Four Tips for Writing Scenes with Many Characters

On a LinkedIn writing group board recently, someone asked how to write a scene in a novel with many characters arguing about an emotional business decision.  I’ve been in meetings like that, so I understood the problem both as a participant and as a writer.

It is difficult to write scenes with groups of people all talking. A writer can’t show 20 people talking.  Here’s how to keep the scene realistic, but also keep your reader engaged:

1.      Stick to a single point of view

Stay in one character’s point of view throughout the scene. If you need to show someone else’s internal thoughts on the topic, do it in a following scene. Choose the character with the most to gain or lose and use that person’s POV, unless you want an objective perspective on the issue and then you could choose someone more detached.

2.      No more than four or five speakers (maybe six)

Try to keep to no more than four or five characters representing different factions or positions in the argument.  Maybe you use two characters taking each side of the debate, with one or two others voicing oddball positions or offering a humorous quip to break the tension.

3.      Don’t introduce any new characters in this scene

Only have the characters you’ve already used in the scene speak. If you need must have someone new step on stage, don’t name them; just say “the man in the grey suit said . . . ”

4.      Try to use as much dialogue as possible, but use tags to keep it clear

Dialogue will make your scene more active than a narrative summary of the discussion. Use the characters your readers know already to articulate the key points of the argument.

Put each speaker’s lines in a new paragraph, so it’s clear when the dialogue shifts to another person. Use frequent dialogue tags and beats, but don’t use “Joe said” at the end of every line, which gets monotonous.

Here’s an example of how to make it work: 

“We’ve got to buy more paper.” Sam pounded his fist on the table.

Joe picked up his pencil and twirled it, trying to stay calm. “Don’t know what you mean,” he said. “We’ve got enough paper for the next six months. Why buy more at these prices?”

“But we’re using it faster than ever,” Sally argued. She stood and headed toward the credenza and coffee pot. “We’ve got to stay ahead of the demand curve. Prices are going up daily.”

Jill sat beside Joe, tapping on her smartphone. Did she even care about the paper crisis? Joe wondered. How could she remain so disengaged, when the cost of paper was eating them alive?

In this snippet, I involved four people, three of whom spoke. I probably shouldn’t bring in more than one or two more in the entire scene.

I stayed in Joe’s point of view.  I’m dying to know what Jill was thinking, but I won’t find out until the next scene.

Scenes with many characters talking hard work, but they’re fun when they work well.

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