Crowds vs Councils

A post from Patricia Wrede’s blog, and thanks to Rowan M for pointing me to this blog: Crowds vs. Councils

The way I separate them in my head, a crowd scene is one that has a lot of people present, but most of them are not going to have real dialog. what they say is mostly generic overheard-in-a-crowd stuff that probably isn’t part of an actual conversation with any of the main characters. In short, crowd scenes are crowds of spear-carriers or walk-ons, with maybe a couple of minor characters so that it doesn’t seem as if everybody else is just wallpaper.

“Council scene” is my shorthand for any scene that has more than about five characters in it who all need to talk to one another. They don’t always involve an official council, or even a conference; sometimes, they’re a tea party or a Thanksgiving dinner with the entire contentious extended family, or a classroom full of kids, or just all sixteen of the major characters showing up at the same place and time to cause problems for each other. The key is that they are all characters with speaking parts that are important to each other, to the protagonist, and to various aspects of plots and subplots.

This is a great distinction! Plus, it’s a distinction I’ve never thought of before! I’ve always just thought, Aargh, crowd scenes are hard. Which they are! Have I mentioned that I’ve got a lot of crowd scenes in SILVER CIRCLE? — Except they’re actually “council scenes,” according to this distinction. That’s why they’re hard: because all the characters are important (to each other and to me) and involved in various plots and subplots.

At the linked post, really good observations about crowds vs gatherings where everyone matters.

The characters who are at the center of the [crowd] scene are usually aware that there are a lot of people around, but the reader only knows if the writer mentions it.

Yes! The crowd is scenery! The author’s challenge has nothing to do with handling a lot of characters and everything to do with handling description. The challenge with a “council” scene is completely different (and much, much more difficult): keeping every character in the scene enough that the reader remembers the character is there. Keeping the characterization consistent for everyone present. Building subplots for everyone present.

Patricia Wrede says:

I usually have to do it in layers—I write the conversation without worrying about who says what when, and then I go back through it to make sure that nobody has disappeared into the background while everyone else is talking. If the vanishing characters have nothing to say except for that one critical line, I try to at least have them react to what the others are saying, so that the reader remembers they’re there. If they don’t say or do anything, I try to cut them out of the scene, or mention that they spent the whole discussion quietly reading a book in the corner.

I do this in layers, but not the same way. I write the complete scene, but then go back through and check to see who was present and set each character who accidentally vanished back into the scene. Not just once. I go over that scene multiple times, handing (say) James some lines of dialogue and some reactions and making sure he is actually present in the location. I mean physically present; placing him in the room and having him move and react to stuff. Then Amira. Then Carissa. Over and over. This is the sort of scene that takes all morning to get down and that will get revised multiple times.

In this particularly annoying scene … let me see … okay, all these characters were present: Grayson, Natividad, Alejandro, Miguel, two new characters you haven’t met, Santibanez, James, Riss, Amira. How many is that? Ten! Aargh, no wonder this scene was difficult and annoying! I pushed some of these characters out of the room before going to the next scene, and no wonder.

Later, I’ll go over this scene again and cut anyone who turned out not to contribute to a subplot or anybody who turned out not to be important in surrounding scenes. That’s all ordinary editing and it all has to take place later because I don’t know yet exactly who is going to pick up what kind of subplot. I just have notions. If those notions don’t wind up going anywhere, then less important characters may step from on to off stage. That may require coming up with a different place for them to be, so that there’s no reason for them to be present in the “council” scene. Also, right now this scene is in Miguel’s pov, but that pove might shift to someone else. Not sure. This sort of thing is also normal editing (normal tedious pain-in-the-neck editing).

“Find” is your friend for making sure a character has been one hundred percent removed from a scene, by the way. I nearly always find that a character has been removed MOST of the way, but oops, not quite all the way. Even more important if the character is removed from the whole book; you do not want readers tripping over that character in one line when the character isn’t really there at all.

Wrede winds up this way:

The other thing that works for me is splitting up a massive conversation into a bunch of mini-conversations and reactions. George and Michal each have a line complaining about the tickets; Maria rolls her eyes at them; Janet tells Maria to behave and they snark at each other for another two lines; Reg tries to get the conversation back on track by asking George a question, which Michal jumps in to answer; Janet corrects Michal and they have two lines of snark; and so on. It’s a bit chaotic, but the more characters I have in a scene, the more useful I find the technique. I just have to check every so often to make sure nobody has disappeared.

Maybe I’ll try that in the next super-complicated crowd scene. I mean council scene.

You know who does amazingly great council scenes? Jennifer Cruisie, and if I wanted to point to ONE author who does this REALLY well, she is now on the top of my list. The climactic scene of Faking It provides a splendid example. I read that scene with great enjoyment, and I assure you, I was paying attention to craft and technique as much as to what was actually going on in the scene. I should actually go right back to that scene and re-read that a couple of times, then revisit the difficult council scene I just wrote in SILVER CIRCLE. I think it’s put together just exactly the same way Wrede is talking about, as a series of mini-conversations and reactions, and I think looking at my scene through that lens might be helpful in making sure the scene works and every character stays present.

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5 thoughts on “Crowds vs Councils”

  1. Reading this, I immediately thought of the ridiculous council scene at the end of Mairelon the Magician, where virtually every character in the book turned up. I remember reading that as a middle-schooler and being absolutely dazzled. I couldn’t figure out at the time what was so unusual about the scene, but I could tell that I’d never encountered anything like it before.

  2. Oh, I loved that scene! I need to go re-read it now that I’m thinking about crowd scenes. Or council scenes. Whatever we’re going to call them.

  3. I have a feeling that Patricia Wrede might have been thinking of that scene when she wrote the blog post!

  4. Ooh, a fox!

    I’m not sure why, but I specifically like foxes in fiction. I’m surprised I haven’t yet included a fox, fox shifter, fox spirit, fox god, or any other fox in a novel. Perhaps someday.

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