Originally posted August 12, 2010.
One of the biggest problems with having four or five people operating in the same scene, regardless of its type, is the risk that the better-imaged ones will take over and the less-definite ones will get lost in the shuffle. A couple days ago, UZ asked how to avoid that without creating a completely patterned alternation between characters; in thinking about it, I found a number of tricks that take advantage of the similarities between conversation and combat.
- Group them. In most cases, instead of having five completely different people, you’ve probably got five people with varying degrees of closeness, possibly from two different groups (so three know each other from X situation, two from Y), maybe more. So one thing you can do is narrative-anchor them to each other. If one says something, maybe another finishes the sentence, or elaborates on it, or makes a wisecrack about it. If one reacts, another reacts to her reaction in a way appropriate to their character dynamic. What this means is that, even if you’ve only got one or two people you tend to focus on in the scene, if one of them is in each grouping, coming up with something for one of them means you’ll draw your attention back to their wingmen.
- Create smaller, sub-matches, with no more than two to a ’side’, then treat it like an exchange of blows—one person does something specifically against another, who responds, maybe manage the peripheral reactions to the first move and the response if there are any, then move on to a different island of interaction, repeat the process, and come back at this one a little later from the other side. Combining this with the grouping method gets us a fluid, twining alternation between the characters, making sure everyone’s doing something.
- Have there be certain things to which a given character will always respond, as quickly as possible; in short, narrative-anchor them to little, repeating events rather than (or as well as) groups or smaller conflicts. Combat already creates this, in that a character attacked is going to either defend herself or hurt; in a conversation, it might be being directly addressed, or it might be a favored topic, a reference to an incident, a certain combination of words, just something that gets the character’s attention and causes her to respond.
Keep these up, and it’ll be a lot harder for your characters to be lost in the rush.