Writer’s Craft #12 – The Crowd Scene

The action is rolling along fine. Then your hero bursts into that special obstacle: the crowd scene. Whether the build-up to the crowd scene is psychological or blood-and-guts fighting, the risk of losing momentum while you pause to set up the new situation is palpable.

Have a look at my example, below, from my work-in-progress, Unholy Science. Which version works best for you and why?  Does one appear to solve a different problem than the other does? I haven’t decided which to use yet and there aren’t any right or wrong answers.

Do you have a crowd scene in hand, yourself? How about sharing it with us?  Remember:  this column is about learning from each other’s real-life writing experiences in a supportive, friendly spirit.

Background: Eler has to get to a character called Fahild, the Golden Emperor, who is on a balcony on the far side of the crowd scene.  The use of a laser gun is culturally shocking.

Crowd Scene: Take 1

A scene of slaughter greeted Eler when he emerged onto a landing. Honor guards in the emperor’s colors lay where they had fallen, their bodies sliced by what looked like laser fire. A single Nesak body balanced the harvest of a dozen Golden princes. Around the invader lay the bodies of six Golden women, as peaceful in death as the petals of a plucked and wilted flower, although their dead hands still clutched the broken glass or borrowed swords they’d used to kill the Nesak when they mobbed him. The rest of the landing was full of pretend-servant women and a handful of men in the long white robes of luminary monks.  All of them were wild-eyed, their bloody hands filled with heavy ornaments, kitchen knives and the broken frames of portraits torn from the walls.

Crowd Scene: Take 2

Eler burst onto the landing at the top of the stairs, prepared to head straight for the balcony.

Death and madness barred his way.

He wasn’t alarmed by the dozen guards of honor, slain by laser fire and looking pathetic in their brocade uniforms, many of them with their swords half drawn. He already knew the Nesaks weren’t playing by court rules. What spooked him were the six dead women who had mobbed the invading Nesak with whatever weapons came to hand. Their victim lay dead in their midst, slain by heavy ornaments, broken picture frames and inexpert blows with the swords of the lawful men he had slaughtered.

Beyond the dead, the space between Eler and the balcony was full of wild-eyed people, shocked beyond the limits of their sanity but each – perhaps – as willing as the dead women to throw their lives away in defense of their beloved, Golden Emperor.

PS: re-writes to experiment with the challenge are always welcome, so long as they are done in a spirit of respectful camaraderie. And, of course, the original author gets to use any re-write or advice submitted if he/she wants to do so. 🙂

26 thoughts on “Writer’s Craft #12 – The Crowd Scene

  1. I think the second one is too much in the head for an action scene, so I like #1 better. I also like to avoid negatives when I’m trying for tight pacing (“he wasn’t alarmed”), and emotions beyond the immediate and visceral (being spooked). He’s in a hurry; he has limited time to notice things that aren’t relevant to his task. The image of the blooming ladies might follow him but he can’t afford to stay and dwell on it.

    I like about the 2nd excerpt that it makes the point that while the lasers are taboo, they weren’t totally unexpected at this point. Maybe this could be brought into the first excerpt with a side comment: “Shockingly, the honor guard had been lasered. Well, he already knew the Nesaks weren’t playing by court rules; neither was he, now.”

    Neither version tells us what Eler actually does in response to this situation. His way is barred, but when, then; does he actually stop? Push through? Say “Move or die!”? For that matter, what do the other people do when he bursts onto the scene? They must be a little keyed up; I’d think a monk might make a wild swing at him with a pepper mill or something. “Let me through, dammit, I’m on your side! Where’s the emperor?”

    1. Good analysis. You got the descriptive vs. more Eler-reactive difference between the two. What happens next was, for me, beyond the scope of the current challenge but I like the pepper mill as weapon image. 🙂

  2. I much prefer the first version. First of all, it presents things in about the order the character would mentally experience them. First you get the overview of the scene, then the most visually shocking details, then some smaller things that are just as horrifying that it would take a moment for him to notice. In the second one, we skip right to his thought processes before we even see what he’s reacting to, which greatly reduces the impact.

    The best part about the first example is that you show, don’t tell. There are fewer “emotion words” in the first example, and that frees the reader to just feel the shock of the scene (I did, by the way) without being told how to feel.

    1. I made a conscious effort to present things in the order the character noticed them, so I’m glad that came through for you, Mishell. Interesting point about emotional words being “telling” rather than “showing”. Anyone else have an opinion on that? I can see the point. I can also think of emotion-words as comparable to sensory words in the sense of adding spice — always presuming, of course, that one earns them by having the character act the feelings his/she is said to be feeling.

      1. My take has always been that if the character is acting the feelings, often the author doesn’t need to say what he is feeling. If John abruptly turns and kicks a hole in the wall, we don’t need to say he’s angry, for example. 😀

      2. For me I found the focus shifted too much in the first one, but I felt I had a much stronger understanding of the scene. I think the second one could be made more active. For example:

        “He wasn’t alarmed by the dozen guards of honor” Could be changed to “He casually stepped over the dozen guards of honor”

        Similarly “What spooked him were the six dead women” could become more sensory. I’d rather feel it in his body – be it a struggle to get past them, the way his breath catches, or a physical gesture as we get his headspace. “The sight of the six slaughtered women stopped him cold” or “He bent to drape cloth over their cold/still warm/pungent ruptured bowl reeking”

  3. I’m (mostly) on the side of #2. I thought the increased agency of your protagonist gave the scene a lynch-point from which to hang all your descriptions, and a useful filter to provide meaning. I was able to visualise the space, and the importance of the action within it, because Eler’s reactions have been foregrounded. The details stuck better. This can also be attributed to the rhythm of the text in #2, which is quite fluid when compared to #1.

    A lot of my reaction might be to do with lack of context though – if I’d read the rest of your text, it’s quite likely #1 would feel less like a Dot Point List of Things because the importance of the details you give (like the Golden Women having fallen) would be self evident. In which case, the immediacy of the details in #1 would be a plus.

    1. Thanks for making a case for the second option, Michelle. I suspect personal preference plays a role in those who like #1 vs #2. And certainly what goes before ought to establish the norm for a given scene for distance from the protagonist. Consistency is a good thing, on the whole.

      1. I suspect personal preference plays a role in those who like #1 vs #2.


        Sadly, the crowd scene I could share is missing the ‘obstacle” requirement – my protagonist is just enjoying the view – and that makes for a very different type of crowd scene.

  4. Any brave soul game to give us one of their crowd scene set ups to comment on? In one version or two. If you’d rather comment on my example that’s cool. Just like to remind you it is “open mike” here. You can post a crowd scene example from a published work, if your prefer, and comment on what does or doesn’t work for you, and why.

  5. I prefer the second version. Although both excerpts offer wonderful visuals of what the character is seeing, the second version didn’t seem to mar the action for me. The first one took me out of the moment and made me pause to see what he was seeing, as did the second one, but without interruption, if that makes sense. In other words, the flow felt stronger in the 2nd excerpt for me.

    I’m also assuming that “laser” fire has been explained earlier and that the use of it would already be known to the reader.

    1. Yep, laser fire was established in the scene before. Excellent point, though, from a seasoned editor. 🙂 Always a challenge in these excerpt situations to account for context but worth it, I think, exactly because of the larger issues looming at the edges. Makes it real.

  6. I, too, prefer the second version. #1 is a descriptive passage. #2 is an action passage, including the emotions that became a part of that action. It allows the reader to identify with the character, rather than just gaze upon a scene, which means the reader is investing more in the scene and therefore more likely to turn the page. Most of the actual movement was in the first paragraph, though, and I’d have enjoyed seeing him continue to move through the bodies of the dead women, etc. The more movement, the livelier the scene.

    The biggest problem I see with #2 is sentence length. These seven sentences average more than 21 words each (18, 6, 28, 10, 20, 27, and 43 respectively — I know, I’m a little anal). That’s a bit long for an action scene. Still, I prefer it to the still-life painting of #1.

    Here’s how I might have written these paragraphs:

    Eler burst onto the top landing of the stairs, headed straight for the balcony.

    Death and madness barred his way. (Love this sentence!)

    He danced through the dozen guards of honor in their pathetic laser-charred brocade uniforms, many with swords half drawn. He already knew the Nesaks weren’t playing by court rules, but picking his way through six dead women spooked him. They had mobbed the invading Nesak with any weapon that came to hand. Their victim lay dead in their midst, the victim of heavy ornaments and broken picture frames. Inexpert blows with swords snatched up from dead men had finished him.
    Beyond the dead, between Eler and the balcony, stood wild-eyed people, shocked beyond the limits of their sanity. But each – perhaps, had been as willing as the dead women to die in defense of their beloved Golden Emperor.

    There are two more sentence (9 instead of 7), but the average length is 15.2 words per sentence, which picks up the pace a bit.

    1. I can feel the point Marti is making, and wanted to say that my heart raced a bit more with this passage while still maintaining Linda’s vision for the scene.

      (One comment… ‘danced’ was kind of jarring in this setting. Perhaps a different verb?)

  7. hI Linda, I preferred the second version, but needed to go think for a bit on why.
    It’s the POV for me. I like a personal point of view, not an ‘eye in the sky’ view. This is easier for me to understand, feel, and grasp. If I were to tweak it, I’d say what the scene smelled like, etc. Also, is it hot, cold? Storming, clear blue sky? What do we hear, are people still dying, or is there eery silence. I think you may have mentioned this so sorry if so.

    I”ll come back with an example in a bit.

    1. Good catch. I do have a smelly bit coming up in a later paragraph which is why I left it out here. Death stinks. Mostly because people’s bowels have a habit of opening in death.

  8. Hi Linda, I don’t have a ‘crowd scene’, but I do have one that switches pace/action abruptly.
    In this scene my characters are abandoning ship. This is very serious because they are on a clandestine mission and no one knows where they are except their sponsor, who will never come looking for them if they fail to return. But my character soon learn they have a bigger problem on their hands…

    When they had pulled a safe distance away they stopped to watch the ship. It had tipped to the point of no return was loudly groaning under its final moments. Already the waters were swirling under the massive, sinking weight.
    “Captain?” someone asked urgently.
    The Captain’s eyes were firmly on his ship. “What is it?” he asked.
    “I think I saw something.”
    “You think you saw what?”
    The shaky voice hesitated. “I think I saw a woman.”
    The Captain looked at him crossly. “Were you drinking?”
    The man shook his head and simply pointed.
    Everyone followed the man’s finger. At first they saw nothing and frowned at the interuption, but unexpectedly a dark shadow floated beneath the surface that did not look like a dolphin.
    “I saw it too,” DeCoote confirmed. His face quickly fell into despair; there wasn’t one shadow but many.
    The men pulled back their oars and leaned over the side, alternating between pointing at the shadows and rubbing their eyes. As one man reached out two arms shot from the water and clamped onto his hand. He was pulled overboard and never seen again.

    1. Without context it’s tricky to comment, but I do feel that we could benefit from some more specific nouns. “Someone asked urgently” does not speak powerfully to me and is what a dear writer friend would call wimping… ie a stronger decision should have been made. Better to decide who says something specific nouns give us a lot of character swiftly. A man goes under the water, I don’t care. A man with a sentence of precision I can mourn for. The difference in our head between:

      said a bloodied soldier, his voice a low, fast, growl.
      said a young man, hand pressed to his bleeding scalp
      said a young man, his face still new to shaving, stuttering to find words
      said the cabin boy, his voice breaking

    2. Spooky. I like the suspense created by the captain failing to look immediately. But I’d go with present tense verbs.

      “I think I saw something.”
      “You think you saw what?”
      The shaky voice hesitated. “A woman. In the water.”
      The Captain looked at him crossly. “Are you drunk?”
      The man shook his head and simply pointed.
      “I see it too,” DeCoote confirmed. His shocked expression changed to despair: there wasn’t one shadow in the water, there were many.

  9. I like the second one–more immediate sense of the scene–since it is action, the first one was too detailed and not fast-paced enough. I thought the extra detail detracted rather than added in the first one…

    1. Ah, description. Is it out of fashion? The 2nd one is more action oriented. Just to stir things up, though, I’d like to make a pitch for description — recalling the earlier comment about showing not telling. Can’t description invoke emotion in the reader without stating what emotion is supposed to be felt? For example, the contrast between the flower-like descriptive words for the dead women and the fact they died tearing some apart more or less with their bare hands. There’s a subtlety in that which pleases my sensibilities. Anyone pro or con?

      1. The simple answer for me is pro. I liked the flower-death stuff. If visualization is heavy with emotion I need more space to breathe in.

        I broke up the sentence and cut words that I felt did not add to the power of the scene so that it would give more of an emotional impact to me (individual mileage may vary).

        “Around the invader lay the bodies of six Golden women, peaceful in death, like the petals of a plucked and wilted flower. Their hands still clutched broken glass and borrowed swords they’d used to kill the Nesak when they mobbed him.”

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