It’s Thanksgiving week, and I’m sure many people—probably even you—are dealing with many weird emotions. Some people love cooking; some people (like me) try to stay as far away from it as possible. Some people love family gatherings; for others, hanging out with family inspires dread and complex feelings.
Holidays are fraught with emotional experiences, and I’d be willing to bet that not everyone feels entirely positive about them. There are also a lot of other negative aspects many people face, including depression, nostalgia, and a general sense that things were just better “back then.”
But there’s good news in this emotional mess: if you’re a fiction writer, you are sitting in front of a wealth of material for your work.
Some of the most memorable scenes in fiction happen at social gatherings. I’m thinking of the sausage-cooking scene in The Godfather, the unexpected feast at Bilbo’s house at the beginning of The Hobbit, and the multitude of party scenes in The Great Gatsby, where most of the details of the characters’ histories and backstories are revealed.
But inject the holiday spirit (or anti-spirit) into these group events, and you get an added dose of drama that fuels the dynamics between the characters and the conflict.
If you’re looking for a fun writing exercise this week to escape from Thanksgiving drama (or if you need an extra scene for your NaNoWriMo novel), try writing a scene where all your characters get together for some kind of dinner and see what new insight emerges.
But remember—writing a scene with a lot of characters in it isn’t as simple as creating a dialogue with just a couple of people. Here are some tips to keep in mind when you’re writing group gatherings in fiction.
Get the Lay of the Land
When you’re writing group gatherings, it’s essential to have a clear idea of the room where the scene is taking place.
Think of it as being like hosting your own party—if you’re setting up a space in your house for people to get together, you’ll put the drinks on the counter, the appetizers on the kitchen table, and have places throughout the dining room and living room for people to sit or hang out.
When you’re writing scenes at a party or gathering, you need to have an idea of where the characters will be in order for the scene to take place. One writing teacher I’ve worked with recommends sketching out a map of the room to help you “block” the movement of the characters, much like the director of a play and set designer work together to establish how the actors will move and interact onstage.
This will also give you an idea of how characters can engage with the environment. Maybe one character feels estranged from the rest of the guests or doesn’t want to be there and hangs out in the corner of the living room with the dog while another group is standing around the food gossiping.
The room’s layout can help you determine what each character might be doing according to their personality and relationship with the rest of the people.
Keep Track of Where the Characters Are
Party scenes are challenging to write because they require you to know where your characters are at all times. You can create a lot of confusion for readers if a character is sitting in the living room one minute, then standing and looking out a window two paragraphs later with no description of how they got there.
That doesn’t mean you need some detailed description of how someone crossed the room to look out the window. In fact, please don’t do this, as this can go very badly very quickly. Please don’t have your character saunter, stride, promenade, or waltz toward the window if the function of the action is merely to get the character from point A to point B. It’s acceptable and even preferable to say, “Bob went over to the window and looked out.”
Even if your characters are sitting around a table for most of the scene, there are still many moving parts to consider. You need to think about what the characters are thinking and how they respond to the conversation at the table or lack thereof.
This brings me to my final tip . . .
Don’t Forget Who is In the Scene
This is perhaps the biggest offense writers commit when crafting scenes with many people in one place. In movies, group scenes are easy because you can see all the characters reacting to the action, even if they aren’t speaking.
Stories are different. If you don’t describe it, readers aren’t going to see it. You are responsible for creating a complete picture of what is happening, which means at least giving a glimpse of what the characters in the scene are doing.
For example, even if three main characters are conversing with each other around the table, you can’t forget who else is there. You need to show them interjecting, giving non-verbal responses, or not interacting at all (picking at their food, staring at the table, etc.).
If you don’t, it’s the equivalent of having an actor in a play who just stands onstage without doing anything to engage with the action.
Conversely, don’t have a character speak that the reader isn’t aware is even there. Disembodied voices take readers out of the scene and create confusion about what’s happening.
You need to let the reader know who is in the scene at the start, then make sure everyone is there for a purpose.
Writing group gatherings in fiction doesn’t just have to be a fun Thanksgiving exercise—there is a good chance that your story will involve a group scene, especially if you’re writing a novel or screenplay. Mastering these tips will help you create a world for readers that is vividly depicted and filled with drama or humor.
Want more tips for writing fiction? Check out my FREE Ultimate Writing Project Workbook.
It contains dozens of prompts, tools, templates, and other writing tips to help you develop your current project to its full creative potential.