Six impossible things

Crowd scenes

One of the first things I ever learned to hate about writing was writing council scenes. One character on stage had things to do; two characters on stage could talk to each other; three could talk and interrupt and disagree. But with every character after that who had to be part of a scene, it got harder and harder to keep things moving. Either some of the characters were just standing quietly in the background, doing and saying nothing (so why were they there, again?) or there was a mad jumble of actions and lines of dialog that didn’t make sense.

If the scene in question was a dinner or a party, I could stick to whichever two or three characters were important, and let the reader presume that everyone else was having a different conversation in another corner. But council scenes – scenes where a bunch of different characters with important agendas all got together to hash out what was going on and what they needed to do next – those were a nightmare.

And for some reason, whenever my characters held a council, it wasn’t the protagonist and three of her closest friends and advisors; no, I had to have the protagonist and friends, plus two or three ambassadors, plus representatives of every major faction in the city/country, from the city guards and the army to the magician’s guild, including the folks who want to take the bad guy’s side and the ones who want to collect the Humungously Powerful Magic Gizmo and study it or use it themselves instead of wasting it taking out the Evil Overlord.

I couldn’t shuffle anyone off into a corner, because they were all important to the scene. Even minor characters who only showed up for that one scene in the whole book were there because they represented some attitude or agenda that the major characters needed to consider and deal with, or because they had some obscure but critical piece of information that needed to come out in order for everyone to make the right decision. Nobody could go off and stand quietly in a corner talking to someone else, or if they did, that conversation had better be important and had to come out somewhere in the rest of the scene.

And that was just the conversation. Even with everyone sitting around a giant table, there was body language, and as soon as someone inevitably lost his temper, people stood up and started shouting, or attempted to make a stately exit, or just stormed out. Juggling it all so that my protagonists kept the center stage, but everyone else still got to have their say (and their reactions) was (and still is) a major headache. Council scenes, it turns out, are the simplest form of crowd scene (simplest because everyone is usually trapped around a table in a formal setting where they’re supposed to be polite and actually listen to each other instead of all trying to do or say something at the same time).

I did eventually learn a couple of tricks for handling everything. The first one was to start with a list: who is present in the scene? I listed everybody I could think of who would logically be present, from my main characters to the ceremonial guards standing on either side of the door.

Then, for each person, I listed why they were there. Did they represent a particular political faction? Was it part of their job, like the guards and the queen’s steward? Were they invited for a reason – influence or money or information that the main characters wanted? And then I listed their attitude toward the decisions that the council was supposed to consider. Were they for, against, or neutral? Could they be persuaded to change their mind? If so, by what – logic, bribes, blackmail, an emotional appeal for solidarity?

Next, I figured out my seating plan. Knowing who everyone is sitting next to or across from, at what distance from whoever they may want to agree or disagree with wasn’t just useful; it was all that kept me from making really basic mistakes like having the red-headed councilor seated next to four different ambassadors and his wife, all at the same time. For the more general crowd scene, “seating plan” is more “who’s standing where/doing what,” and can end up looking a bit like a diagram of a football play, but it’s still exceedingly useful.

Finally, I made a list of the points I, the author, wanted to get done during the course of the scene. This included everything from introducing an important new character to setting up the fight with the monster five chapters later, tangled relationships or politics that I want to bring up, and of course all the information and plot points that the characters need to cover.

I don’t plan the conversation exactly, though it’s usually obvious that certain points will need to be made by specific characters. The list of what I want to get done is to help me stay on track when I start writing, so that I don’t wander too far down a particular conversational byway without stopping to think about whether that’s really where I want the scene to go. I don’t always end up covering every point. Sometimes, the byway ends up being much more interesting than what I had planned, and I just go with it.

That, however, doesn’t come until I actually start writing the scene, and discovering how it’s all going to play out. The first key thing for keeping a crowd scene on track turns out to be viewpoint. In first-person or tight third-person, staying solidly behind the POV character’s eyes helps enormously in keeping everything under control. The scene follows the viewpoint character’s attention, so if five people are yelling at once and the POV can’t make out what any of them are saying, I don’t have to write dialog for all of them.

The second key thing, which is closely related to the first, is to roll the conversation along in short, three-to-five-line dialog exchanges that are limited to two or three people. If the POV is talking, he/she counts as one of the three; if not, the POV gets a reaction thought every three-to-five lines to remind us that he/she is there. It may be a bit of body language – a nod, an itchy elbow, a slight move to one side to get out of somebody’s line of sight – or it may be a mental comment on what’s just been said, or an emotional reaction to the revelation. Whatever it is, it comes right before the next set of dialog exchanges. Every so often, the dialog pattern gets broken by something – somebody standing up and shouting, tea arriving, ninjas leaping in through the windows.

So the scene ends up going something like this: A speaks, B answers, A speaks; POV rolls eyes; B answers, C objects, B sits down in a huff, D comments, C argues; POV nods; D responds, A repeats original point, D agrees, B objects again, E says he has a point; POV notices F looks nervous; etc.

That’s if everybody is more-or-less having the same conversation, which is what’s supposed to happen in a council scene. In a crowd scene, on the other hand, there’s a mob of people on stage who all have their own agenda. The trick there is to break the mob up into two-or-three-person groups, each of which can pursue their own course and take brief turns on center stage as the POV character’s attention is dragged from one group to another.

The last key thing is to make sure that nobody goes too long without being mentioned, so that the reader (and the author!) don’t forget they’re there. If somebody hasn’t had a chance to speak or do anything in two or three pages (depending on how many characters one is juggling), then a line like “A, D, and G nodded emphatically; F hesitated, then made a jerky movement that might have been agreement” takes care of four people at once.

  1. I haven’t had to write a council scene yet, but it gives me a headache just thinking about it! At least now when I do, I’ll have your pointers!

  2. In light of what you have written, I will have to take another look at the two, big council scenes in LotR.

    Managing a crowd happens in roleplaying games, too. I found it useful to use figures, because it made it clear where people were. Otherwise, you would often have one player insisting that, of course, he could get over to next opponent. With figures, it was obvious whether he really could.

  3. Gene,

    Funny, the Council of Elrond was the first thing I though of, too. You have to remember that Tolkien wrote in omniscient 3rd, which means it doesn’t exactly match Ms Wrede’s descriptions here. It’s easy to forget, because the narrator often focuses quite narrowly, but it shows clearly in the Council. A good thing, too, because it lets all of us step back from what was actually a series of very long narrations – it took 4-6 hours to recount the entire history of the Ring and establish to everybody’s satisfaction that Frodo was indeed carrying it. The reader gets a summary and a few highlights as a distant observer, with no particular character serving as POV.

    The second thing that I thought was: how did she learn all this, again? Perhaps my memory is failing, but I don’t remember any council scenes including more than the 3-5 principal characters, except in 7 Towers & perhaps Caught in Crystal.

    • Louis – There are a couple of minor and one very major council scenes in SHADOW MAGIC (the one in Eveleth with the Shee, for instance, and the one near the end when the Alkyran lords are fussing about the crown), and quite a lot of five-person scenes in DAUGHTER OF WITCHES, which were close enough to my “council scene” definition to be really annoying when I was that level of beginner. The piece de resistance, however, were the housebreaking scene and the grand finale in MAIRELON THE MAGICIAN. At one point, I had sixteen characters on stage, all with Important Stuff To Do.

  4. I just have to say, the finale of Mairelon is one of my favorite scenes in the whole book, and the housebreaking one runs a close second, so I think you must have gotten them right!

  5. Does it change things if there is an effective or ineffective chairman?
    Are the rules “Stick to the topic” or “Anything a member deems relevant is relevant”?

    Our railway club once had a meeting where one member was so upset at the discussion that he walked out … of his own house. (This tidbit available free to anyone who needs some comic relief).

  6. The Council of Elrond had the advantage that many of the characters had mastered the art of narration, and we could listen to their stories as pleasantly as to the narrator’s proper voice. It’s suitable for the era, even.

    I hate crowd scenes in general because I want to suggest the crowd without its cluttering up the story. And I notice a lot of writers end up with claustrophobic casts in situations that really ought to have lots and lots and lots of people, so I want to avoid it myself.

  7. Interesting remarks. I have several such scenes in my series for logical (plot) reasons, but it’s so hard to keep them from either being info dumps for the plot or reduced to unlikely intimacy among a few of the attending characters. Maddening… One of the many skills I need to improve.

  8. Louis, I was also thinking of The Last Debate chapter in RotK.

    Patricia, yes, that was a very busy scene. It was very messy, and I was half-expecting a train wreck, but I think that you handled it well.

  9. Amusing to read this a day before I attend the Minneapolis DFL convention — which will be making endorsements in “nonpartisan” races, and perhaps doing other things which might be too improbable for fiction.

  10. You’re right – I did forget Mairelon. Those were definitely crowd scenes!

    I was indeed referring to Daughter with that 3-5. It may be an early book, but you were already good enough that the scaffolding is invisible to the reader.

  11. Coming in late, I think I make things harder on myself by having so many characters who are couples.

    This means that a face-to-face turns into a meeting with four people, a small meeting of three or four turns into a larger one with six or eight people, a medium-sized group of six to eight turns into a crowd of 12 to 16…

    I do mostly manage to avoid bringing secret agendas and cross-purposes into my meetings, but it still isn’t easy. At the moment I’m working on a “council of war” scene with my protagonist and three of his close allies. Only each one has his “significant other” present (and expected to give wise advice, according to the setting). This means I now have eight people to juggle, instead of just four.

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