It's April! It's officially spring! It's snowing as I type this! (Just go home already, Winter. We've had enough.)
March flew by for me. I read a ton of books and spent the first two weeks of the month putting the final touches on my Contagion2 revision. It is now back in my editor's hands, thank goodness. Once I turned that in, I focused on my New Shiny, which I'm still not going to tell you guys much about (sorry!) other than that I'm approaching 40k, pulling together proposals, and hoping I can sell it and it can officially be my Next Book. Cross your fingers for me.
I also had the privilege of heading to Boston for a Radical Element event with anthology editor Jessica Spotswood and fellow story contributor Sara Farizan. (Photo via Melissa Lee.) We talked about girls kicking butt throughout history and the struggles of writing a short story versus a novel. (Short stories are surprisingly challenging, imo.) The audience had some great questions and it was lovely meeting everyone—especially since it was one of my last events for awhile. I have a final appearance in NH this weekend (details below), and then I'll be laying low once this baby arrives. Probably at least until Contagion comes out. I'm going to try to stay on top of my newsletter though, so if I'm making appearances come July, you'll be the first to know!
Bringing Up Baby (Bowman)
The (currently) littlest Bowman has started gymnastics and loves it beyond words. The results have been obvious—she's bolder than ever on playgrounds and I'm just waiting for our first bad fall. Eek. We had a ton of snow in March, but the weather seems to finally be turning. Big piles linger around the house, but we're getting outside more often and loving every minute of it.
Her book pick for this month is Tad and Dad written and illustrated by David Ezra Stein. A growing tadpole lovingly pesters his dad (to the point that poor Dad can't sleep), which resulted in lots of giggles in the Bowman household. Silly and sweet—a perfect combo.
I asked for help coming up with a topic for this month's newsletter, and one of you asked about writing ensemble scenes:
"I often find it hard to balance group scenes with a large number of main/important characters. It's tricky to make it feel natural, rather than just everyone taking their turn speaking, and to prevent anyone from disappearing off the page for too long. Any advice would be great!"
Ooh, this is hard! And as someone who has written ensemble casts before (my Taken series) and is currently working on books that features an ensemble cast (Contagion and its sequel), this feels like a perfect question for me to tackle. Some of the challenges (and solutions) to this question are already hinted at above. It's true that you don't want characters to disappear for long periods of time just to make a scene feel balanced. But you also don't want them chiming in one after another so that conversations become a giant merry-go-round.
I have a few suggestions....
SUGGESTION ONE — Have only one or two characters leading a conversation, with the others interjecting only as necessary. Also, remember that age-old rule, "Show, don't tell." If a character can make their opinion known with a simple facial expression over a comment, utilize that! An eye roll tells us a lot about what a character thinks without them having to say a word. Same goes for a smirk or stifled laugh. In general, never underestimate body language! Characters don't always need to speak to tell us how they're feeling.
SUGGESTION TWO—Similarly, give your characters something to do. Most of the time, scenes that require all characters to be present are planning scenes, meaning action is low. It's a lot of sitting around. The crew is deciding what to do next. They're discussing pros/cons. But they can still do this while something else happens—something that moves the plot forward. Maybe they're setting up camp. Maybe they're in transit, traveling between two locations. Whatever the activity, several of your characters can be preoccupied with the task at hand, which makes applying suggestion #1 that much easier.
SUGGESTION THREE — We often hear that straightforward and simple is the best approach with dialog tags. Why use "announced" and you can just use "said," right? I agree to an extent, but in ensemble conversations, I find that a specific verb for your character's dialog tag helps break up the monotony of so many tags appearing on the page. By all means, keep the adverbs out of there (said softly, said angrily, said tiredly), but use the tags to paint a better picture of the conversation (whispered, snarled, yawned out). Look also for places where you can drop a tag completely. (If the character is making any sort of physical movement, dialog following that prose will be associated with that character. eg: "I don't feel like talking." Sarah turned away from Frank and stared out the window.)
SUGGESTION FOUR — Similar to the advice about dialog tags, consider occasionally calling characters by their role instead of their name. (eg: the pilot, the doctor, the captain, etc.) This is a small but easy way to break up repetition that tends to occur in scenes that feature a lot of players.
SUGGESTION FIVE — Remember that the reader doesn't need precise stage directions. You're writing a novel, not a play, and so much can be inferred by the reader. If you set up the scene well, drawing the setting and letting us know who is present, the reader can put together the rest. Eg: You don't need to say that "John walked away from Bill and Suzy, crossed the room, and handled Jill the package." You can simply say "John handed Jill the package." The reader will visualize all the choreography in between. Combine this with succinct dialog/prose ("This came for you." John thrust a package in Jill's direction.) and you're golden.
Let's look at a short excerpt from Contagion. The seven-person crew is in transit and only the pilot (still at the yoke) is missing from this debriefing scene:
"I thought we ran environmental assessments before drilling," Cleaver said. The bulky security detail was still hovering behind Dylan, his semiautomatic ray-rifle held so the barrel pointed at the floor.
"We do," Dylan said. "Did you forget Witch Hazel?"
Cleaver's face went as contorted as the intern's had a moment earlier, and Toby didn't miss how Lisbeth Tarlow bristled at the mention of the past project.
"Witch Hazel," Toby repeated to Cleaver. "The first and only environmental survey that Hevetz ran on Achlys. It made our Dr. Tarlow here a legend." He nodded at the woman, but Cleaver remained perplexed. "Come on, man. Everyone knows about Witch Hazel."
There are five people mentioned in this short exchange, but only three of them speak. Lisbeth Tarlow and the intern are visibly uneasy, though they never say a word. And even though Cleaver speaks only once, at the beginning, we still know he's confused. After Dylan's comment, I could have included a line that read: "I'm confused," Cleaver said. But it's unnecessary. I could show that confusion just as easily as having him announce it.
Here's another excerpt from Contagion:
Thea gathered up her dishes and took them into the kitchen. As she scraped them clean, the crew rambled behind her.
Sullivan: “Hevetz better be paying us overtime for this.”
Nova: “Just be happy you’ve got decent pay, Sull. My temp wages are criminal.”
Toby: “We’ll all get better wages if the Trios goes independent.”
Nova: “Says who? If we pull out of the Union, the import taxes on pharm and tech products from the Cradle alone would bankrupt us.”
Cleaver: “Pass that pork.”
Toby: “So we up export taxes on corrarium in return.”
Nova: “And slowly bleed each other dry? How does that—”
Dylan: “I think we have bigger things to worry about right now.”
Sullivan: “Oh, like your father’s unresponsive crew and how you didn’t bother to tell us we were answering a distress call until it was too late for us to bail?”
Cleaver: “The potatoes, too.” [...]
On and on it went as Thea dried and stowed away the dishes.
Here, I wanted to capture a relaxed moment between the crew while also providing a few world-building details. For this exchange, there was no true leader. Everyone was jumping in, arguing, talking over each other, and our protagonist (who's busy with a task a la suggestion #2) is actually just listening in. Because of this, I adopted a very direct approach, with the dialog structured like a script. (It is the only time I use this technique in the entire novel, and it's not something I think authors should rely on heavily. Sometimes, though, it is the perfect solution for rowdy, bickering conversations.)
Having characters all chime in back-to-back like this can be tiring, but if done right (in a script-like fashion or with classic prose), it can be impactful. Take one of my favorite passages from Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo, which manages to combine many of the above suggestions into a succinct, powerful, and even humorous exchange between her ensemble cast:
Kaz leaned back. "What's the easiest way to steal a man's wallet?"
"Knife to the throat?" asked Inej.
"Gun to the back?" said Jesper.
"Poison in his cup?" suggested Nina.
"You're all horrible," said Matthias.
One of the best parts of ensemble casts is having characters with a wide range of skills at your disposal. This means that there will likely come a time when your characters must split up to achieve their goals. Which leads me to my final suggestion...
SUGGESTION SIX — Utilize multiple points of view. If you look back through your favorite novels with ensemble casts, you'll notice that many of them shift perspective. This is the easiest way to avoid feeling like characters disappear for long chunks of time. Instead of disappearing, the reader moves with them, jumping between separated characters and following multiple plot threads. Of course, nothing is actually easy about writing multiple POVs. It's all the challenges of writing one fully realized, fleshed-out character, multiplied! But if your book is in first person and you feel like important characters are always disappearing to achieve an objective, then reappearing to summarize what they've been up to, consider if the book would be stronger by introducing another perspective.
Juggling an ensemble cast is never easy, and these are just a few suggestions for tackling scenes with many characters. No matter if you use some of them or all of them, please remember this: YOU HAVE PERMISSION TO WRITE A CRAPPY FIRST DRAFT. Let every last character chime in during convos. Don't stress about dialog tags or repetition. Who cares if a character disappears for fifty pages! Just get the scenes and conversations down. As with any book, the polishing happens during revisions. Once you've got the foundation in place, once what needs to be communicated is captured on the page, THEN you can go back and make it all balanced and shiny.
Win an ARC of Contagion!
I'm giving away a Contagion arc and swag pack over on my instagram. Entering is super simple and the giveaway is open internationally, so don't miss out. Winner will be drawn on May 1st at noon EDT.
Teachers and librarians—Did you know I'm giving away copies of Frozen and Forged? Details are on my instagram but requesting is simple: Email me from your educator address and I'll happily ship copies to your school/classroom while supplies last.