Very early in my WIP (in the first or second chapter) the main characters are sent on a particular assignment by the council of seven elders under whose authority they operate. There is no leader among the elders, so they all contribute equally (as opposed to having one main speaker). The scene comprises some discussion/conversation before our intrepid heros are sent on their way.
7 elders + 2 focus characters = 9 people talking. Every time I write this scene, I end up getting 7 talking heads because there just isn't room in the scene to properly introduce each elder. I don't want exposition: chunks of narrative would break up the conversation, and hiding it in dialog would make it sound awful.
Also, in order not to leave anyone out, I've tried distributing the "lines" equally, so that they each end up with roughly 2, and it just sounds like they're going in a circle taking turns. Worse, I've tried crafting what they say to fit distinct 'personalities' which results in a) stereotypes (Seven Dwarves style: the arguer, the peacekeeper, the bossy one, the shy one, etc.) and b) really stupid dialog.
Only one of the elders is an important character in the story: he is the main character's immediate 'father figure'. The other elders are just there. I don't need them as characters, just as warm bodies to fill the other 6 seats. Can I get away with writing this scene without introducing all of them? In an informal, family-style conversation with no leader, do they all have to speak? If a character does speak, how much does the reader have to know about him/her?
[This message has been edited by sojoyful (edited November 14, 2005).]
[This message has been edited by sojoyful (edited November 14, 2005).]
OSC: "Never start a story in a meeting." He went on to say that the Council of Elrond worked because it wasn't really structured as a meeting, but rather as a sequence of monologues by important characters.
I'd suggest not showing the meeting.
If you must, I'd suggest reducing the character count drastically, to 2 or 3.
If you can't, I'd suggest simply referring to "the other elders" or such, and giving lines to only a few, the ones we most need to know.
First of all, I would say that I think you already know that introducing 9 people early on in a story/novel is a bad idea, even if they were all important. Especially since six of them are unimportant, you're going to end up annoying the reader for no obvious reason. There is no way, not even through exposition, to get us to know these 9 characters in a tight period of time. Readers just need time to soak it all in..
I think you already know that based on how you phrased your concerns, so I won't dwell on it. As for the fix, that depends upon your story. Why do you need seven elders? Why do they all have to talk, even if there is no leader? Even with no leader, they should each have a personality and a different stake in what's going on. Some may have no stake at all and no reason to talk, maybe no reason to be there. (I have no idea what's going on.) If they do all have a stake, they may not be inclined to speak. In fact, it has been my observation that groups, even if they do not have official roles, have unofficial roles. Someone becomes the speaker because their personality just goes that way. The others let him speak unless they have something important to say.
So my first bit of advice is that even if these characters are not important, that they all be real. Take a few minutes on each to decide who they are and what they want. Look into gropu psychology. There is a leader. Trust me. They may not have a title, but there is someone who tends to take control. It would be an element of purest disbelief in your story if it worked any other way. (Unless they aren't human, of course...) Even wise old men have agendas. (Making the cliched group of wise old men somewhat irksome to me.)
If you find out who these people are, you'll probably find out where your voice is. The other option, of course, is to only have one elder there at all. Why are they all there to meet with these two people? What purpose is served by their presence? If they are receiving new information then it makes sense. If they are relaying information/orders then it is nonsensical for them to all be there. Their time is far too important anyway. Only one would go do this odious task.
And even if they are gathering information, they may not all be there. Once again they are busy people. What do they already know about what they're going to hear that would make them all want to be there? This goes to the nature of the situation, the information, and the personalities of the dlers (like I said...develop the warm bodies).
I guess that's about all I can say right now since so much of what I'm saying is if if if. If you can elaborate on some of my if clauses I might have more advice. (Assuming you want any more of my dubious advice. )
Oops, simultaneous post and I want to comment on what wbriggs said.
A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to have Card take a look at the first chapter of a novel. (This is part of an offer he gives former students.) He read two paragraphs and told me I'd started in the wrong place. Since I'd restarted the story about ten times in ten different places, this news frustrated me, but it's for the exact reason that wbriggs mentioned: I started with a meeting. Actually, I started with a character *going* to a meeting. He was quite honest with me (just what I needed, I promise) and told me how boring that was from a reader's point of view.
In my case, he suggested backing up and starting with a life interrupted. This worked in my case because the life that was interrupted was already riddled with conflict: brother vs. brother conflict; a missing sister (POW); and a few other things. I haven't gone to do the rewrite yet, but there it is.
Of course, I wasn't sure if the meeting was the very first thing that happened or not, which is why I didn't comment on it. A meeting with 9 people including six unimportant characters who talk mechanically, seemed like a problem in chapter 10 or chapter 1 and so I focused there.
- I definately DON'T start in the middle of a meeting. By the time they get there, I have already introduced and spent time with both the main character and the other focus character.
- Here's the dynamic of my "wise old men" group: the entire community dynamic is that of one big, very close family. The elders are kind of like well-loved grandparents. Somebody has to be the head of the family, and so these men AND women fill that role. There is no formality about them, beyond the fact that they have the last word. Anybody can drop by and chat (just like you could chat with your grandparents if they lived at home). It's very informal and familiar.
- The elders have their own 'place' where they are to be found much of the time. (Kind of like grandpa having his own sitting room.) They discuss things, they meditate, people drop by to say hello (kids, adults, anybody in the 'family' who feels like it or has a question or wants to chat). The main characters learn some information and go to the place where the elders are to fill them in. That's why all 7 are there.
- The main characters show up at the elders' "sitting room" and tell them about the info they just learned. They discuss its meaning (which is important to the plot). How they handle the situation will reflect on the 'family' which is why the MCs brought it to the elders. The elders, as heads of the family, make the decision of how to proceed, namely, they send the MCs off to investigate.
- The MCs can make decisions on their own, but when it is something this big that will affect the whole 'family' they can't in good conscience act without the direction and authority of the elders. That's why the meeting has to occur.
- BTW, 7 is an arbitrary number I chose because I wanted decisions made by council and consensus, not by just one or two people.
- Christine, you ask if they all have to speak. The answer is no, it is not important to the story that they all speak. I was trying to force it on them because I thought I wasn't "allowed" to have them all there without doing anything with them. Your comments about group dynamics and personalities are very helpful, and I will give them a good deal of thought.
I hope that helps to clarify. I would love additional thoughts if you have any.
[This message has been edited by sojoyful (edited November 14, 2005).]
Even in a "family" there are different personalities and there tend to be some people who speak more than others. Think about your family. Who are the players? I've got the obnoxious brat, the overtalkative aunt, the reclusive grandmother who can hardly hear and doesn't speak much (the two are only loosely related), the peacemaker (my mom), the know-it-all (my uncle), etc.
Absolutely you can have people present who do not talk. What you can't have is people present who aren't people. And this can happen whether they talk or not.
quote:Here's the dynamic of my "wise old men" group: the entire community dynamic is that of one big, very close family. The elders are kind of like well-loved grandparents. Somebody has to be the head of the family, and so these men AND women fill that role. There is no formality about them, beyond the fact that they have the last word. Anybody can drop by and chat (just like you could chat with your grandparents if they lived at home). It's very informal and familiar.
Caution: I'm not saying you've done this, but not all grandparents are alike. This paragraph is sending warning signals through my brain about cliched old people (men or women). I've never really spoken in the way you describe to any of my grandparents. Even the one I see often is very reclusive and indrawn. We don't just have a family chat. Frankly, I get the impression that she's waiting to die. I've known many old people like this. Then there are the ones who love to talk about the "good old days" and the ones who are still out there climbing mountains and the ones that bake and the ones who sew and the ones who take care of everyone and the martyrs and the selfish ones and...and...
And there's the kind that sit around the veteran's hall (or some other common meeting room) and chat with people who drop by. Is this the only personality type represented in your group? I can see that my questions about busy people and government may ahve been off, but why isn't Martha off sewing and why isn't Jim out hunting and why idn't Bill complaining about his foot and why isn't Sue baking and taking care of six grandchildren?
Based on the scenario, this is the problem with them all being in this "sitting room."
This isn't my story, but let me run a hypothetical scneario for you...
MC 1 and 2 find out important thing. They rush into the "sitting room" but only find Jim and Bill playing cards. Everyone else is out. "Get the other elders," they say. They've got important news. Jim, never troubled and always laid back, doesn't get excited and asks what all the fuss is about. Bill mutters something about "younguns" and tells them they're hurting his foot. After a time, MC 1 and 2 just tell them the news, whatever it is. Of course, it is quite important. Jim actually becomes more alert (adding drama because you've already shown what a laid back person he normally is) and Bill stops complaining...maybe he even gets up and hobbles on the foot he always complains about to go ring the bell to summon the other elders. When they all get together, you may have no need to actually show the conversation they have. Maybe MC 1 and 2 aren't even there, but waiting outside.
Paint it however you like, but a little personality can go a long way...
Maybe you could have your MCs go directly to their favorite elder who's sitting in his favorite chair by the fire or whatever, and begin the conversation with him alone. You could have the other elders drift over (or get called over) in ones and twos, when they notice that the conversation going on in the corner of the room is significant. It would be a good way to introduce everyone, and show a little of their personalities as well. (Do they barge in with their unsolicited opinions, or just hover behind the group to listen? Does anyone prompt anyone else for their opinion? Are there a couple who never get along that make the MCs worry that their conversation will get hijacked into another petty little dispute between the two? Does any elder shush another when he tries to interrupt? Does anyone glare at anyone else? Is there any elder who the MCs hope doesn't notice the conversation? Who nods in support or purses their lips in disapproval? Etc.)
The uniqueness of your setting and social structure makes it a lot easier to introduce the elders slowly and as people rather than as plot tools. In other situations you might have been forced to drop them on the reader like a single chunk. (For example, if your seven elders spent all their time sitting at a council table and glaring at any and all who dare come before them.) As you have it, though, you have a uniquely suited structure for characterization that doesn't need huge blocks of exposition...you can show who these people are through their interactions and attitudes. The challenge for you will be to make characters who are real enough to have those kinds of interactions.
The only thing I can think to add sort of plays off what Christine said.
quote:When they all get together, you may have no need to actually show the conversation they have. Maybe MC 1 and 2 aren't even there, but waiting outside.
You can have the elders all there and conversing/discussing the issue among themselves, but without the viewpoint character actually hearing them. Then have one of the elders address the viewpoint character as spokesman for the council (you indicated there was already one who is important to the story: "Only one of the elders is an important character in the story: he is the main character's immediate 'father figure'. The other elders are just there."; so use him as spokesman. This will cement his importance to the story in the mind of your readers).
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Anytime you have a scene, try to keep it to only 1-3 active characters. Even if more characters are present, only 1-3 should be performing any action or talking in conversation.
Even in real life it gets confusing if you have eight people all trying to partake in a conversation. At the professional level in meetings there is always one chair who gets what they need from each attendee in turn with occasional breaks in the rhythm as attendees are the best suited to answer or debate eachother but the more elaborate conversations are saved for after the meeting.
I recently wrote a story where one girl faces a council of nine men but i avoided the common issues by creating rules where the men spoke in turn and each could only ask one question. it worked because it fit the story but I don't know if this would work for you.
A lot of good points have come up, but I just wanted to add my 2 cents. Since in my WIP I have a lot of "main" characters (or rather, alot of protagonists travelling in the group with the main character(s) ) there tends to be a decent number of scenes where a group of 5-7 people are deciding what to do next. I too, at first, tried using the "everyone speaks in turn" to no avail, as it seemed forced and not very realistic. It took me a little while of futher delving into each of my characters to realize that not everyone WOULD speak.
Thinking to, for example, my circle of friends, if 5-6 of us were in a circle deciding what we want to do to pass the time, not everyone would speak. There would be me and 1-2 other friends who tend to take charge, suggesting ideas and counteracting each each others' plans, and the rest would basically be standing around listening and waiting to follow the group somewhere. I discovered the same thing with my characters, while all their opinions are equally important to me, the author, they don't all voice them with equal strength. Some are used to following, and stay quiet. Some are unaccustomed to social interaction whatsoever, and remain more or less quiet for that reason (unless they feel very strongly about a particular issue) and then there are the 2-3 people who are used to taking charge, all suggesting plans of action to each other until they can agree on something.
So it's true that trying to write a meeting where lots of people are talking at the same time just doesn't work, but this is just because that's not how we speak in real life. It just gets too confusing. Think back. When was the last time you had a conversation with 6-10 other people and everyone was actually actively engaged in the conversation?
Unless the setting is much more orderly (I'm thinking of a philosophy class I once took where the whole 30 or so people would join in on the conversation, but only because each learned to speak their piece and then give the floor to some one else, actively allowing everyone to speak their mind one at a time) it simply doesn't happen.
Half-way through this post I skipped to the end, so I might just be repeated what someone else said. Sorry if I am.
If you really want all the elders there, and want there to be dialogue, there is an option. Put parts of the scene into exposition. Something like: "...said the MC. After that announcement, the elders sank back in their chairs, muttering to one another. Could it really be possible? After a few moments, The Important Elder frowned and said..."
In this fashion, you can sum up unimportant areas, have every elder "contributing" to the conversation, and still hide the other elders in the background. You could gloss over arguments without having to have specific elders speaking. It may or may not work for you, but it's an idea.
I haven't read any of the other replies, but here's my two cents. If one of the elders is the main character's father (or father figure), then I think it's certainly legit to have him do most or all of the talking from the council. I would just go that route.
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I once opened a story with a meeting (it was critted on F&F, I cringe at the memory of it). Now that I'm older (by Hatrack standards ), I can pass on some advice: don't. It sounds forced, and little emotion comes through, even if the MC knows everyone in the council. Meetings have a tendency to degenerate their members into talking heads.
I think, as many have said, that you should restrict yourself to one or two elders doing the speaking. It packs more punch and avoids the scene's looking like a series of walk-on clichés.
I suppose a group meeting could impart information useful in the developing story---it's always difficult to find a good way to have a story impart information that all the characters already know.
Also, it might help determine relationships between characters---who likes who and who hates who and all the layers in between.
Though I'm in agreement with not beginning a story with a meeting, I don't want to foreclose it permanently. Somebody might have some spin on it that might bring it alive.
(All this talk of meetings reminds me of Pohl-and-Kornbluth's "The Meeting." A *very* powerful story---but, at this late date, I don't remember precisely how the story opened...)
As I was writing my original post, I was thinking of the scene in OSC's Speaker for the Dead, where Andrew meets Novinha's children in their house for the first time. He (OSC) mentions in the forward how he wanted to make all the kids easily identifiable and memorable because it was a group conversation.
I'm a big fan of OSC, especially the Ender series. I started reading them way back in a high school english class and loved them so much I bought them and now I read them over almost every summer. But for all his conscious attention to this problem, OSC failed to make those kids unique and identifiable (for me - maybe others don't have this trouble). I still can't keep them all straight when I read the books - and this after years of repeated readings! It has annoyed me for years, and I realize now that perhaps the reason is exactly what we're discussing here, that is, group conversations are very hard and don't work well.
Can the solution actually be to try to avoid group conversations in writing?! This is too bad, because they occur so frequently in real life. My question is largely rhetorical, but I still wonder.
I don't think you have to avoid large group conversations, just be aware that they serve a limited function.
You can have several people present, but assigning dialogue to all of them will probably make the scene tedious for readers. How do you keep XX number of people straight when you've only just met them?! As the writer, you don't have time to put in all the characterization you want while maintaining the pacing for the conversation.
There can be several peolpe present, but if you limit the number of characters that you assign dialogue to, then characterization is easier, as is pacing and keeping everybody straight.
The only time I think it would work to have a conversation between many characters all with assigned dialogue, is if the characters are already established and well-known to the reader. For example, if we were reading a book about the TV Show "Friends", we could probably get away with conversations involving as many as 8 or 9 people. The reason: we already know Rachel, Joey, Ross, Chandler, Monica, Pheobe; you can probably add two or three unknown characters and still maintain a level of fluidity in the discussion.
But even in real life, conversations tend to be dominated by 3 or 4 individuals. Others may be there and may add the occassional comment, but for the most part, certain people tend to drive the discussion.
sojoyful, that's somethign Card brought up in boot camp too: that in Speaker for the Dead he had to work hard to make all the kids memorable because he introduced them all at the same time. I dutifully wrote down what he said in the notebooks but I got to thinking about it and I'm wirth you: I honestly can't remember the kids at all, even after the book is over. I don't know if it's the way he introduced them, though. The thing is there are simply a lot of them and their roles aren't that important.
And that is a danger in big group conversations. They tend to involve a lot of minor characters we don't know well and will never know well. Robert Jordan may have tried to break the record for number of characters the reader knows well but he's failed too, even in epic length books (they really are long, and the series is long...) To me, the main characters are the group that set out from that village (can't remember the name) in book one. I'll even count Tom since he joined the group fairly quickly and stuck around, but there are about half a million other characters that he spends a great deal of time on that I don't care about and wish he'd stop playing with. I can only keep track of so many people. I can keep track of more people in his books simply because of the amount of time I spend with it, but even that has limits.
And in shorter novels, there are even stricter limits.
Tying this back to group conversations....we (readers) are mostly interested in what the people we know and care about have to say. When I see large group conversations, I tend to tune out the comments made by minor characters. They tend to be lines that anyone could say anyway and are therefore far less important.
If you are going to have lots of people in a scene
1) Most of them must have already been introduced or be simple unimportant characters who do not contribute.
In a large cast novel, it is certainly possible to have the group meeting prior to the climax. In order to keep the scene interesting there should still be one focus character and his attention can drift around the room. Try to avoid having it jump around the room. Please don't make me explain the difference, I just hope you understand well enough.