I can recall how my first Creative Writing professor liked to emphasize details, but only necessary ones. He also liked the action to be as small as possible. For example, he told us to refrain from writing about a pile of leaves blowing in the wind, but rather describe the action of a single leaf, and by that the reader can know how all the leaves moved. Or don’t tell me how a flock of birds flew in formation, but how one bird flew, and we will know about the movements of the entire flock.
Wonderful advice, and difficult to follow consistently, as it is with all good advice. But I have also come to learn that what applies to leaves and birds also applies to people. The first time I had to write a scene involving a large crowd, I tried to detail the action of several people in the assembly. It didn’t work too well. Then I tried the response of one, and it opened up for me. That’s when I learned that oftentimes in Creative Writing, your mob can act as a single character, and a single character can act as the rest of the mob. Here are a few examples from books, movies, and even opera.
Anna has ruined her reputation by her affair. On one occasion a friend of her husband’s who is still friendly towards her invited her to join him and his wife in their opera box that night. Of course, everyone stares. At intermission, Anna and her friend’s wife discuss one character and wished to know who it was, but neither of them had a program. A gentleman in the next box gave Anna his program. The wife of this gentleman scolds him and forces him to take her home since she is now ashamed. This one mean women lets you know what everyone at the opera was thinking and feeling.
I love opera, so you’ll get a few opera examples since they use the chorus so well as the mind of a mob. Peter Grimes by Britten is about a fisherman in a small fishing village whose life is ruined by rumors. Often the chorus sings, and then again, one man, Bob Boles, acts as the mob. In a tavern, Boles starts a fight with Peter, which tells us the village wants to attack him. Later Boles leads the mob when they search for Peter.
A Masked Ball
Verdi’s opera, Un Ballo in Maschera, or, A Masked Ball, is about a plot to kill the king of Sweden, Gustuv III. The opera begins with a male chorus, half singing the praise of Gustuv, and half wanting his death for his evil. From then on, the large part of conspirators are represented by two characters, Count Horn and Count Ribbing. Count Horn tells that he wants revenge because Gustuv took the home of his forefathers, and Count Ribbing wants revenge because the king had Ribbing’s brother killed. We don’t need to know all of the accusations against the king since these two Counts represent the whole conspiracy.
You know from a recent post that David Lean is my favorite director. Ryan’s Daughter is set in a small Irish village in the 1920s. Lean uses one character, Moreen Cassidy, to speak on behalf of the entire village. Rose is cheating on her husband with a British officer. Michael, the mute village idiot (who really knows everything) finds a cave where the two had met and one of the officer’s medals lay in the sand. Michael has a crush on Rose, so he puts on the medal thinking it’ll get Rose to love him. When Michael first comes to town, the crowd laughs at him, and Moreen asks if she could touch his V.C., which stands or Victorian Cross. When Rose comes through and Michael shows off his medal and salutes, the whole town puts two and two together and figure out what she has done. After Rose leaves, Moreen asks Michael is she could touch his V.C. because “My husband hasn’t got one.” Her single action show how everyone is thinking.
These are a few of many examples of how a large group of people may act as one person, and how one person may act as many. It’s a hard skill to master, but one worth obtaining for the fiction writer. If you have any such scenes, tell me about them in the Comment section below.