Two’s Company, Three’s – Hey Buddy, No, You – A Challenge!
Editors, even good ones, and most of the advice and how-to books and exercises go out of their way to tell us “avoid scenes with multiple people.” Consensus is two is plenty to get the job done, or inside the head (borrrrrring) of one. Decorate the set with non-interactive bodies. Screenplay time!
Pretty good advice, I guess. I’ve taken it a few times. I’ve heard it from editors from my first to such internet faves as Dan Alatorre and Beth at The Editors Blog (who really is good). They also both go out of their way to have us disenfranchise readers from characters (they certainly do touch a lot, why are we seeing this through ‘the character’ and not direct action, but that’s a whole other story).
Why? Because a group scene mishandled is awful. Or amateurish, or silly or just plain bogus. Like the maddening, poorly acted and timed, cued dialog in a Hallmark movie. Where everyone speaks at the polite moment, round robin style. I call that the circle jerk. Alatorre opens “The Navigators” that way. Like walking into a room full of mannequins or those Disney animatronic things, all speaking and walking and moving in turn, on cue with directorial action tags. Like readers are too stupid to follow it. Not unlike the formulaic cozy where Miss Marple assembles the suspects and goes around the room or prods whatever thick policemen is going around the room. Wait your turn. Stand in line, cue aaaaaaaaaaand speak!
Anybody have kids? Coached little league any gender, any sport? Ever read “The Cat with the Pot on Her Head”?
Been in a bar, a restaurant, a network group, a tradeshow booth? Please. No group is as well behaved as Christie (well, maybe the English) or Alatorre or any number of others would have us believe. In Alatorre’s case it takes the first two pages at least to get past convo that doesn’t matter much trying to show camaraderie and latent sexism and get nowhere. Which is why reading group scenes is worse than writing them most of the time, particularly ones that read like screenplays with directorial sidebar notes.
In the music biz of the late 70s and early 80s we used to point out when we heard the punch-ins roll by, and how the true artform of the producer was to put enough Vaseline on the seams to render the punches and dubs less obvious. Seriously. Still going on, particularly in clip art electronica. The world of assembled guitar solos is no different than the current world of assembled multi-person scenes. There’s the first four bars, back up, count in, here’s two more…Okay Bob, your turn, then Marjorie…
Why? Are there no mentors? Are there no painters out there beyond the solo man vs nature/self/society Jungian quest for identity, nothing but screen writers for well-mannered hair dyed botoxed 80s child stars being cued to speak in turn?
The answer is yes, there are. But we need to hunt them down.
This topic wasn’t even on my mind, but the last six weeks of 2018 I went to the woodshed. With some classics. Just to see why they’re classics, you know? One of them was Dashiell Hammett’s “The Thin Man”. Most of the novel transpires in groups of people. The magic is that Hammett puts you at a crowded table in a speakeasy or in a posh living room or a tenement apartment with at least four people, often more. All interrupting each other, taking swings, having opinions, crying, freaking out, throwing skillets, pulling guns. And you are there. Because Hammett, unlike almost anyone else save Hemingway, cuts through all the bullshit and puts you in the scene with all you need to be there and no more.
How did he do it? He spends no time in anyone’s head, stays completely out of the way and lets the scene happen. He puts people in a situation and allows them to behave as they would. A screaming, crying, lying drama queen doesn’t go off when everyone has had their say, or when it’s convenient for the writer, they go off, like people do when their buttons get pushed, inconveniently. We need to understand people and their behaviors and let them be who they are or they become weak, well behaved stereotypes. Which is why (Dan and Beth and editors et al) we should experience emotions like a simple touch or a ferocious slap as they are, we don’t wait for a convenient time or a dedicated direct disengaged authorial action tag to relay that info. A while back I wrote about Jim kicks Bill. That’s all you need, particularly in a crowd. Say it, do it, get off it.
Another example. On TV and in movies bad guys talk their way into getting shot with a lot of Clint Eastwood stand-off and word play. Read some Elmore Leonard. Set a scene, “Hey, you!” (if that) Blam blam blam. Next. Stephen King can ramp up the tension early on until when, horrifyingly and in one line, someone inexplicably (sort of) sticks their hand in a garbage disposal and flips the switch. Next.
Less is always more. Less author, more scene. More BAM.
Crowd scenes are the same way. Keep it moving to keep it real.
If you had perfect children and grew up in a perfect home with well-mannered siblings and are having trouble with this interruption thing, spend a couple minutes (that’s all you’ll need) watching the 4 boxed-in talking heads on CNN or a Presidential press conference. Or sit behind a group of six or more at a theater or church of your choice. Hammett didn’t have cell phones for props but I’m sure he could have worked in drunken thumb tapping in a darkened theater from the disheveled gum smacking party girl.
If we think our readers (or us writers) can’t handle a busy scene and we write the busy out of it, (as is the current trend) or bail altogether, it becomes numb. And dumb. Start with two, then three, then up to seven individual personalities and you’ll be with Hammett in the Pigiron speakeasy, 1934. And you will probably never see it done better. Steinbeck and Faulkner rock 4 or more pretty well themselves. Maybe it was that Roaring Twenties thing when people got together instead of tapping glass to communicate.
If you’re having trouble, as I have read recently, getting three people in a car to a motel, study a classic. Then write. All I’m asking is see how it’s done well before joining the circle jerk, stumble about with call and response or bail club.
Thinking about writing I am always reminded of the old adage about good barbeque. Bear down on the meat, ease up on the potato salad. We shouldn’t write to prove that we can by doing that ‘look, here I am, writing meaningless action tags and weak dialogue’ thing, we should keep it real. Real people misbehave. They speak out of turn, and don’t always say the perfect thing to cue who’s next. I’m sure that’s not PC, but it’s true. And it reads better. Better than the perfectly slotted, stiff nonsense of a book looking to be a Hallmark movie. Well, the contents written on the side of a shampoo bottle read better than a lot of that stuff.
Which brings me to – stay tuned – next time we address my favorite topic of (self) defense, potty mouth words.