with my right hand to pick up my coffee mug, the one my niece had given me for Christmas three years ago, and realized too late that as my hips pressed up against the table edge, my bottom lifted—mini-skirt included—to the sky. Oh my god, he can see my panties.

The level of description here is needlessly detailed for the simple action it describes. Readers might become bogged down in the wordiness, confused by the superfluous details, and disengage from the story. Over-blocking also risks slowing the pacing of a scene, because many of these details don’t drive the story forward—readers are waiting for the narrative to get to the point. A more tightly blocked paragraph might look like this:

I reached across the table for my coffee mug, mortification hitting a moment too late as the movement lifted my mini-skirt-clad bottom to the sky. Oh my god, he can see my panties.

There are countless ways that this action could be blocked effectively—the above is just an example. But see how the second version also works her emotional reaction (mortification) into the movement? Pairing an action with a reaction can help readers feel a stronger connection to character.

Like many parts of a narrative, blocking is most effective when it serves more than one purpose. But we’ll get to that shortly!

Allow blocking to matter

Mary Robinette-Kowal succinctly says in the Writing Excuses podcast on blocking (S8.E18), “If I am taking the trouble to move my character, then I’m doing it for a reason.” When a character moves within a scene, this movement can be used to convey meaning, such as how they are feeling. So if they decide to reach for their coffee, there should be a reason they are going for that coffee mug at that time. Otherwise, the action is empty, like filler on the page. Those words could be put to stronger use.

You could ask: what is my character thinking about and feeling in this exact second, and does this particular action assist in conveying that to readers? Or am I pulling the focus by describing an action that doesn’t need describing right now?

An example:

“You’re right, I’m sorry.” She shoved her hands into her jacket pockets. “I should have asked first.”

It’s difficult to tell what she is feeling from this action. Resentment? Cold? We could take it deeper.

“You’re right, I’m sorry.’ She slid her unsteady hands into her jacket pockets, gripping her keys between her fingers. Could she use this to defend herself? “I should have asked first.”

With this specific blocking, accompanied by a thought/internalisation, readers are shown that she is scared of the other character, secretly arming herself with the only weapon available. Which segues neatly into my next suggestion!

Use blocking to show, not tell

Blocking can be an effective way to show readers the intentions, moods, and subtleties of character. Instead of using a dialogue tag that tells readers how a character speaks, we can instead use blocking to show it. For example:

“Yes, you can take me out on a date—if you explain why you ghosted me.”

“Oh,” Leon said, sounding worried that she’d actually agreed. “I mean, good. Yes, okay. Good.”


“Yes, you can take me out on a date—if you explain why you ghosted me.”

“Oh.” Leon took a small step backward, his face going pale. “I mean, good. Yes, okay. Good.”

In this example, we replace the dialogue tag and explanation of Leon’s delivery with a simple action that adds movement and character reaction to the scene. We sense his hesitation, his uncertainty, all without being told.

In closing, blocking can multitask

There are a number of things blocking can achieve. Characterisation, world building, foreshadowing, increasing tension, conveying mood/atmosphere, and adding motion are some key players. To give your words more weight, try writing blocking that does more than one thing at a time.

The next time you open your manuscript, take some time to evaluate the blocking in your scene. Have a go at being deliberate, not only with the action itself, but with word choice and phrasing. You’ll be so impressed, I’m sure of it!


Madeline Ash brings a decade of publishing experience to CREATING ink. After working as a business and professional writer and editor for ten years, she's immersed herself in the world of fiction where she truly excels. As an author, Madeline is a two-time RITA Award finalist, a five-time RUBY Award finalist, and a two-time RUBY Award winner.

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