Juggling Characters In One Scene

Often times, when writing stories, you have a main character who interacts with another character while doing their thing to advance the plot. Sometimes you have situations where they are interacting with more than one other person. Occasionally you have several at once. In general, it’s my opinion that the more characters you have on stage at any given time, the more difficult the juggling act becomes.

In real life, conversations among groups of people are a hodge podge of broken sentences, half replies, and a myriad of physical reactions. You don’t typically get one person talking, and then another person talking, and then another, and so on. This would be nice for writing if it were so, but sadly, if you want to be realistic at all, you have a constant interchange, bouncing back and forth, hand waving, shrugs, frowns, laughs, and the list goes on. There’s a wealth of information to pick up on if you are observing multiple people interacting at once.

Writing character interaction though, is a careful selection of words (usually not how we really speak) and actions that bring important character and story details to life. In my series, multiple, simultaneous character interactions are pretty commonplace. Jackie, my mc, is frequently paired up with someone else while moving through the story. In book three (still working on this one) a good deal of the story is a team effort. Three or four people are often going around together doing things. Needless to say, it’s quite easy to forget all of the people in the room at any given time.  The trick is, to give the reader an indication that you have not forgotten about someone. Readers are very good at filling in the blanks. The mind is handy that way. This is one reason why you never have to give extensive descriptions of things. It’s a good skill to develop as a writer, the ability to pick out the one or two details of something or someone that allows the reader to color in the rest of the picture on their own. Character interaction can be thought of in the same way.

The main character’s pov drives whatever interactions are going on in a scene. Not only do you have to consider what you as the writer wants the reader to see/hear/feel/etc., you need to filter the scene through the character’s pov. People pay attention to things that interest them and ignore those that don’t. You can use this fact to selectively pick out what happens and what is said. Readers know that having every detail from every character in a scene would not only be chaotic, but would do little to show what interests them the most, the main character.  So, no you don’t have to make all conversations a round-robin affair that includes everyone’s opinion/response to what was said. That being said, you can’t just ignore the other characters in the room either, otherwise what’s the point of having them around?

People interrupt in conversations all of the time. You can’t do this a lot with dialogue because it creates conversations too difficult to follow, but it should be used. Otherwise you will have what amounts to a chain of two-person conversations, and a lot of characters doing, “I wanted to respond to what the mc said at the end of the previous page.” Make use of the interrupt to add in other thoughts that the mc might want/need to hear. Don’t wait because it disrupts the flow of conversation. Make use of the — or the trailing off … Conversations stop and start and pause all of the time, and writing dialogue is a strange method of speaking unrealistically (for the most part) while maintaining enough hints of structural balance so the reader can fill in the blanks that would otherwise be there in real life. As always, the trick to doing anything well in writing is making the reader believe what you are doing is realistic and believable, even if it’s not.

The same can be said for action, and while I’m not going to reiterate all of the above for physical action scenes with multiple characters, the same basic rules apply. Don’t forget that people beyond your mc are doing things. Always be aware of what everyone is doing, so that when appropriate interaction needs to happen, it makes sense to do so. If another character is there and never mentioned for any reason, then there’s no point in them being there. It takes surprisingly little for the brain to be able to fill in information. It’s very good at it, and everyone fills in those blanks in different ways, which is one of the reasons why stories are so utterly subjective. The way we fill in is unique, and as a writer, you won’t like the way everyone does it, but you can’t do anything about that. All you can do is write in such a way that makes it easy for the most people to do so, in a believable and realistic manner.

On a side note, I’m happy to announce that book three will be titled, The Lingering Dead, which means I’m now likely stuck creating titles with the same format, but such is the way of publishing. Happy reading/writing everyone.

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