I have a couple of friends who host fabulous soirées. They are a raucous blend of performance, music and readings and loads of laughs and great conversation. Last weekends gathering was a salon for a bunch of literary and music types – a get together to learn from, and amuse one another. The theme was What floats your boat?
Over the course of the afternoon I learnt about beer brewing; about Arabic numbers and plural leaders; what reading meant to one woman; another’s passion for the tango; what it’s like to have spent thirty years advocating for piece workers; the experience of finding someone in China to teach you mandarin via Skype; the research involved in writing a historical novel; and was serenaded by a musician who had just handed in her music PhD. I read an excerpt from my work in progress mystery manuscript and was delighted with the reception. An afternoon of exploring what nurtures and fuels others passions was refreshing, and a lovely way to get to know people a bit.
The soirée got me thinking about gatherings in fiction. I do love an intimate gathering, but must confess the bigger the bash, and the less people I know, the less appealing they become – it’s the introverts dilemma. Jay Gatsby’s elaborate and decadent soirées in The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald come immediately to mind.
And I like large parties. They’re so intimate. At small parties there isn’t any privacy.
The quote is from the aloof dishonest socialite Jordan Baker. It’s short, but says a lot about the character. At a big party she can control who she speaks to and blend in. At smaller gatherings she has less control, could be forced to speak to people she doesn’t want to and exposed for the liar she is.
Other memorable fiction parties include the Mad Hatters tea party in Alice in Wonderland, and the illicit shindig at the psychiatric institution in One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest when McMurphy smuggled wine and women into the asylum after dark so the inmates could have a good time.
Parties, soirées, crowds and gatherings are a great vehicle for conflict in fiction. We can showcase our characters personality by how they respond to a crowd. Gatherings can heighten emotions, raise the stakes, be exciting and fun or provocative and anxiety generating. What if our protagonist meets someone they dread?
We can fill a party with movement, color, action, uncertainty, intrigue, or deception. Our protagonist may feel welcome or isolated. They can experience the unusual, unexpected or surreal. Venue, decorations and people’s clothes provide setting; snippets of conversation and the people our protagonist seeks out, or avoids tells the story. All fodder for character and plot development, not to mention humour. A party has its own arc – a story within a story. It includes getting ready for the party, arrival, the event, departure and reflections the following day. How might a character respond to each element? How do you think Ray might respond to this comment in Jason Medina’s A Ghost In New Orleans? What will his response tell us about him…
So, Ray… you seem like a cool cat,” she said. “Are you into alternative lifestyle parties?
My current work in progress contains a soirée, a protest and a conference. Each presented a chance to reveal character, advance plot and apply pressure to my protagonist. When my protagonist arrives at the soirée the greeting she receives is less than ideal…
Within a minute it swung open. Freya looked up at Jude’s face then swept her gaze downward. Then up again with a skeptical expression that made Jude want to pull away. No sign of the welcome friendliness of their first encounter.
The party starts with conflict that unbalances my protagonist. Of course a lot can happen in a few hours in a crowd, and the morning after the soirée my protagonist had a lot to think about…
On her way to consciousness, images of exotic creatures from the night before danced vivid behind Jude’s closed eyes. She tried to push thoughts of the investigation to the dark recesses and enjoy her fantasy.
There are a lot of questions to be asked about our protagonists if we plan to send them to gatherings. How would you show the answer to the following questions when writing your crowd/party scenes?
- Does the protagonist want to go? Why? Are they excited or apprehensive?
- Do they worry about their appearance?
- How well do they know other people there?
- What type of crowd is it – a party, a protest, an event, a shopping centre, a horse or car race, a church service, a funeral or a carnival? Each evokes a different feeling
- Are they the centre of attention or an outsider? An extrovert or a wallflower?
- Who does your character meet? What are they wearing, eating, drinking?
- What does your protagonist discover directly, or indirectly?
- Are there people there they want to avoid or who want to avoid them?
- What does your protagonist see, hear, smell, taste?
The novel Chocolat by Joanne Harris opens when the protagonist arrives on the square of a tiny French village on shrove Tuesday as the villagers clear away the remains of the carnival to herald the beginning of Lent. Harris evokes the scene beautifully, capturing the season, smells, sounds and atmosphere.
We came on the wind of the carnival. A warm wind for February, laden with the hot greasy scents of frying pancakes and sausage and powdery-sweet waffles cooked on the hotplate right there by the roadside, with the confetti sleeting down collars and cuffs and rolling in the gutters.
Do you take your characters out into groups or crowds of people? How do they handle it?
Main image: New York Pride