Enter: Stage Right, Left, and Possibly from Above

It took me a while to start writing this morning. Ideally, the post would have been written ahead of time, but, well, working ten hour days and spending the time standing at the bench making sure everything’s proceeding properly in the lab precludes not only the writing-of-stuff but also the thinking-about-stuff. My First Reader reminded me this morning, still in the wee dark hours, that it was Saturday. Given that last week I’d confused my Saturdays and Sundays and had not written anything AT ALL for this blog, it was a legitimate reminder. So I got up, got coffee, sat down with him to have a chat about topics – we often do this when I don’t have a good idea – and the rest of the family joined us. My Dad, who is staying with us for the Ginja Ninja’s high school graduation this coming Monday. The Ginja Ninja, who needed yarn and a crochet hook. Yeah, um, the ways of teens are passing strange… who wants to crochet before 7 am on a Saturday? Anyway, that one took a while as my yarn was still in a box and if we hadn’t found a random crochet hook we’d still be looking. And then the Little Man, who is terribly excited about his upcoming trip with Grampa, wanted to go over his packing list…

I was thinking, as I fielded questions and comments from all sides (did you know that Coke will take the scale out of a shower head? And that came up because the Junior Mad Scientist hated the way their bathroom’s shower worked, and could she use mine?) that this is something we don’t see done in writing often, but it’s a rich, wonderful, and sometimes very frustrating part of my life. Following multiple people through the threads of several conversations, sometimes with intersections and interruptions, is the lot of any Mother’s life. So is multi-tasking… as I turn back to my computer from a brief conversation about today’s itineraries.

The best – really, the only, way, to handle a multi-person conversation on paper is to do a lot of stage-setting. And to keep your characters limited – personally, I have five characters living with me this morning, and it’s not difficult to keep track (Mama, I think I got it all up, but if there’s any blood in your shower… I just had a bloody nose) but when writing it would be a lot more challenging to keep your readers following along. (Can we have strawberry shortcake for breakfast?)

“Why is there a bullet on the table?” The redhead walks toward her mother, peering at the small object in her hand.

Her mother looks over her shoulder from her seat at the desk. “That’s not a bullet, it’s a cartridge.”

From the couch on the other side of his mother, her brother pipes up. “It was there last night.” He twists around to look at his mother behind him at her desk. “Where did it come from?”

On the other end of the couch, his grandfather lowers his cup of coffee and replies. “We found it in a box last night while we were mulching trees.”

Since this isn’t helping the confusion any, the mother takes the loose ammo.

Her husband interrupts her before she can reply to her daughter. “Have you seen what the side of our tub looks like?”

“Is there blood on it?” She looks up at him, concerned.

And that, folks, is a small excerpt of the conversations going on while I write this post. So… how would you handle a fast-moving multi-persona scene?


  1. With great difficulty. Working on that at the moment. Started with a problem, and everyone is looking for a solution. Idea’s thrown out and either discarded due to impracticality, or mocked as being foolish. Characters are going to be miserable for a little bit at least.

  2. So… how would you handle a fast-moving multi-persona scene?

    Ah, by not having one?

  3. Vinegar is cheaper– grew up with a ziploc of the strongest vinegar we could find sitting in the inside head-end corner of the shower. When you turn off the water, you put the bag of vinegar over the head, making sure all the holes are under vingegar, secure it with a rubber band, and then push the lever thingie that turns the shower on or off down. Sucks the vinegar up into the head.

    Rinses out when you turn the shower on before stepping in, so you don’t get hit with cold. And ants don’t eat it.

    1. Yep; my mother-in-law was just visiting us to see her grandson in person, and she noticed that our water was hard and our shower head had scale buildup blocking some of the holes. She fixed it for us with vinegar, since I hadn’t learned that acid was the answer to that one.

      OTOH, your average college student probably can obtain a can of Coca-Cola pretty much at will, but might not yet know where to find vinegar in their local grocery store. (If they even have a local grocery store, which greatly depends on what college they’re attending). So it can be a very useful bit of knowledge to know that the pH of Coke is about the same as the pH of vinegar. (And it can also help explain why drinking it is so bad for your teeth: not only are you giving your tooth bacteria a huge helping of sugar that they’ll turn into acid to harm your enamel, you’re also putting an even stronger acid into your mouth yourself, albeit for not quite as long.)

      1. Club soda will also act as a scale remover or toilet cleaner, but you don’t have to deal with the sugar afterwards.

        Plus it has the anti-inflammatory effects of bicarbonate of soda! Your spleen will thank you!

        (Yeah, I keep being amused by that study.)

  4. Yeah, I’ve noticed writing dialog for two is easy, but for three or more is a lot more difficult. It’s not the ebb and flow among the multitude that’s the problem; it’s the tendency to forget about everyone but the two primary speakers, leaving the rest standing around with their jaws wired shut. So the trick is to give everyone in the scene something to do so the reader doesn’t experience “character suddenly fell from the sky” next time a secondary opens his mouth.

    1. There is another real life model for complex discussions with many participants. The meeting. If you read up on taking minutes, then do that for a local society, you will learn a lot about meetings.

      Minutes represent the important information transfer of the meeting. They are not complete in every detail, that would be transcript. I understand meeting transcripts are often cleaned up to remove artifacts of speech.

      The story scene of a meeting is not going to resemble the minutes or transcript of an actual meeting. You imagine a section of the meeting where the information flow is critical to the story. You imagine it is well behaved, with the moderator quietly and invisibly keeping everyone involved.

      The information transfer is part of the story. So it seems like part of the thing is looking at what information needs to flow, and what can flow.

      If you are doing an original non-series work, you have a lot freer hand to design for information flow with minimal characters.

      If you are writing SG1 fanfic, you may have a situation where you need to have SG1 having a long discussion with Janet and George. This is something I think Vathara is fairly good at.

  5. I’ve been having battle scenes where there’s a lot of confusion, and I tend to focus on two people for a bit, then go back in time with “While Alice was shooting that guy, Bill had an RPG round graze his suit…” Serial simultaneity. There’s also a lot of shouting and wise-ass comments on the squad network.

    It makes sense to -me-, but at the moment I’m the only one who has read most of it. I guess I’ll find out when I finally publish and the complaints come crashing in from my dozen readers. ~:D

  6. I did this once, but only by limiting it to 3 identifiable speakers and the rest a sort of rowdy Greek chorus who could be referred to in the collective.

    1. My Minutegirls novel has significant action events that matter in a Senate Committee on the planet Lincoln. There are four significant political parties represented, some with several members, not to mention the grand Commodore giving a report, and at one point a special technical expert. Only once do participants consider that two of the Senators may be about to have a duel on the lawn.

  7. I break up the group a little. The POV character can notice Sally and George over in the corner snickering about something, so when they come back it’s not from nowhere. Janet goes to fetch something from her office. Mike is frowning as taps at his keyboard, hopefully taking notes. Meanwhile Karl is reporting his observations and the MC is asking questions.

    And then My beta readers make me fix it, because I still don’t have it right.

  8. My wife was laughing uproariously last night. I asked why. She was reading Janet Evanovich’s “One For The Money”. “There’s a bullet in the table.” “How did it get there?” “Grandma Mazur shot the chicken in the butt.”

  9. It depends on the scene. In one story I have the POV character giving an after action report to the governing council for her organization. There are four main characters counting the POV character in that scene (they occasionally interrupt one another, but take turns speaking for the most part) and the rest of the council members are just extras I treat as a collective and describe their actions instead of writing out their dialog. In another story there is a meeting involving seven characters representing five factions. The characters take turns talking when the topic aligns with common goals, but conversation devolves into short phrases with characters interrupting one another when the subject of discussion strays into an area of contention between two of the factions.

    In a more action-y environment than a meeting, like, say, a small starship trying to rescue the crew of a disabled freighter in the midst of one of those deep space ion storms that seem to crop up in sci-fi universes – in that sort of setting I would use longer sentences and even longer words in the narration paragraphs setting the scene. In the dialog where most of the action is happening I would use shorter sentences with shorter words, dropping dialog tags where it wouldn’t cause confusion. None of the characters would interrupt one another here because even though things are tense I want to convey the idea that this is a well trained crew on a well run ship. If things were going south, or at least not well, then I would throw in some interrupted dialog to try to convey a sense of chaos.

  10. The final scene in Georgette Heyer’s book Cotillion features six characters interacting although she starts with four and adds the other two one at a time. It is a fabulous bit of writing. By that time in the book characters have certain ways they are going to act and putting them all together is amazing. For those not familiar with this particular Heyer, one character spends his time trying to hide, first in a closet and then under the table, so efforts to coax him are interspersed with the rest of the dialog.

  11. Keep track of all your speakers when they’re talking and acting. Especially with little character “tells” to keep your readers grounded in what they are doing. The meeting leader playing with the remote control for his laptop, one character is writing notes on a notepad, another person is half-listening as they sort through their notecards for their time in the meeting, etc, etc, etc…

  12. The two or three times I’ve done it, either 1) my editor has added tags instead of letting the comments stand on their own, or 2) I wrote in motion (or lack-of-motion) descriptors, since the characters were Azdhagi.

  13. Roger Zelazny was the master of dialogue. I can think of several scenes (in “Lord Of Light”, “Creatures Of Light And Darkness” and “Doorways In The Sand”) where he had nothing but a page of unattributed dialogue–sometimes not even showing which characters were in the scene–and yet it was perfectly clear who was speaking.

    For my own part, I wrote a scene that was a deliberate Zelazny pastiche in “The Worms Of Heaven”. My characters have gathered to play Risk, and there is a free for all discussion going on without any attribution.

    Interestingly enough, I thought that I had made it clear from the context of each comment who was talking, but when the voice actor who did my audiobooks performed that scene, he attributed several of the lines to the “wrong” character, but I thought his version was every bit as good as the way I’d planned it out in my head, so I never mentioned that to him.

    And that made me realize that sometimes when you have a group discussion you don’t have to attribute individual lines, since it doesn’t matter who exactly said them.

  14. Bench work. I used to be good at it. Did hundreds of thousands of differential counts, and then you get something odd. A smear that just shouts ‘this is bad’. This was years ago.

    A friend of my Dad’s, an oncologist, sent me an image. Well, yeah Don, looks like Chronic Leukemia. Bad morphology on the lymphocytes, yadda yadda. You know I haven’t done this for years, and I’m flattered that you remembered me and all. You still keeping up with the piano?

    That’s your Dad’s smear. Just a drop of blood. You know, he was a doctor, too

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