Writing Crowded Scenes

When your novel’s lead character walks into a crowded room—or even a room with more than one person, your scene writing skills need to be ramped up.

Writing Tip for Today: Let’s talk about scene writing in a multiple-character situation:

Set the Scene

Ever notice how many scenes we write with only two characters? In a two-person scene it’s somewhat easier to envision the players and the setting.  Writing a “busy scene,” however, calls for certain skills. You can’t spend too much time recounting details or you’ll bore your reader. Yet you must convey the sense of a character working in a less-than-sterile environment.

If you open your scene with a list of objects, keep it short and remember what sorts of objects your character would first notice. When there’s more than one other person in the scene, which would your POV character notice first? What sort of reaction does that character have?

As you set the “crowded” scene, pay attention to the scene’s purpose. Don’t ramble all over just to include everything and everyone unless your character can react to all these things. Instead, help readers by homing in on the important elements as quickly as possible.

Establish the Main Connection

When a scene contains three or more characters, you can establish the POV character’s main connection (reason for the scene) immediately or tease your reader a bit before the main action begins. Note that a bit should never be more than a couple of surface interactions.

Keeping Purpose in mind, your readers will also try to discern which characters are important and which are not. Help establish this connection by allowing your POV character to react. The character may or may not be expecting the meeting, but the faster the POV lets readers know the attitude toward other characters or what the POV expects to get from any of them, the easier it will be for readers to stick with you.

Accomplish the POV’s reactions through the emotions. Using physical tells (His throat closed up the moment he saw her), thoughts (Oh no, Mom wasn’t supposed to home for hours!) or dialogue (Mr. Smithers! I thought you were on vacation), you will help readers understand the scene’s purpose in a clear way.

Refresh the Reader’s Memory

When you write scenes with multiple characters, you must show readers the stage as you set the scene. Then, your main character and one person start to interact. Be careful—it won’t be long before readers forget about everything except those two characters.

Touch backs to the first scene set will refresh reader memories and help them experience the scene more cinematically. Maybe you write a couple of dialogue exchanges, then zoom out for a brief look at the whole scene before zooming back to the more intimate interaction.

You can think of a cowboy movie that is set in the saloon. Maybe five men are playing poker at a round table. The camera cuts back and forth between a wide angle showing the whole room (piano playing, guys at the bar), then to the table and then as a closeup of the two main players’ faces.

Use the Rule of Three to help you decide when to zoom in or out. Be sure to weight the scene to the purpose (a confrontation between the hero and a poker cheat?) so that readers are clear about why they’re in the saloon. To toss back a shot? Never touch the stuff, myself.

About Linda S. Clare

I'm an author, speaker, writing coach and mentor. I teach both fiction and nonfiction writing at Lane Community College and in the doctoral program as expert writing advisor for George Fox University. I love helping writers improve their craft and I'm both an avid reader and writer of stories about those with wounded hearts.

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