Character blocking – less can be more

I’m enjoying the work of reading the first Malazan book, but the prose itself, I do not like. The amount of character blocking bothers me. I get why the author does it (you can find his analyses of a scene or two online) but…it doesn’t read well for me.

Character blocking is something most writers I know do. Including myself!

I say “blocking” in the manner of a stage play. It is describing many small gestures of a character that doesn’t meaningfully add to a scene, or just doing it to excess. Character blocking is a broader way of describing something that is *usually* Eye Choreography.

X looked at Y. He looked away.
Y’s gaze cut to the ground.
X looked at the thing, and then he looked at his sword.
He walked to the bar with his gaze averted.

There are two issues here.

1) A book is less like a stage play and more like an impressionist painting you create in a reader’s mind. Broadly describing behavior will allow readers to fill in gestures themselves.

2) Gestures don’t mean the same things to everyone. It’s unclear. I just touched a hand to my chin. What am I doing?
Is this a thoughtful hand?
Am I messing with a blemish?
Am I hiding the cleft in my chin?
Maybe I’m about to say something.

Looking at things or moving your hands or whatever can definitely be relevant, necessary scene information…sometimes. *Writing* it can also be totally necessary for *you*, the author, to work out where things are in the scene and what is happening. YOU know why the character is Looking.

A character’s mood and physicality can be conveyed throughout the scene in MANY ways. It should form a greater picture for readers. Save specific gestures for when you wanna “zoom in.”

In editing, I get rid of all blocking except the stuff that makes a scene *less* confusing.
If he absolutely needs to look at the window or nobody is going to realize he’s talking about someone outside instead of inside the room, then yes! Block that. It zooms us in on that “look.”

But remember: Gestures mean different things to different people. A lot of people can’t read body language at all, even on the page. You are adding gestures that “zoom focus” without adding more information or experience for the reader. I am exhausted constantly zooming focus on characters’ faces when their whole bodies exist and inhabit a setting.

There are alternative beats you can use, if you want to confer a pause in dialogue (though I think you can let readers infer a lot about dialogue cadence too). I will favor beats that embody characters in their setting in meaningful ways.

I really like beats that add *new* description to a character or setting. That breaks up big blocks of description and adds color and vivacity.

I also like character-specific beats. One character might mess with his ear a lot. Another has antsy feet. One can’t stay sitting.

Using character-specific beats consistently across scenes, chapters, and books helps fix a character in the reader’s mind. And the reader will bring biases about the character to fill in smaller gestures (X looking at Y, then away) as appropriate to their personality.

In Malazan, Character Blocking is frequent. I know from reading the author’s analyses of his scenes that he does intend these lines to confer information. “By looking at the sword, Tattersail is thinking xyz.” He doesn’t actually intend for anyone to know what that means though. The author generally doesn’t care if anyone knows what he’s talking about. While I respect the attitude, I find that his reliance on blocking to express information he doesn’t care about conveying isn’t NEARLY as well-thought-out as his worldbuilding details.

I dislike the insulting connotations of “lazy” when I mean “convenient at the expense of quality,” but lazy is the word I think reading a lot of this dialogue. Perhaps less lazy, more cursory? Like “FINE I guess people have to inhabit this world I’m writing, and they talk.”

Likewise, I can’t say the prose on Malazan is bad when what it actually is, is that the writer and I have way different priorities. That’s all.

I see my prose on this level as the Welcoming Center of my book. It needs to get out of the reader’s way so that my story and world can thrive. I want my language efficient and my meaning clear. I am not deliberately puzzling anyone, unless the specific intent of a scene is to puzzle, and even then, I will communicate it wholly differently.
Efficiency of language can be so beautiful.

Malazan is legendary for its complexity, opacity, and demands upon the reader’s patience. The world and experience of conquering the books makes this worthwhile. For my writer friends, I suggest editing out Character Blocking in draft 2 because you aren’t writing Malazan, probably. Don’t worry about the rough draft. Write whatever you have to write in the rough draft. But consider taking a scalpel into your scenes to excise all but essential blocking.


Blocking (and especially Eye Choreography lol) is super common in some areas of fiction. It’s an instinctive thing. We’re trying to think our way through a scene and conversation and we put in unnecessary information while we work it out, which is better removed later, imo.

A story written so minimalistically need not be dry – action and dialogue alone can still be compelling if your story is compelling. I do like to add some physicality of gesture, commentary, inner thought, etc on those things, and that’s nice too.

A novel writing class is probably bringing some of these thoughts out because I’ve had to read Hemingway. Hemingway does not do this in his dialogue at all, and his dialogue is still effective (imo).


“Santiago,” the boy said to him as they climbed the bank from where the skiff was hauled up. “I could go with you again. We’ve made some money.”
The old man had taught the boy to fish and the boy loved him.
“No,” the old man said. “You’re with a lucky boat. Stay with them.”
“But remember how you went eighty-seven days without fish and then we caught big ones every day for three weeks.”
“I remember,” the old man said. “I know you did not leave me because you doubted.”
“It was papa made me leave. I am a boy and I must obey him.”
“I know,” the old man said. “It is quite normal.”

Then we can look over at Gardens of the Moon by Stephen Erikson for the other end of things.

“Are you the last left in the cadre?” he asked.
She looked away, feeling brittle. “The last left standing. It wasn’t skill, either. Just lucky.” […] She heard Hairlock laugh, the sound of a soft jolt that made her wince. “The tall one,” she said. “He’s a mage, isn’t he?”
Whiskeyjack grunted, then said, “His name’s Quick Ben.”
“Not the one he was born with.”
She rolled her shoulders against the weight of her cloak, momentarily easing the dull pain in her lower back. “I should know him, Sergeant. That kind of power gets noticed. He’s no novice.”
“No,” Whiskeyjack replied. “He isn’t.”
She felt herself getting angry. “I want an explanation. What’s happening here?”
Whiskeyjack grimaced. “Not much, by the looks of it.” He raised his voice. “Quick Ben!”
The mage looked over. “Some last-minute negotiations, Sergeant,” he said, flashing a white grin.
“Hood’s Breath.” Tattersail sighed, turning away.

That is some dialogue from the beginning of Malazan, which I personally feel is too much blocking. The information conveyed is not important and it breaks up the conversation too much, distracting from the way the conversation is meant to propel the scene.

But again, as I said above — This is an issue of different authorial priorities. The author here think it’s important we should know that the cloak this mage is wearing is heavy in the middle of an explanation about the situation and people in the situation, and I think it’s too much.

(I originally posted this on Facebook on 2/12/23.)

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