Spatial Sense

Something I’ve read recently has me thinking about a writer’s sense of space. The scenes in the piece range from OMFG perfect! to Why is this writer who is so good at this really difficult stuff over there having such trouble with this simple stuff over here?”

I have a working hypothesis on what’s going on and it looks like this: The writer has an as yet incompletely developed sense of narrative space.

I’m going to throw down a principal here and I’m not sure if it’s going to generate argument, because I don’t think I’ve ever talked about it with other writers outside the context of writing combat. Which is a serious weirdness, when I think about how much time I’ve spent talking writing over the past 15 years.

Spatial Sense:

By the end of any scene, no matter how complex it si, the writer must know exactly what the space of the scene looks like from the POV character’s perspective and where everyone is in that space and all of their movements during the scene.

Because, if the writer doesn’t know that, they’re not going to be able to show the reader, and the chances are very good that the reader will get lost. Or worse, the writer will get lost. You don’t have to know it all going into the scene. You can be surprised: Oh, I didn’t realize there was a window there. You can not know things the POV character doesn’t know: How did Johnny end up over there with a broken neck, if they’re not critical to the reader’s understanding of the story and the POV character never does find out how Johnny broke his fool neck. But if it matters at all to the story, you need to know it.

There are a lot of ways to do this:

1) Simple substitution like this is a duplicate of Granny Helen’s parlor in terms of shape and furniture placement. That way you know that when Hero Protagonist punches aunt Hilda in the nose, she’s going to fall and break that little chintzy end table you always hated. This also works on a larger scale like the manor house is identical to that place we took so many pictures of in Perthshire, only it’s on the Royal mile in the imaginary town of “Bipnreoip” which is by pure coincidence an exact replica of Edinburgh with all the names changed. Or for battles, such that every major troop movement mimics the patterns of the battle of Waterloo.

2) Making it up and keeping all of the pieces straight in your head. This is mostly what I do. By sheer happenstance one of the most valuable courses of my entire college career was stage combat, in which I spent a great deal of time learning multi-combatant combat choreography. If I’d stayed in theater it would have been useful. As a writer, it’s been absolutely priceless.

Why? Because it taught me how to keep very close track of the movements of multiple people through a very complex series of actions in a defined space. In combat choreography you have to know not just what everyone is doing but also how it looks from multiple angles, so that you can make punches that never connect with their target look absolutely devastating from the audience’s POV. Since we learned combat for proscenium arch, thrust, round, and street theater, this meant a lot of thinking about sight-lines and three-dimensional space. We even had to learn to create our own system of notation for tracking fights so that we could reliably recreate the scene later. Fantastically useful for a writer, though I no longer actually use the notation.

3) Simulation creating a scale model of the scene and moving figures through it physically or electronically. This can be as simple as drawing an appropriately shaped outline on a piece of paper, sketching in the rough position of the furniture, and then moving Monopoly tokens around so that you know where people are. It can be more elaborate lead miniatures in a three dimensional model, or articulated dolls of some sort that can be posed. You could even do the whole thing with wire frame figures on a computer.

How doesn’t matter. What does matter is that you the writer understand what happens in the space you create for the scene before the reader sees it. If you don’t know the way it is, how will you ever convince them?
(Originally published on the Wyrdsmiths blog February 9 2009, and original comments may be found there. Reposted and reedited as part of the reblogging project)