Sunday, 26 June 2011

The Same Thing In Fewer Words : Character Introductions,

One thing that really annoys me when I'm reading a novel is when the author takes two or three times as many words as they need to to say something, or set something up or... well to do anything really. Because it annoys me, I try to avoid it in my own writing or, more precisely, when editing my own writing - needless waffle being part of the process of writing a first draft (I'm also not too fussy about waffling in blog posts I don't really expect anyone to ever read, you noticed that huh?).

There's obviously more than one way to reduce the number of words it takes to say something, but one I wish more writers would do is the following:

Introduce characters in batches.

There is a damn good reason that so many roleplay games begin with some variation of 'everyone meets up in a bar' which is that it's boring to sit around and watch other people play while you have nothing to do. Now admittedly characters in a book aren't literally sitting around waiting and getting bored but some of that sense of impatience bleeds through somehow (possibly because they're metaphorically sitting around and complaining in the writers brain). Also it's tiresome to have scene after scene which are there mostly to introduce new characters one after another. Also, also you get a better idea of what someone is like if you see them interacting with a variety of people.

Of course introducing three or more characters in the same scene can end up in a confused muddle if you're not careful, but when it works it's that much more satisfying. I don't really have advice on how to introduce multiple characters in a brief time other than to point at a couple of examples that I thought did it really well (both from video but the techniques can be adapted, aka shamelessly ripped off).

Example 1: The opening scene from Shaun of the Dead
This starts with Shaun, then introduces his girlfriend Liz because she's talking to him, then as their conversation brings up Shaun's best friend and Liz's flatmates the camera pulls back to show them close enough to be hearing what's said about them. In literally one minute of screen-time (yes I did actually go and time it, I am that sad), five characters are introduced and we know how they know each other, something about what they're like and roughly what they think of each other. Furthermore the scene also introduces a fairly major subplot (Liz isn't happy with her relationship with Shaun) and an important location (the local pub), in one minute. That takes some beating.

Example 2: The Firefly Episode 'The Train Job'
 Not quite as compact as the previous example, but again multiple characters are introduced rapidly (in part because of the awkward situation where this is the second episode chronologically but the first to be aired), if you have it on dvd and watch the commentary lots of little tricks they used to keep things clear in the viewers mind are actually pointed out, Kayleigh rolling out from under part of the cockpit because this is visual shorthand for 'mechanic', various characters describing each other in terms of relatedness (my wife, his sister, etc) or in terms of their jobs (mechanic, medic, etc) and also all the shots showing Mal moving around Serenity to give you an idea of how the interior spaces connect up. Lots of neat tricks to internalize and reuse.

1 comment:

  1. Great post! I've never given thought to "introducing characters in batches."

    It all boils down to "less is more," I suppose. I like what Sol Stein said once. One plus one equals one-half.

    Thanks for the examples, as well. Excellent!