Monday, May 03, 2010

Art Imitates Life

When we write, we strive to create real people. Not story characters, but people that live and breathe, cry and laugh, hate and love. They have lives that feel real to the reader. And yet…they don’t live and breathe and as authors we have to limit what they do.

Oh, they can kill people. They can have sex. They can go to faraway lands. But they have some limits.

Try writing a scene where twenty characters carry on a conversation, yelling over each other, interrupting each other, leaving, coming back, switching subjects mid-sentence. That happens in real life, but it’s awfully difficult to write it and not lose the reader.

Even fewer people, say eight sitting around a dinner table laughing and trading stories, is difficult to maintain. With that many people talking in real life, you end up sometimes listening to one person, sometimes breaking up into two or three simultaneous conversations, and sometimes trying to keep up with two stories at once.

That makes for lively dinner talk. I’ve found, though, that it doesn’t work so well in a book. When you’re writing a scene with multiple characters, having that many people interacting is too confusing. More than about three people talking together is too many. If it’s a play, a movie or a TV show, you can do more characters – the audience can see and identify easily who’s talking. In a book, it’s either confusing or boring with constant tags to identify the speakers.

I might call this a general rule, but like all rules, there are exceptions. There are ways around a limited pool of three speakers. You could have three talking at a table or football game, long enough to establish who they are in the readers’ minds, then have one or two more come into the conversation, then exit. You could have six or eight at a dinner table, but have them broken up into three or four conversations, each going on separately with the main character focusing in on one interaction.

Fiction may imitate or mimic real life, but it’s not an exact copy. What’s you “limit” on the number of characters in one conversation? How do you handle more than three speakers at one time?
TweetIt from HubSpot


  1. Dialogues with more than 3 characters are very difficult. Maybe colour coding can be used for each person, LOL.

    Steamy Darcy

  2. Ooh, that is a tricky one. I don't write more than three people into a conversation because I just can't keep track. Sorry, no answers here. Maybe you could if not all three had to do the same amount of talking. Maybe one doesn't say hardly anything at all? I don't know. :)

  3. There are cases where entire books are frustrating to read because of too many characters. I've seen it done well, but I've also seen it fail miserably. I think the limitations vary from author to author, but I would certainly shy away from conversation with more than three or four characters.

  4. This post made me think - and I don't believe I have more than one scene where more than three are talking.

  5. You're right - it's tricky. I do have scenes involving several characters, but I believe I focused on the viewpoint of just one. And as you said, in real life, we can't follow all the conversations, so one character focused on two others at the most.

  6. I try to put a limit on it...sometimes it's hard not to have a bigger group. If I need to have a lot of people talking at once about a particular event, I usually have characters joining and leaving the group (different people on stage).

    Great post! Am tweeting...

    Mystery Writing is Murder

  7. So far, three seems to make a crowd, when it comes to writing dialogue. Others can come in and go out, but not stay in the main crowd.

  8. I wrote a scene yesterday that had 4 people in it, and I had to work through it carefully to make sure no one disappeared, and that it didn't turn into just a 'talking heads' event with just tagged dialogue.

    So, yes, more is more difficult, but if it's done well, I must confess I enjoy reading complex scenes.

  9. I haven't written a scene yet with more than two characters speaking, but seems to me three would be the limit. Even in real life, I have trouble following a conversation when more than three people are involved.

  10. True, Karen. And if it's difficult when we can see the people who are talking, it's more so when they're in our heads.

    Way to go, India! That's not easy to do.

  11. I think point of view becomes very important in a crowded scene. You have to use it like a flashlight and turn the beam on one or two people at a time.

  12. Excellent post. And very true. It's hard to do this. I've had characters on stage but not vocal. Or say something and then leave. Sometimes I have the point of view character listen only but comment only in her head. Mostly I try to not let group scenes occur unless they're absolutely necessary.

  13. Interesting point that I really haven't considered before. Thinking back through my work, I don't think I've done a dialogue with more than 3 people, and don't remember reading a "crowd" dialogue in books I've read. But I'll definitely keep a radar tuned now to that type of scene in books, seeing just how the author handles it.

  14. Using real dialog with more than 3 people often gets too confusing.

    In group settings I will often "group" the discussions by writing something like "We talked about fishing, growing cucumbers, taxes, global warming and by the time dessert rolled around I'd learned that..." or whatever.

    I've also used listing fragments, writing: "I stood there with the drink in my hand, catching bits of conversations floating in the air.
    ... he divorced her ... a terrible rug ... a gun pointed at his head ...

    In one way or another information can be presented in the story without confusing conversations with too many people.

  15. Interesting. I've never thought about it before, but I've never had more than three characters in one conversation -- so I guess that's my limit!

  16. I’ve never tried writing a scene with more than three people talking, but I can certainly see where it would present some major challenges. I do think writing a scene where eight or ten people are talking at once might be a fun exercise to just try in order to see what happens - as long as I can stick it in a drawer afterward.

  17. I didn't think it was possible for anyone to make me admire JK Rowling any more than I already do, but you've got me thinking about dinners at Grimmauld place and how beautifully she handled multiple sets of interactions. Then again, we are DEEPLY in Harry's head so only have to attend to what Harry is noticing (which is often not much--love Harry, but he's a bit clueless)

    I think for us mere mortals though, that keeping this in mind is great advice.

  18. Helen, I agree with everyone who commented so far - 3 is the max in a conversation for me.

    If I had to have four or more, I might approach it in two or more different parts or from more than one point of view.

    Are you writing a conversation with more than 3 people?

  19. Thanks for the visual, Mark.

    Jenn, I'm not currently writing such a scene, but I had one where there were more than three, but I handled it by keeping it short and clear who was talking.

  20. I've never consciously set a limit on the number of people I'll allow to talk in a scene, but it does have to be handled carefully because it can quickly become overloaded with stage directions,

    I do see it go drastically wrong in some of the novels I critique - whole crowds of people chattering away like the opening scene of Reservoir Dogs. It's incredibly hard to keep track of who's who.

    I prefer smaller numbers for prose scenes - for the very good reasons you give and also because I love intimate scenes where the dialogue is reflecting changing relationships.

    Great post - I'm tweeting too!

  21. More than 3 characters is difficult. My max has been 5.

  22. oh Helen, so current as usual! I just finished my thousand for today and I finished with a heated meeting of about 18 women. And only a couple of them have been in the story before this meeting. I didn't bother getting into names - just gave real broad brush strokes and also because they are First Nation women - they really take their time with what they want to say. First draft though so we'll see how it pans out in the revision. I think you have to create the visuals that would be in real life so that people can go - oh yes - that's the one with the pink streak in her hair or that's the old one that looks like a comma in her chair. Challenging but fun.

  23. In One Small Victory I had several scenes that had three or more characters. When the central character was briefed about the big sting in the book, there were six law enforcement officers in the scene with her. The key for that scene to work well was to start with the chief and through his POV establish who else was in the scene. Then, most of the dialogue was by the chief, the central character, and the detective she had worked with throughout the story. The others - a sheriff, a DEA agent, and a couple of other officers only had a line or two each.

    I did a similar thing in a scene where Jenny, her two kids and her mother were at a restaurant. The scene started with the main dialogue being between her and her mother, then one of the kids raised an issue that diverted attention to him and his sister.

  24. Good points, Jan and Maryann - and everybody. We've gotten some good advice on how to handle multiple people in a scene.

  25. I'm working on a scene involving five young men on a basketball court, practicing hoops and running their jaws. Still fine-tuning it, but as long as the reader can cleary define who's speaking at any particular time,I think it can be done. I hope:)

  26. You're right...I've never really thought about it before but three has always been my limit for speaking, even if more are present.

  27. I remember when I started writing, if I had more than 2 people in a scene, I'd always send one out of the room so I could manage the dialogue.

    If the reader knows the characters and you're skillful with tags, you can have a group conversation--but not very often. And important stuff ought to be discussed.

  28. Oh yes, it is awfully difficult.
    I have recently struggled with a scene for about a month, in which five people sit around a table, making plans and arguing about these plans.
    I need all five people, and I need all this plans and arguments - the five are a vocal ensemble on the verge of breaking up.
    It took me very long to get this dialogue smooth and not too confusing.
    It helped that one of the five is my protagonist and all-time POV character. So I could focus on the conversation going on with her, sometimes shifting when she had nothing to say but angrily listened to others. And two of the five are rather passive, they pop in only when needed.
    Still, it was an awful lot of fine-tuning. And I didn't find much help anywhere how to deal with scenes like that.
    What I noticed while reading "crowd" dialogues: they usually focus on a small sub-crowd, usually a one-to-one-dialogue, where the main conflict is. The rest is like decorations on the edge, sometimes coming in, but quickly passing out of view when no longer needed. And that works fine - the reader won't miss characters as long as they haven't anything really important to say, but just assume they are somewhere still around, chatting away or listenening, whatever.

    So, my - preliminary maybe - solution to crowds is: focus.

  29. Oooh, great post. Good to hear an outside opinion. My WIP has more of an ensemble cast than one main character. I am constantly writing dialogue between three or four people, but tend to find myself kicking people out of the room when I'm tired of writing tags for them!

    That being said, I think group conversations can be really helpful when creating group dynamics and help me create subtext since there are so many different motives. It can be an interesting tool for character development, but not if the reader (or the writer) is confused.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...