craft post by Anne-Marie Strohman
Writing a large cast of characters can be tricky. You have to make sure readers can remember each character, that they carry their weight, that they have meaningful roles in the plot and in the protagonist’s life. Rita Williams-Garcia’s A Sitting in St. James is an epic tale involving three generations of a Louisiana plantation family, the enslaved people who live and work on the plantation, friends, social connections, extended family, etc. Williams-Garcia masterfully establishes this multitude of characters and their worlds.
On a smaller scale, she also masters the crowd scene–a dinner at the midpoint of the book as well as a dance scene near the end, for example. (In order to avoid spoilers, we’ll just look at the dinner scene here.) In a movie, it’s easy to see the crowd and feel the energy in the room. In fiction, it’s more complicated–you need to balance the minute and individual with the group so that readers feel grounded in the environment and in the particular characters’ interactions.
Set the Scene
First, Williams-Garcia establishes who is in the scene with a small introduction scene. She starts the chapter (Book III, Chapter IV) as a new character, the guest of honor, arrives:
The family, along with Pearce and Jane, met the carriage to receive Eugenie. Byron helped Eugenie out of the carriage, while everyone welcomed her warmly. (238)
We have spent a couple hundred pages with the family (Madame, her son Lucien, and his son Byron) already, so we know who they are. We are also well acquainted with Pearce (Byron’s cadet friend and lover) and Jane (who is boarding with the Guilbert family). Byron’s fiancee Eugenie is introduced here, though we have heard of her previously.
After a just-over-one-page scene, Williams-Garcia jumps to the actual dinner. She doesn’t need to reintroduce the characters–we know who’s there–but she uses this opportunity to give readers the feel of the dinner through Madame’s perspective.
It had been years since the dinner table had seated so many. Madame delighted in having this gathering of young people, conversing, laughing, and in Jane’s case, eating. This was how Madame saw the future of the home: a lively place of good company, discussion, and entertainment. (239)
Later in this paragraph, Madame mentions Thisbe, her enslaved maid, who we know from earlier scenes is always by Madame’s side, silent, attentive to Madame’s needs, but always attempting to remain unnoticed (by Madame’s command).
Madame thought, later tonight, while Thisbe knelt at the prie-diue, she would give thanks for her longevity . . . (239).
We don’t see Thisbe in the scene (Madame doesn’t notice her), but this brief mention that’s buried in a little clause in the middle of the sentence reminds readers that she’s there. As in all the other meal scenes, Thisbe is standing silently by Madame and Marie and Louise are serving. When they appear later in the scene, we are not surprised because they have been in every dinner scene.
Williams-Garcia has set the scene by indicating which characters are present and what the activity of the scene feels like. By doing all this up front, she avoids having readers surprised at a character popping into a scene out of nowhere and establishes the tone of the party so readers can see what comes next within the context of the party-like atmosphere.
Use “said” and “asked” most
It’s been said before, but using “said” as the only dialogue tag is the way to go. The “said”s just fade into the background. “Asked” works the same way for dialogue questions.
In the entirety of Book III, Chapter IV, there are a lot of “said”s, a few “asked”s, and only a few uses of other tags, almost all from Madame. Madame “protested” (241), “snapped” (243 and 245), and “exclaimed” (246). In one instance, “Jane agreed” (242). These deviations from the standard “said” and “asked” are for specific reasons–to show the overwrought Madame’s overwrought expressions, and to indicate an emphasis when Jane makes a claim that repeats what someone has just said.
Balance action and thought to cue which character is speaking
In addition to dialogue tags, Williams-Garcia uses movement and internal thoughts to show readers which character is speaking. Take this exchange:
“You exaggerate my dancing skill,” Byron said to Pearce.
Pearce would have none of it. “Eugenie, your betrothed is so skilled a dancer . . .”
Eugenie looked at her fiance. “I wish you had written to me about dancing . . .”
Pearce said, “Why not see for yourself?”
“Yes!” Lucien said. “Let us see the couple dance. A prelude to what is to come.”
Eugenie flushed even more than before. “Please. I can’t be put on the spot.” (242)
The first tag “Byron said to Pearce” suggests an intimacy that we know the two characters have and makes it clear that Byron is addressing Pearce without him having to say his name, which would be clunky in context.
In the next paragraph, we get an internal thought or reaction: “Pearce would have none of it.” It’s a little tiny bit of exposition. But having Pearce’s name right at the front in a thought sentence separate from the dialogue indicates that what follows is his speech.
Next, Eugenie has a moment of action that precedes her dialogue: “Eugenie looked at her fiance.” This physical action (even though it’s only slight) keeps readers grounded in the physicality of the scene. It especially works after a more internal sentence for Pearce. If Eugenie’s had been internal too, we might get stuck in the characters’ heads and forget about the physical nature of the scene entirely.
The “said”s in the next two paragraphs fade away, but are needed because we have new speakers entering the conversation. Then Eugenie keeps us again in the physicality of the scene with her blush.
Williams-Garcia incorporates even more action sentences into the scene: “He bowed his head,” “Lucien said, raising his glass,” “Jane nodded and continued to eat,” “Jane wiped her mouth with her napkin” (242-43). When the scene moves from the table to Pearce and Byron demonstrating their dancing skills, Williams-Garcia incorporates even more action sentences.
Eliminate dialogue tags when possible
When you have a lot of characters in one scene, you end up needing a lot of dialogue tags to make sure readers know who is speaking. But you may have moments where you can eliminate them, or include them after a longer section of dialogue.
In order to eliminate dialogue tags or sentences of thought or action that keep readers grounded, the voices of the characters must be clear. There can be no mistaking who’s speaking. In this short instance, Lucien and Byron can’t be mistaken for anyone else:
“My son, my son! A leader of men on the ballroom dance floor and on the battlefield.”
“Thank you, Father.”
The “son” and “father” within the dialogue makes clear that it is Lucien and Byron. But there is another parent-child pair in the room, Madame and Lucien, and given just the first line, there are no specific words tto indicate that it’s Lucien speaking, but Madame would never speak in this tone with this voice.
Make sure each piece of dialogue responds to the last, or draw attention to the change of direction
Let’s take a look at the flow of dialogue early in the dinner conversation. Pearce has just indicated that Academy life is such that cadets are longing for weekend or holiday passes.
“Is the Academy life as difficult as that?” Eugenie asked. “Byron’s letters are so cheerful.” She turned to him. He returned a sheepish smile.
Madame wasn’t at all pleased with the conversation. “It’s a cruel thing to share the miseries and trials of the Academy when all it does is create despair. Byron! Think of your poor fiancee.”
“My letters are cheerful because there’s much to take pride in, and I do take great pride in the routine,” Byron said.
“Yes!” Pearce said. “The singing. The marching from pub to pub. I’ll have you know Byron is the champion pugilist of our class.”
Only Lucien seemed familiar with the term “pugilist.” His face enlivened. “You don’t say!”
“I do, sir! Byron has the reputation for avoiding the jabs. He bounces like a crafty kangaroo in the ring.” Pearce put up his boxing hands to illustrate. . . .
“This isn’t pleasant. Not at all,” Madame protested.
“I agree, Madame Guilbert,” Eugenie said. (240-41)
In this section, you’ll see a number of elements discussed above: the use of “said,” identifying the speaker through a thought or action, leaving identification until after a long line of dialogue (a corollary of leaving off dialogue tags).
The other thing to note here is how every piece of dialogue responds to the one before it. Eugenie starts with the first piece of information: Byron’s letters are cheerful, while Pearce’s previous description of Academy life is dismal. Madame responds that one should focus on the positive to avoid bringing on despair, and turns to Byron. Byron then gives an explanation for the cheerfulness of the letters–his pride in routine. Pearce then leaps from Byron’s comment to focus on the routines–singing, marching, fighting–(of course, he is highlighting their extra-curricular activities and making light of the conversation). Lucien responds to the description of Byron as a pugilist. Then Pearce riffs on Byron’s fighting. Madame then turns the conversation by saying it is in poor taste, and Eugenie agrees. Each piece of dialogue builds on the previous one. There is a logic to the conversation, and we are carried through the conversation.
Show the business and busy-ness of the scene
Every once in a while, Williams-Garcia pulls us out of dialogue into action, and she gives us the feel of the room again. Take this paragraph of action:
After the exhibition [of Pearce and Byron dancing], Lucien set down his instrument and clapped and shouted, “Bravo!” Eugenie patted her hands together. Madame made a smiling expression with eyebrows raised. Jane heaped another chop on her plate. Marie hurried to the table to ladle gravy over the meat. (244).
We know where all the main players in the scene are. It gives us a quick encapsulation of all of their reactions to the dancing, and grounds us again in the physicality of the scene for more than just the dancers.
End with a reflection
In the final little scene at the end of the chapter, Byron and Pearce reflect on what happened at the dinner. They danced together, in front of Byron’s father, grandmother, and fiancee. We understand from this little scene their breathlessness at what they’ve gotten away with. This moment allows for readers to also grasp the significance of the scene. While the scene incorporates a lot of story elements–the relationship between Eugenie and Byron, the familial expectations, Academy life, Eugenie’s socio-economic level, Pearce and Byron’s relationship, Jane’s progress in acquiring female graces under Madame’s instructions, and more–the revolutionary thing is Byron and Pearce’s dance, their secret love acted out in public without consequence. Incorporating this scene, helps readers focus on what the scene means.
Key takeaway: guide your reader
There is a lot of craft that goes into writing a scene with a lot of characters in it–from introducing who’s in the room to logical sequences of dialogue, from thought and action to reflection. What’s most important is to guide your reader clearly through the scene. To do so, you must revise with an eye to detail. Minute changes can make the difference between clarity and mud.
Now it’s YOUR turn.
Find a scene in your work-in-progress to analyze and revise.
- Examine how you introduce characters. Do we know who’s in the scene early on? Is it worth adding a brief scene before to establish the characters in the room? If a character pops up later, would readers expect them to be in the room already? If it’s a surprise, figure out how to let readers know the character is in the room from the start.
- Identify the energy of the scene. Do you show the energy in the room early in the scene? If not, add a short paragraph that gets readers in the mood of the scene.
- Highlight all of your dialogue tags. If there are tags other than “said” or “asked” check each one to make sure it’s necessary to understanding the scene or the character. (Note adverbs in dialogues too–they should also be used sparingly and for specific purposes.)
- Underline action sentences and wavy-underline thoughts. Are they effective in keeping readers grounded in the physicality of the scene? Are there too many thoughts in a row so that readers are entirely inside characters’ heads? If so, revise so there’s a balance of thought and action.
- Remove any excess dialogue tags.
- For any dialogue without tags, check to make sure it’s very clear who’s speaking. Revise accordingly.
- Mark any paragraphs that show the busyness of the room and/or the response to a major event in the scene. If you don’t have any, consider adding one or two. If you do have some, make sure they are well-placed and communicate the energy of the scene.
- What happens after your scene? What is the major event, and which characters most need to reflect on that event? Consider adding a short paragraph or short scene where two characters reflect on the crowd scene.
- Read your scene aloud, watching for any places a reader might be lost or confused. Revise so that you are guiding your reader through the scene, directing their attention within the scene.
If you missed our interview with Rita, check it out!
For another craft post on a Rita Williams-Garcia book, read Beth Mitchell’s post on backstory in One Crazy Summer.
Anne-Marie Strohman (co-editor) writes picture books, middle grade novels, and young adult short stories and novels. She is trained as a teacher, an editor, and a scholar, specializing in Renaissance Literature. She holds an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts and is an active member of SCBWI. Find her at amstrohman.com and on Twitter @amstrwriter.