Anna Campbell

Writing Crowd Scenes



One of the lovely things about writing romance is creating intense, intimate scenes (not just the steamy bits!) where characters reveal their souls.

I love writing those scenes.

However, two people taking the journey into love inevitably also belong to families and societies. To my regret, frequently those other people enter the story. Even more to my regret, at least once in every book, I have to write a scene with a cast of thousands.

I hate writing those scenes.

In my recent indie novella, Three Proposals and a Scandal, the climactic scene involved nine speaking parts and various servants, and it was a complete pain to structure. I had to wrangle three proposals, the heroine’s father disowning her, the bad guy getting his comeuppance, and a cast of characters from previous Sons of Sin books ushering everything to a joyful conclusion.

It was like juggling twenty priceless Meissen plates – when catching things isn’t my forte!

Anyway, after long experience of struggling with big group scenes, I returned to a few tried and true techniques to keep me on track.

Firstly, I play choreographer. I work out where everybody is in the physical space and where they move – avoid your cast standing still like flowerpots. A great trick is to draw a rough diagram of the scene. That saves Murgatroyd speaking up near the fireplace, when three paragraphs ago, he was sitting on the sofa. It also saves having six people with him on that same sofa. Make note of characters’ actions, so if someone stands up, they’re not standing up again on the next page.

Regularly remind readers who’s present and where they are. Mention a character’s physical position every page or so. If the writer is likely to forget someone’s there, believe me, readers will! An easy way to do this is a character direction with dialogue. To give you an example from 3 Proposals:

“He didn’t seduce me,” Marianne protested, turning frantically to the Hillbrooks. She wished she could tell whether Elias believed her, but he didn’t look up from the fire.

That places Marianne, the Hillbrooks, and Elias in a mere two sentences.

Make sure everyone has a chance to react to events, so when Tommy Trueheart saves the day (in this case, Elias Thorne), he’s not the forgotten man. It’s also a good idea to define what each character wants to achieve in the scene – remember secondary characters are heroes in their own stories. This helps you keep a grip on conflicts and emotional currents.

It’s important to keep the reader connected to the main characters. Point of view issues obviously come into play, but principal characters can respond with expressions, body language, or dialogue, even if you’re not in their heads. In this scene in 3 Proposals, there was a danger the antagonists might completely dominate. The focus needed to stay on Elias and Marianne, despite all the drama exploding around them! I did that by frequently describing their reactions to what was happening.

I hope these hints help you to wrangle the seething masses. This scene in Three Proposals and a Scandal was more challenging than usual, but all these techniques have come in handy when I’ve had more than three people on the page.

This article first appeared on the Writing Queensland website on 2nd November 2015.