Staging the Multiple Character Scene

by Amy Atwell

I’m sure you did a double take at the title. Staging? You’re writing a book, not staging a play. What has one to do with the other? More than you think.

As an audience member, the reader seeks a specific experience: a chance to walk through a scene with your protagonist, right there on his or her shoulder, to see, hear, touch, taste and feel whatever the protagonist lives through. Reading offers the potential for a deeper experience than a play or a movie by allowing the reader time to evolve emotionally with the protagonist.

That emotional evolution can get muddied up pretty quickly if the story doesn’t flow with clarity. Keeping a story focused remains one of the writers’ biggest challenges. And this can become even more difficult if your protagonist’s life comes complete with a large cast of characters. So how do you cope with those murky crowded scenes, the ones that start to go fuzzy on you?

Stop thinking like a writer, and look at the scene from a stage director’s point of view. Here are a few pointers to get you started in your new side career.

  • 1. A stage director’s responsibility is to interpret the text as written, so the first step is to write the scene. Don’t worry about what characters walk on or off, let them say what they need to say. Transcribe it, particularly the dialogue or any specific actions that must take place to move the story forward.
  • 2. Hand this “script” to your director. Yes, that’s still you, but now you need to read through this text as if it were a movie scene. Your job is to make sure the reader can follow the action without bogging down the pace of the story. You need to keep things tight and focused, to convey images with as few words as possible.
  • 3. Diagram your scene on a piece of paper. By this, I mean, if your characters are in a living room where a dead body has just been discovered, then draw a rectangle to represent the room and identify doors, windows, and pieces of furniture. These are the set pieces. They don’t change. Hmm, come to think of it, add the dead body to this list.
  • 4. List all the cast members in the scene and give each one a symbol. Usually the first letter of the character’s name with a circle around it works. This is your “key” to the diagram.
  • 5. Now, read through the scene and with a pencil, faintly outline a trail on the diagram of each character’s movement as called for in the text. This is called “blocking,” and this movement works with–and sometimes against–the dialogue to draw focus.
The Visual Aid

Does your diagram look like a Spirograph? Lots of squiggles and overlapping lines? The more squiggles, the more work you, the director, must do to simplify the focus of the scene. Here are some additional pointers to consider as you strive for clarity.

  • 1. Consider your POV character (or characters–are you head hopping, and if so, are you doing it for a specific effect?) and make sure you describe all the characters from that person’s POV. Try to avoid names, but have specific descriptors that help the reader quickly identify the other players.
  • 2. Hopefully, by the time these scenes occur, all the characters present will have been introduced. Try to avoid introducing new characters when you already have a bunch of them onstage.
  • 3. Group them together, if possible, and identify who and where they all are as early as possible in the scene. From a play or movie standpoint, think how they make their entrances and where they need to end up. Try to minimize their blocked movements. Movement pulls focus, dialogue pulls focus, so people should only move when they’re speaking (at least, that’s the ideal).
  • 4. Bearing #3 in mind, use exceptions to those rules sparingly for increased dramatic effect.
  • 5. Let your reader sort out the scene at the beginning. Describe who is where in the room, and what each person is doing. This doesn’t need to be long and exhaustive, the right sentence or two will do.
  • 6. If you have minor characters who say very little in the scene, plant them and tell them to keep still until it’s their turn. Think of a movie camera–keep your focus tight on the POV character and whoever else is talking at that moment.
  • 7. It may sound silly, but seriously, print out your scene, get up from your desk, and walk it. You know where you want those characters to be, what gyrations does the POV character have to suffer to see, hear and react to everyone else in the room.

By now you have text with notes scribbled all over it. Time to sit back down at the computer and revise. Simplify, simplify, simplify.

If you want to see a master at work, I suggest you read Faking It by Jennifer Crusie. I’d love to say flip to page such and such, but honestly, without reading the whole book, you don’t appreciate what she’s accomplished. The heroine lives with her mother, sister and niece in a boarding house over an art gallery. There are eventually four renters (one is the hero), the sister’s ex-husband, and three humorous villains. All of these people come together in a gallery opening near the end of the book. Too many characters? Not at all, because at this point, we know each of these individuals so well, that Crusie only needs a few words to give us a full picture of what’s happening, how they look and sound. She directs our focus around the gallery opening and allows us time to see and experience each vignette before she moves onto the next while her POV character provides a lens that makes these images sharp and true.

So don’t let that multiple character scene intimidate you. Write it and let your director work with those characters to stage it so your reader enjoys the maximum emotional involvement with a minimum of confusion.