Jilly: Working the Crowd

Working the CrowdWhat do you think is the key to a great group scene? Not an escalating exchange between two people with lots of others looking on and chiming in, but a genuine multi-character interaction?

My week has been a total write-off (pun intended). I’ve been wrestling with a key scene – not a turning point, but an important moment in my hero’s character arc – and I still haven’t nailed it. I whined to Justine about it on Thursday via email, and she suggested I should put up a big piece of paper, map everything out and brainstorm until it fell into place. Did that, which helped, but the scene is still in the resuscitation room. I tried reading around other writing blogs to see if I could find any good advice, but the posts I found were all about making sure the scene was clearly set so the reader could picture it, and taking care with dialogue attribution. Useful, but not what I was looking for.

I’m going to give it one more shot, and if I fluff that, I’ll move on and come back to it later. Before my last hurrah (for now) I’d greatly appreciate ideas, advice and insights.

The scene is from my heroine (Rose)’s point of view. The action is a fight between Rose’s mother and her aunt, and given that they haven’t spoken in more than five years, that’s a big deal. The outcome is that my hero (Ian) starts to understand why Rose is pursuing her goal, and for the first time he steps in and actively supports her in that goal, even though it goes against what he wants.

The scene moves the plot and changes the dynamic in an important way for all four characters. I can’t easily take it out of the story. It can’t happen at any other time. I can’t take any of them out of it – they all need to be there.

If the scene is from Rose’s POV, she must be the scene protagonist, right? Does this mean I should pit Rose against her mother and bring her aunt in later? I tried that. Nope. Ian’s action concludes the scene, so I tried bringing him in earlier, and that was a disaster. I really, really want to make this scene work, so I’ve been thinking about multi-character scenes in my favorite books, to see if that will help me to see the light.

The best example I can think of is the climax of Georgette Heyer’s Devil’s Cub (I know, broken record, but I love that book). Mary, the heroine, runs away with Frederick, the sub-plot hero, hotly pursued by Vidal, the hero, and Juliana, who’s in love with Frederick. After a hectic chase, Vidal and Juliana finally catch up with Mary and Frederick, and the resulting four-person scene is funny and moving and altogether wonderful. Frederick attempts to protect Mary by announcing that they are married. Vidal reveals the depths of his passion for Mary, attempting to make her a widow by killing Frederick, first by throttling him and then by challenging him to a duel. Spoiled Juliana has hysterics, but Mary stands watching intently on the sidelines until she sees an opportunity to act. She saves Frederick from strangulation by dashing a vase of cold water over both men, and from being spitted by trying to catch the rapiers in a bundled-up coat.

So I’m thinking that my scene can still be mother v. aunt. As long as Rose is an active participant and doesn’t stand on the sidelines wringing her hands, she could be caught in the cross-fire and the scene would work. All the participants need to do stuff. If they stand around and yell at each other, the scene will be a dud. And I don’t think Rose should be ‘rescued’ by Ian, but if she calls on his help and he supports her as she asserts herself against her over-protective family, then that’s okay; it sends a positive signal for their long-term future.

Does that sound good to you?

Can you think of any really good multi-character scenes? What makes them work for you?

19 thoughts on “Jilly: Working the Crowd

  1. I love multi-character scenes – too much really – so I sympathise with you Jilly. I think it sounds like it will be good with Rose observing the action and getting caught in the cross fire. Here are a few random thoughts that might unstick you (though you’ve probably already tried them, but just in case not):

    – Try thinking through the scene from Rose’s aunt and mother’s POV, Not rewriting it, but really digging into those two characters because that could give you the extra juice you need to get through the scene.
    – Try changing something else about the scene to see if it flows better: eg location or surrounding action. I sometimes find that putting the characters in a different place or making them do something that is intrinsically funny or awkward while they’re having the conversation you need them to have (or either reinforces or contrasts with the words) can make the scene click better.
    – Try the old classic: what’s the worst that could happen here? What is absolutely the worst thing that could happen in this scene? What is Rose’s worst fear right now? Could you make things worse for her to juice things up a bit?

    Good luck with it! I’m just back to writing after an enforced 3 week absence due to tendonitis in my right hand. #gladtobeback

    • Welcome back, Rachel, and glad the tendonitis is better!

      I’ve tried switching the setting around and changing the dynamic between the characters, so I think I’ll try your other suggestion – go back to all four players, make sure I know what they want and amp it up as hard as I can, plus figure out what Rose would hate most and see if I can make that happen. Oh – and make sure they block each other with concrete actions, not a war of words. I’m not going to touch the keyboard again until I’ve figured it out. Hopefully tomorrow!

  2. My WIP has a multi-character scene that took a bit of work. It’s also a four-character scene that includes the hero and heroine.

    I ended up making it the hero (protagonist) vs one of the other characters who, while not the antagonist of the story, has a goal that blocks the hero’s goal for this scene. Then I used the other two characters (one of whom is the heroine) to fill in various beats in the scene, sometimes substituting the actions of these extra two characters for protagonist beats, sometimes for antagonist beats. It creates a nice ping-pong effect that escalates the tension as the scene progresses.

    Lots of ways to approach this, but I’m betting as we get more practice in the different ways to handle it the choice will become easier to make and implement. Good luck!!

    • After Kay’s comment below, I really have to think again about whose scene this is. I assumed it was Rose’s, but maybe it isn’t. I also love the idea of setting the scene out as a beats analysis and letting the two supporting characters (for that scene) substitute some of the beats. I am definitely going to try that. Thanks, Jennifer!

  3. I love, love, love a multi-character scene that is the turning point of a few plotlines. I just adore it. But I’ve come to recognize that for a writer, it can be Advanced Writing, 401. But you are up to it, Jilly! I know you can do it!

    I’m thinking back to the infamous dinner party scene in Lois McMaster Bujold’s *A Civil Campaign*. This is the scene that leads to the Dark Moment of the Soul. The hero loses the girl, his political career, the respect of his parents and his Aunt (but not their love), and his home becomes infested with mutated butterbugs. Ugly ones, that are decorated with the equivalent of his coat of arms. Not to mention, the scene also advanced the subplots for several other characters. Oh, boy.

    One thing Bujold did was establish where everyone was. In fact, there were several set up scenes — very short, and full of little bits of information. Everyone comes into the library first for pre-dinner drinks. Then they make their way into the dining room, where Miles notices that his seating arrangements have been changed (so not only does this introduce where people were supposed to be, it clearly states where all 13 people (13??) are).

    Another thing Bujold did was go off in side-conversations — very interesting, full of conflict, and it brought other people around the table in because it concerned them and they overheard it. I particularly remember when Dono was suffused with laughter and stuffing the napkin into his mouth so he wouldn’t laugh. Really brought back shades of Lady-Donna-That-Was.

    An interesting thing is that Bujold began to tip the domino, and start the chain reaction, but then pulled back. There were another two or three paragraphs of pleasant chatting, and then, boom! Everything goes to hell for real.

    So, I guess my advice is to make it so that every person in your room has reasons for conflict with at least two other people. Rose is in the center, because she’s getting dragged into everyone else’s conflicts, as well as having conflicts with each person in the scene. Every mini-conflict should land the ball back in Rose’s court, to return or deflect. And then don’t be afraid to make the aftermath scene the deepest, darkest, most sad scene in the whole book. Or maybe the second-saddest, depending on your plot structure.

    If it’s the second-saddest, that means that the darkest scene is probably going to be preceded by an even more complicated set-piece. Or not.

    Having written a multi-character fight scene, I can tell you that it helps to have a physical representation of the space where they are fighting. Maybe a collage to show relationships? And a map? Perhaps Barbie dolls or voodoo dolls to represent each character (haven’t tried this, but have been tempted — I just loved playing Soap Opera Barbie with my sister when I was young).

    (-: Very long post. Hope there’s something in there that you can use.

    • Long post, Michaeline, and 100% pure gold. This is really, really helpful. There are only four players, but each of them has conflict with at least two others (the nuclear one is mother v aunt). Every mini-conflict should land the ball back in Rose’s court, to return or deflect. Right. I have something I love for the aftermath scene, but my Girls are refusing to work on it until I give them a great lead-in. My material is good and I can do it, damn it! Thank you VERY much.

  4. You know, from the way you’ve described it, I’m not sure what’s wrong with it. Not dynamic enough? Not…what? Or too…what? Only thing I feel fairly sure about is that If it’s in Rose’s POV and it’s not working that way, then it isn’t her scene.

    A crowd scene that I like is from Jenny’s Strange Bedpersons. She’s got all her characters—many of whom dislike each other extremely, and several who are in love with each other—in a dinner scene at a restaurant. It’s a showdown, and it’s hilarious. The characters who need to talk to each other behind everyone else’s back duck under the table. It opens at Chapter 12. 🙂

    • Thanks, Kay – part of the reason for the post is that I’m not sure what’s wrong with it, either, but it’s definitely not working. I have tried half a dozen variations from Rose’s POV but it never occurred to me that it might be Ian’s scene. He owns the climax, so maybe. I will definitely try it.

      I love that scene from Strange Bedpersons – that was the other one I thought about using for this post. Going to re-read it right now.

  5. Chiming in late here, Jilly, but a few things occur to me, perhaps none of which apply to your scene :-).

    But…is it possible the scene feels flat because the argument between the mother and aunt is too on point? In other words, if they are getting together for the first time in five years, it’s unlikely that they’d launch into The Thing that’s the real problem. Instead, they would argue about petty things. Maybe the jabs would get harder and they’d dive deeper and get closer to the real issue as the scene progresses, or maybe not even then.

    Instead of wringing her hands, Rose would probably be mortified about Ian witnessing this, so would try to interrupt/keep the peace/distract them, etc. This would be a great place for her to use action to try to interrupt them – drop things, move furniture, whatever would be really counterproductive to them trying to have an argument.

    Also, adding to what Michaeline and Kay said about side conversations, if the mother and aunt are arguing about the petty things, maybe Ian, in asides to Rose, can draw the on-point conclusions. Since he’s perfect for our girl, he’s going to be insightful and protective. For example, if the mother were to insult the aunt’s dress, then comment that ex-her husband always did like women with bad taste, Ian would say to Rose, “My god, the woman your father left your mother for was your aunt?!” (Obviously, making up examples that have nothing to do with your story, but hopefully you get the gist.)

    Also, make sure each of the four has a goal for the scene. Appealing to your operatic side, think of the quartet in Rigoletto where each character is talking about the same event but coming at it from a different angle (although I can’t recall, without pulling out the CD, whether each of the four is singing a ‘monologue’ or having conversations with other characters). At any rate, each character in the scene has his/her own agenda. If each of your four have their own agenda and work toward that, it might help you figure out what each of them would do/say.

    • Thank you, Nancy. I’m thinking this might be the best blog post I’ve ever put up, because I’ve got so many valuable suggestions from you all. I’ve also realised this scene is even more important than I thought, and I have to go much deeper with all the characters and give them much, much stronger actions.

      I think (hope) Jennifer’s right, that this writing gig will become easier over time, as the choices become more familiar. This has been my first big stumbling block in a while. I have written other multi-character scenes, but they haven’t been doing the kind of work I need this one to do.

    • Such a fun post, Rachel! So many nods of sympathy (and a little frustration that I’m not at the point where I can do that full time for a week or so. Oh well, onward!).

      Gotta say, though, my journalism profs two decades ago trained us out of the Oxford comma. With the recent brouhahas of various sorts, I have been dithering about going Oxford again, but it sounds like *some* of the brouhahas may be the dying gasp of the Oxford comma, not righteous outrage.

      (-: I have no idea why this is so interesting to me. I will, of course, do whatever my editor says is the house style. (But I hope it’s not an Oxford comma!)

  6. Couple days late here, but the advice I’ve always heard is that the POV goes to the person with the most potential for pain, or who is in the biggest crisis. So, if Rose is stepping into the crossfire with mother and aunt, do they turn on her, then on each other for turning on her? Does she intentionally try to draw their fire then get way more barbs that hit the target than she expected?

    Good luck with it. I’m going back over an MS where most the scenes do what I need them to do, but the conflict is lacking. So I get to redo the scene, have the same outcome, but now with more feeling! It’s not bad the way it is, but once I got enough feedback to realize it was all happening too easy for my protag for about 2/3rds of the story, I had a facepalm moment. Of course it needs more try-fail, more moving goal posts, more frustration and rising to the challenge. But how to fix that in each scene for the majority of the book without breaking anything already in place… well, that’s going to be fun.

    Maybe the four person scene feels off because what’s happening isn’t hitting Rose hard enough, and thus it’s “too easy” for her to get through. Maybe (probably) I’m biased. 😉 Good luck.

    • No such thing as late, Flo! The mother and the aunt have been at war for years – it’s rooted in back-story related to Rose’s father (the aunt’s only brother). Both mother and aunt love Rose, but they both think they know what’s best for her, and they are implacably opposed. So when they clash, as opposed to ignoring each other, it’s about Rose and she’s in the cross-fire. So I have plenty of opportunity to amp up the scene, I’m just not taking it. I think I have too many choices. I need to pick a lane and go for it.

      Good luck with putting your protag through hell!

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