ASK AUNTIE MJ: THIS ROOM IS CROWDED

midwest-aftermath asked you:

What is the largest number of active characters you can include in a scene without confusing a reader? How do you keep the reader from being confused?

My dear midwest-aftermath,

Stories do not have occupancy limits imposed by some literary fire department. You can have as many characters in a scene as you want. You can have five, ten, twenty characters, and it can be utterly understandable. I’ve also read scenes in which there are only two characters present, and I’ve had no idea what was going on.

I was about to say that the answer might be found in dialogue attribution, but then I had a little think and remembered scenes I have read that had no attribution at all, and they were still totally clear. (Dialogue attribution means those tags, like “I said” or “he asked.”) There are loads of stories with scenes that take place in crowded courtrooms, in palaces, on battlefields, at parities … crowds are everywhere! And there are many complicated conversations involving loads of people. Auntie MJ has seen them!


Some scenes can be very crowded.

You might not even be talking about dialogue. You might be talking about action. Maybe somebody is beating a demon with a dictionary in one corner of the scene, while someone else learns to play the cello in another. In the third corner, someone is trying to make the perfect cappuccino. And in perhaps YET ANOTHER CORNER (a room is generally permitted four corners, not in all cases but many, so we are on solid geometrical and architectural ground here), someone else is making out with a lizard-person. Please write that scene. Auntie MJ wants to read it.

My advice would be to write your scene, and then later have someone read it and see if they can follow what is going on. You have to edit anyway. Try it out and see how it goes. Don’t curb yourself right from the start.

Lovingly,

Auntie MJ