Otherwise known as: what do you do with a drunken sailor?
So it’s been smoothing sailing so far in your story-writing, or to use another cliché, it’s been clear skies until the writing of an important scene in relation to both your plot and character development. Now the storm hits. You’ve got to include numerous characters without confusing the reader. Suddenly, you’re knee-deep in speech tags, waves sloshing over the bow, and trying to bail.
So what’s the event? Well, you’re having a party, everyone’s invited, including Old Cap’n Two-Parrots, and you’ve got to help the reader keep track of names, personalities, motivations and plot developments.
You can do this, though. (So keep your eye on the horizon). What’s more, you probably really need to do this. Many novels can benefit from this kind of party scene, all-hands-on-deck moment. Remember how juicy and satisfying it was to see Jim and Pam from The Office (American version) interact on a cruise ship while sporting evening wear? Or to watch Hermione and Luna and Neville transform at the Yule Ball? Or even experience the awkwardness of a large dinner party full of smug marrieds in Bridget Jones’s Diary? A group scene is often necessary to up the tension, demonstrate how delightfully characters can play off each other, and move the plot forward. But here, naturally, arise some concerns.
How to keep characters memorable and distinct
Not overwhelming reader with names and characters to keep straight
Not letting confusion cloud plot/events
How to show who is speaking and when w/o overdoing speaker tags
Maintaining authentic voices
And now, the promised tips:
Keeping the voices distinct here is crucial. It’s okay, if the three teens who are not central to the plot, all sound a little similar. But if you’re writing YA, then you’d need to dive down deeper and flesh out personality in each voice. Either way, there is more than one way to keep voices distinct (see my blog on this topic).
If this is the first time you’re introducing your characters, you’ll want to go back later and flesh out voice once you’ve written the entire novel and know them better. You’ll need to lean on and draw from all you know about their personalities to keep readers following who is who.
Make both what they say and how they say it relevant to the plot and authentic to the character. Are they bossy? Do they ask questions? Use rejoinders or epithets?
INTRODUCTION OF CHARACTERS:
Don’t introduce them all at once. At least a few sentences, purposeful, not just for characterization/description, are useful for any major character the reader must keep track of.
Add a few visual and personality traits, and make sure to reinforce them quickly. Ideally, the names will resonate with these qualities. Link concepts in readers’ minds, even subtly. Try, if possible, to attach names, when introduced, to a grounding, character detail.
Particularly if this is the first time a character has appeared in the story, make sure names are not too visually or auditorily similar.
You may need to use names during this scene more often than if only two characters were in the room (instead of mere pronouns).
CHARACTER WORK BEHIND THE SCENES:
Consider roles. If one character is bossy, can they be the one who argues no one at the table can have more than one roll on the first pass around of the dish, etc.? This will help readers immediately realize who is talking. Cap’n Two-Parrots isn’t going to be the one asking all the questions; he’ll be the one singing off-key sea chanties. Bonus– he won’t need a speech tag if we know he’s the one slurring his words!
Do the character work first, before writing the scene. Once you do, it will be a delight to write and indulge in the recognition that yes, if Hector begins choking, Chandra will be the one to help him, and Hiro will be the one to dive under the table to retrieve the fork. Why? Because you know them. If you do the character work ahead of time, writing these interactive scenes feels like coming home.
Yes, it’s a no-brainer. But have a friend read the scene and tell you if and when they were lost as to characters. You might even try handing them the scene (as an experiment) with extremely minimal speech tags. If you can write a scene with multiple characters and the voice is so distinct that no tags are needed, you’ve succeeded brilliantly with character development. It’s like hitting that sweet spot between the gears on a standard transmission; if you know when to switch, if you know your engine, you may not even have to clutch. Yes, I know. I’ve lost the pirate ship analogy. I’m sure you’re thankful at this point. Argh.
Don’t overcompensate by overdoing speech tags or exhaustively repeating characters’ names in speech. However, you may need to lean on this a little more heavily than usual.
Don’t forget to use action tags to break up the monotony of dialogue tags.
Don’t slow down the pacing with long character descriptions. Work in one or two unique, identifying details naturally. If you must include a setting and or character info dump, do it at natural conversational lulls, not in the middle of the action.
DO: Have fun! Who knows what Cap’n Two Parrots will do when he meets up with Aunt Edna at the annual Swashbuckler’s Ball? Unless you write a party scene, you’ll never know.
Experiencing writer’s block? Check this out.
Trying to reduce wordcount? Check this out.
Check back soon – I’ll include some dialogue examples and offer a prompt to practice on this topic! I’ll also offer a chance to get some free feedback on your party/group scene!