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Old 03-24-2020, 09:48 AM   #1
catcon's Avatar
Join Date: Jan 2010
Location: London, Canada
Posts: 1,990
Default How to deal with many characters in a scene

This is a long one, but you must know me by now! Plus, I'm procrastinating before I start my next polish...

We've all had to deal with this problem in our scripts: PERSON 1, PERSON 2... PERSON 9, etc., or FAT GUY, SKINNY GUY... TALL GUY, etc., or merely naming them all as in JOE, ABBY, BARNEY, LILY, MOHAMMED, JACQUI, JIM, etc.

In general, I have little sympathy for readers (boasting as they sometimes do about processing, impossibly, 3-5 scripts per day), but this is one that must make them pull their hair out.

But even for me it's hard to expect a reader to care so much about their assigned read, that day in whatever prodco they work at, that they're actually going to distinguish 9-10 characters in one scene and 'see the movie' properly.

Yes, I accept that some of you may just suggest "Don't do it; keep it to 2-3 characters".

Sometimes you can't: Say in a bar with co-workers after work, or a family get-together, or a bunch of kids huddling behind a building with matches to see what they can burn down, or some of those fast-paced comedies, etc.

And let's say they're named characters who exist throughout the story, so PERSON 1, 2, 3...9 won't suffice.

Hopefully they're not all similar ages, the same gender, deportment, education- or social-level, etc. But still, how to tell them apart when they're all together in one scene?

Worse, in most social situations, when you get lots of people together who feel roughly equal in that setting, they tend to compete for speaking time. This is a natural condition in groups, even though dialogue in screenplays often isn't realistic. We want the dialogue in our writing to 'sound' natural, even if there is lots of subtext etc. Whatever.

So what have you done with the WHO'S WHO problem?

Well, I have encountered this problem in ONE of my scripts, and here's what I did in my recent polish. (This version hasn't been requested for a read, yet) It's a summer beach party setting, from 2018, and there are TEN characters who all pipe in with sarcasm and non sequiturs and interruptions-to-get-attention.

My solution? To put their ages in superscript after their character ID. You can see it in the free preview (click the book cover to open the preview):

Scary Stories for a Summer Beach Party

Weird? Too weird? Unnecessary? This problem exists before the story segments start, between the four stories, and at the end; about 25 of the 90 pages in the script.

I felt that their age was their biggest physical identifier, along with the more subtle ones such as age-appropriateness of their dialogue, repeated phrases/slang, etc., the typical things we use, and which I do employ.

I'm expecting that readers may react crankily, at first, before they realize my purpose in doing it, and then gradually ignore the little superscripts as they read on.

In summary, our goal is to impose on these gatekeepers as few issues and "new conventions" as possible so they won't toss our work, but as mentioned I think that the multi-character conundrum is itself one of the biggest blood-pressure-inflators of all.

And I did search this topic through the first several pages of archive, to no avail. Also, the usual response 'check how the problem was handled in a similar script' did not yield any results, except to simply name all the characters. There's always a flaw in that advice though, because when we read scripts of familiar movies we have too much in our memory that makes the characters seem unique, no matter how many there are in a scene.

We'd have to analyze such scripts as if we hadn't seen the movie and imagine: What ?@#$@#, there are so many characters speaking and I can't keep track! (eg. maybe a few scenes in Usual Suspects, with its mere FIVE characters competing for attention and dialogue time, or maybe even the Oceans movies - except I can't think of a scene that used all 11, 12, 13 etc.)

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Old 03-29-2020, 09:31 AM   #2
SundownInRetreat's Avatar
Join Date: Aug 2011
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Default Re: How to deal with many characters in a scene

I think you're trying to provide a solution to a problem that doesn't exist.
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Old 03-29-2020, 11:59 AM   #3
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Default Re: How to deal with many characters in a scene

Could be. I've taken the # of views to my OP vs. the lack of responses to mean just that.

But for instance, when I've done my annual polishes on this my own script, even I've gotten lost as to "who's Kevin" (who's son is he, what age is he, where's he belong in the scheme of things, etc.) along with who's any of the other near dozen characters in the scenes.

It's challenging on paper, but I know it'd be crystal clear on film.

By the way, I'd tinkered with different versions of the idea, eg.:
KEVIN (12)
but I found the superscripts to be the least obtrusive.

Anyway, since I posted the enquiry, I've simplified it a little in the script, but the supers remain.

I think that they can be ignored, or noticed once in a while as a reminder. Or, I can use them only for the first scenes (till readers hopefully get used to the characters).

Or, I can just remove them all from the script in about 30 seconds, using REPLACE.
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