Dynamic Fiction Techniques
Handling a Cast of Thousands, Part III
© Will Greenway 2000
Congratulations: you qualify as legitimate glutton for punishment! You're back for a third installment on managing groups of characters. In this section, we're going to put the things we discussed in parts I and II into motion and give more concrete methods and techniques for putting more snap and verve into those crowded scenes.
As we look at composing more elaborate and involved scenes with several protagonists, various walk-ons, and extras, we need a structured approach that will assist us not only in visualizing the scene, but composing and choreographing what will happen within our scene.
First and foremost, the scene must have a goal. The goal can be something simple like introducing a new character, or have a more elaborate aim, such as refining the relationships between your cast members. Whatever the case, this goal is the closure toward which the whole scene should focus.
Sometimes the goal may simply be getting the characters from point A to B. In other words, it is a transition scene. In the case of the transition scene, make the transition itself SECONDARY unless it is of particular significance. Never waste an opportunity to reveal character and clarify the stakes. Most writers play hell with flat transition scenes because they try to fill the empty void with unfocused chit-chat or grope around with artificially created tension. Instead, superimpose a secondary goal on the scene: reveal hidden plot elements, have characters divulge secrets or explore relationships.
Once you have a goal or target, structure events so as to hit that target. Think of every scene as having five "acts" as in a play. In this context, these "acts" are your agenda. They are mini-pinning points within the scene.
ACT I : The establishing shot—the camera (narrative) eye gives us a quick overview of where we are and who is present. This opening shot should include details from at least three senses. The establishing shot is usually short (three paragraphs maximum). At its terminus, there should be a one to two paragraph bridge or segue that introduces or makes us aware of the micro-conflict or goal of this scene.
The next three acts are the rising actions, attempts to solve or reach the goal for this scene. Because not all scenes will necessarily have a clearly defined "conflict," these "attempts" are simply a matter of nomenclature. For the purposes of explanation, let's say that the goal of this particular five-act scene is to reconcile the hero and his girlfriend.
ACT II: Introduction to conflict—the hero tries to apologize but is rebuffed or something interferes. In a charged situation, the writer may chose to have this make their relationship even WORSE.
ACT III: Grappling with the problem—The hero makes a more impassioned attempt and gets stymied yet again. It may even seem at this point that reconciliation is now impossible.
ACT IV: All is lost—The hero makes a last-ditch effort to plead his case. She doesn't look convinced. It looks as if it's over.
Bridge and resolution—just when all seems lost, the hero finds the right words, or something turns it around. Reconciliation IS accomplished.
ACT V: Scene closure, tie-up, and cut-away—Here some reflection and tying up of loose ends goes on. If there are complications as a result of what went on in the scene, they are introduced here. The author may choose to end on a cliff-hanger or sudden twist to bridge into the next scene or chapter.
It probably didn't escape your notice that this structure is identical to the rising conflict and closure of an entire plot. This is intentional. In fact, as you get comfortable with the idea of layering and the story within the story, you can develop these minor struggles as metaphorical and thematic mirrors of your overall plot conflict.
Once you've established a goal for a scene, the next "layer" to add to is mood and tone. A deadly serious scene can be handled in a humorous way or vice versa. You as the writer should be concerned with the mood because it is how you want the reader to feel. The reader's empathy toward your characters and the ongoing situation is skewed by your choice of words and imagery. Consider the following three mood passages:
A single black eye burned in the steel gray sky, casting a dark radiance across the blasted plain. Rivulets of lava bubbled and hissed through cracks in crusty reddish soil that looked like parboiled flesh. Charred trees leaned askew in the decimated ground like skeletal hands.
The smells of urine, rotting vegetables and wood grew stronger as he headed toward the deepest shadows. Mulmaster's buildings sprawled across one another like drunken titans, their stony skins soot-covered and pitted.
The remnants of the sun lay like a livid sliver on the horizon, painting the sky in gradients of orange and white, shading to a deep blue overhead. The first stars sparkled low in the heavens. The air smelled of heat, sand, and dry vegetation. The breeze made the only audible sound.
At first read, these passages may seem to have the same tone and mood. Read them over and judge your own reaction. The first one probably has a creepy feel to it. The second may hit you as more harried and tense. The third should give a sense of quiet and expectation. This "feel" is your tone and mood. Take note that these are active rather than passive descriptions. Static imagery is given a sense of motion and activity. By making your backgrounds active and vivid, your characters will standout even more in contrast.
Like backgrounds, people visually and audibly portray their moods. Also, as we've been discussing, everything in fiction (as in life) has layers. There is the face that we show to others, and the face we keep to ourselves. Men and women deal with tension in different ways, some with laughter, others with silence. Some people smile, but their folded arms indicate that they are not really as open or comfortable as they portray.
When depicting scenes, you have four mood and tone values to keep in balance. You have the surface mood of the events, which you paint with word choices and simile. You have the undercurrent, which is handled with indirection. This is usually a contrasting element threaded through the narrative. The third and fourth layers lie within characterization: The outward and obvious mask your characters show to the world, and the concealed and hidden registers given away by body language, a cracking voices, or hesitant eye contact.
As you work with the interaction of these registers, you will find that sharp changes in mood create particularly dramatic and memorable moments. A sober and tense situation can set up an extremely humorous bit. A funny situation is a great framework when all the humor gets crushed by a startling reality. Additionally, mood swings can give a scene more punch by giving it a rising and falling "heartbeat". This layered approach weaves in an out to emphasize the character moods.
Solid character design, active scene construction, and an eye for visual and sensory detail make dealing with groups much more manageable. Attention to people dynamics, keeping goals in focus, and putting us in the mind and body of your viewpoint characters will bring not only your groups, but ALL of your writing-to full fledged and immortal life.