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This week: Hordes, Mobs & CrowdsEdited by: LJPC - the tortoise
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This newsletter is about how to write crowd scenes.
“Fiction is lies; we're writing about people who never existed and events that never happened when we write fiction, whether its science fiction or fantasy or western mystery stories or so-called literary stories. All those things are essentially untrue. But it has to have a truth at the core of it.”
~ George R.R. Martin, author
“Two hours of writing fiction leaves this writer completely drained. For those two hours he has been in a different place with totally different people.”
~ Roald Dahl, author
“To me, the greatest pleasure of writing is not what it's about, but the inner music that words make.”
~ Truman Capote, author
Hordes, Mobs & Crowds
Handling Crowd Scenes
When you’re writing short stories with a limited number of characters, you may not have any crowd scenes, but if you're using busy locations (such as restaurants, carnivals, trains, schools, malls, etc.), you may need to describe a crowd of people—or menacing zombie hordes.
If you’ve got twenty or thirty in a crowd, you certainly can’t describe all of them. It would take too long and your reader would get bored.
But don’t go the other way and fall into the trap of making the crowd into a single entity that acts with a hive mind, like “the group surged onto the bus and jostled to reach the few empty seats,” “the mob threw rocks and stones at the police,” or “the crowd ducked away from the bullets and covered their heads.”
Generalities leave fuzzy images in your readers’ minds that don’t feel real.
Imagine watching a movie where the extras are identical, so the main character walks into a bar filled with people who are all dressed in gray jumpsuits, have blank faces, and are frozen like mannequins. Filmmakers pay huge bucks to set dressers, costumers, makeup artists, and “2nd Unit” directors to make sure the people in crowd scenes appear as separate individuals doing different things.
So don’t populate your hordes with one-size-fits-all stick figures.
It's okay to use one or two lines describing a generic crowd filling a location -- but it’s the detailed descriptions of a few individuals that will sell the scene to the reader.
Choose Specific Descriptions
“We will believe more thoroughly in large numbers of people if you offer example images for us."
~ Janet Burroway, Writing Fiction, A Guide To Narrative Craft
When writing crowd scenes, try to stay away from generalities, like “the crowd ran,” “a woman at the back of the pack slipped and fell,” and “a boy grabbed a girl and bit her on the arm.” Lines like these leave a muddy, indistinct impression in your readers’ minds because they aren’t specific.
Here’s a scene that portrays the actions, but the people are all generalities:
The open gate behind the vehicle sent the crowd into a frenzy. One man broke through the police line. More followed. Pushing and shoving, they made a break for the hospital. Some of them supported friends or family members between them. The infection from the virus glistened on their skin like a wet rash.
A cop tried to stop them, laying around him with his baton. A big guy wrestled him to the ground. The stampede swept over him and rushed toward the gates that were already rolling closed.
See the generalities here? The crowd, one man, they, some of them, a cop, a big guy, the stampede.
Instead of generalizing, choose to “decorate” your crowd scenes with a few vibrant images of individuals doing unusual things.
Here’s the same scene with specifics added:
The open gate behind the vehicle sent the crowd into a frenzy. A linebacker-sized man battered down a police shield and barreled past their defenses. More followed. A multicultural river of people wearing everything from ratty T-shirts to business suits pushed and shoved toward the hospital. A school-marmish woman, her glasses hanging askew, hair falling down from a large bun, held onto a tall teenaged boy and hobbled closer to the gates. Two heavily tattooed Latinos supported a grandmotherly lady between them. All the rioters had one thing in common—the infection from the virus glistened on their skin like a wet rash.
A police baton slammed down on unprotected backs, wielded by a cop so young that his wispy mustache clung to his upper lip like a cobweb. A skinhead armed with a crowbar and biceps the size of battleships laid out the cop with one blow. The stampede swept over him and rushed toward the gates, already rolling closed.
Excellent examples of crowd scenes from well-known authors:
Stephen King, Cell
Salem Street was full of crazy people.
Clay’s first assessment was that there might be a thousand or more. Then the observer part of him took over—the cold-hearted artist’s eye—and he realized that was a wild overestimate, prompted by the surprise at seeing anyone at all on what he had expected would be an empty street. There was no mistaking the vacant faces, the eyes that seemed to look beyond everything, the dirty, bloody, disheveled clothing (in several cases no clothing at all), the occasional cawing cry or jerky gesture. There was the man dressed only in tighty-whity undershorts and a polo shirt who seemed to be saluting repeatedly; the heavyset woman whose lower lip was split and hung in two beefy flaps, revealing all of her lower teeth; the tall teenage boy in blue jeans shorts who walked up the center of Salem Street carrying what looked like a blood-caked tire-iron in one hand; an Indian or Pakistani gentleman who passed Tom’s house wriggling his jaw from side to side and simultaneously chattering his teeth; a boy—dear God, a boy Johnny’s age—who walked with absolutely no sign of pain although one arm was flapping below the knob of his dislocated shoulder; a pretty woman in a short skirt and a shell top who appeared to be eating from the red stomach of a crow.
Tess Gerritsen, The Bone Garden
...the cold had kept away their few regulars, and tonight only the most wretched of wanderers had been swept in from the streets. One man stood at the bar, digging desperately in filthy pockets for filthy coins. Nothing could dull the sting of a night this cold like a few precious ounces of rum. At a corner, another man had laid down his head, and his snores were loud enough to rattle the empty glasses that littered his table.
Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child, Reliquary
There was a sudden commotion at the entrance to the center, and Margo looked over to see a group of policemen half running, half stumbling in from the concourse beyond. Their uniforms were disheveled and muddy, and one of the officers had a nasty cut on his forehead. In their midst, struggling wildly, was an incredibly dirty man wearing a ragged corduroy suit. His long gray hair was matted and streaked with dirt and blood. A large turquoise necklace hung from his neck, and a heavily stained beard hung down to his hand-cuffed wrists.
When describing a crowd of people, try not to describe them as if the “crowd” is one entity that does things all in sync.
It’s okay to generalize when describing the crowd for a line or two, but to make the scene realistic and interesting for the reader, it’s better to single out a few individuals within the crowd and describe them.
When describing people in the crowd, don’t just describe them visually. It’s important to include their actions to make them seem lifelike and not just mannequins.
Whereas Stephen King described six individuals in the crowd scene above, it isn’t always necessary to describe that many. Sometimes only two or three descriptions will do to set the tone and make the reader believe.
Until next time: Let the horror bleed onto the pages with every word!
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To my delight, some writers took the time to comment on my last newsletter: "Too Gory?" Thank you!
Comments listed in the order they were received.
Arakun the twisted raccoon writes: Gore often ruins a horror story for me. I don't hate gore as much as I hate sappy sad stories, but it is close!
Yeah, there’s nothing worse than sappy, sad stories.
Vampyr14 writes: Great info. I'm not big on gory stuff either, but I do like a good scare!
I love a good scare too. Thanks for replying to the newsletter!
billwilcox writes: Helpful, insightful, and yet strewn with very little gore.
Yeah, hope it wasn’t too subtle. I really had to hold myself back from my usual buckets-of-blood approach.
Remembering writes: Hello,
Thanks for writing this newsletter. It's so informative.
I have a question to ask you. I'm writing an autobiography. I lived with a serial killer because I couldn't get away from him and escaped. This weeks newsletter really hit home for me. I think readers are afraid I'll go into more detail than I do. What does the warning about graphic content some books have mean?
I don't know if my book has graphic content or not.
Hi Leila! I’m glad to hear you escaped the frightening situation you were in. As far as your memoir goes, the line between subtle content and graphic content can be hard to spot. Using the WDC rating system can help. Graphic might include 18+, GC, and XGC ratings. Read the definition of those here "Content Rating System (CRS)"
The words “serial killer” can attract a big audience. Many will be hoping for graphic content, and since you want as many readers as possible, you don’t need to tell them it isn’t there. However, you can either use the description of the book (the jacket blurb) or write a Note From the Author at the beginning to explain that you are concentrating on the emotional journey you went through when you were living with a criminal. As long as you mention what’s actually in the book, your readers shouldn’t be disappointed. Good luck!
BIG BAD WOLF submits "Dead Rising: Your Story" and writes: If you don't want gore, set your monsters up as people, not creatures.
Good point, BBW!
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