Friday, January 06, 2012

Writing multiple-character scenes

While sorting through my prodigious accumulation of research books in an effort to thin the herd, I was leafing through a book on 18th century gardens (which I decided I could not part with), and ran across a bookmark. It was a halfsheet of paper on which I'd written the goals for every character involved in a particularly complex and layered scene in my first 18th century historical.

The scene was likely written in 2004, perhaps 2005. There are four characters involved, all men, all with a certain agenda they want to see forwarded. The scene consists of a single conversation in which each character, a plantation/mill owner, a young journeyman joiner, his uncle, and a man all but one of the other three believe to be a slave, has to reach his goal, or keep another character from reaching his.

Sound complicated? I must have thought so. The following is what I wrote to help guide me through this scene, and create as much tension as possible (stuff in parentheses added for clarification):

1. Ian (new guy in town and POV character) wants to get through this unwanted social visit with grace. Once he sees it, he wants to obtain the mahogany. Once it becomes apparent what Pryce (Character 2) wants in trade for it, he wants to control Thomas (Character 3) and prevent him from staying at Chesterfield.

2. Pryce (Chesterfield plantation and mill owner) wants to make a good business deal. Sell some wood to this new blood and if possible trade it for the services of his "slave". He would like to see Ian as financially tied to him as is his uncle.

3. Thomas (who everyone but Ian thinks is a slave) wants to get himself situated at Chesterfield to view the treatment of the slaves there.

4. Hugh (Ian's uncle) wants to see Ian established and respected in the community and so encourages the intercourse with Chesterfield.

It's telling to me that back then, as now, I found it difficult to write a scene like this, with many characters working at cross purposes in a social situation in which they cannot resort to open conflict, without making a list of what each character's goal is in the conversation. By working out ahead of time what each character who participates in the conversation wants, I saved myself a lot of wheel-spinning while writing the first draft. It also lends itself better to subtext, because knowing what each character truly wants, what they actually say can be layered with meaning that body language can then convey.

Of course, that doesn't mean that if halfway through the scene inspiration strikes in the form of a character doing or saying something unplanned that it isn't duly considered as a possible better route to take, or a better motivation for said character to have. But starting with a guideline, or resorting to one if the first draft turns out to be a muddle, always helps clear things up so I can write (or rewrite) the scene with confidence and a firm grasp on the goal and agenda of each character involved.

Does this disqualify me from the Seat-of-the-Pantsters Writing Club?

Just kidding. I withdrew my membership years ago when I realized I was (despite one noticeable lapse) a confirmed Plotter. 

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