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Thread: Ideal number of speaking characters in a scene?

  1. #1
    practical experience, FTW kneedeepinthedoomed's Avatar
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    Ideal number of speaking characters in a scene?

    Hi guys,

    is there a general wisdom regarding how many speakers the audience can easily follow in a dialogue scene?

    I'm writing cinematics for a videogame and have noticed that the mechanics are very similar to certain plays or movies. I have some scenes with a lot of dialogue and I worry I may be overtaxing the audience. I want it to be easy to follow.

    Is there a rule of thumb maybe? I start worrying when I have more than 3-5 characters speaking per scene, what's the general opinion here? Should I rather write two different scenes instead of cramming more characters into the same one? If so, where should I draw the line?

  2. #2
    Mostly harmless SuperModerator dpaterso's Avatar
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    Just personal opinion, not guru knowledge, 3-5 seems a reasonable number of characters to handle, and for viewers/players to easily follow.

    That's not to say I'd have any objections if a scene needed more characters, e.g. a Council of Elrond type scene with up to a dozen characters taking their turn to have their say, though that's maybe just a little harder to juggle.

    But thinking back to the limited number of games I've played... and I do mean limited... it's usually been just 1 or 2 characters talking.

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  3. #3
    Have pen, will travel Cindyt's Avatar
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    I have an ensemble of about eleven or twelve who join in at the dining room table. No problem. Because the POV is clear--when the POV changes I start a new section in the scene--the characters have ID nuances, and I carry conversation realistically. I've read the scenes 8 times and they make sense. Just don't slip POV mid scene.
    Last edited by Cindyt; 06-17-2017 at 07:12 PM.
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  4. #4
    practical experience, FTW kneedeepinthedoomed's Avatar
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    Thank you for the replies. I thought hard about the POV thing and I believe this is, in fact, what I was having trouble with.

    I think I had one short POV flip that interrupted some dialogue between other characters. Removing that and leaving the minor character in the background while the others talk seems to have fixed the scene. There are still about 4 POVs in the scene, but they follow sequentially from one another, which seems to work well enough.

    Thank you. So the trick is to change POV slowly and steadily, instead of jarring the attention to somebody who should be listening, not talking.

    You live, you learn. I'll have to check my other scenes for that problem.

  5. #5
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    Quote Originally Posted by kneedeepinthedoomed View Post
    Hi guys,

    is there a general wisdom regarding how many speakers the audience can easily follow in a dialogue scene?

    I'm writing cinematics for a videogame and have noticed that the mechanics are very similar to certain plays or movies. I have some scenes with a lot of dialogue and I worry I may be overtaxing the audience. I want it to be easy to follow.

    Is there a rule of thumb maybe? I start worrying when I have more than 3-5 characters speaking per scene, what's the general opinion here? Should I rather write two different scenes instead of cramming more characters into the same one? If so, where should I draw the line?
    The challenge in writing scenes with a lot of characters is in having X number of characters well-defined in the audience's/reader's mind at any given time. Often, even in scenes where a lot of characters are present -- in movies like The Dirty Dozen or 12 Angry Men, where you have a large ensemble with many characters in many scenes, you'll see that, despite that, any given scene will almost always focus on two or three characters, with perhaps a few lines from a character or two. As the scenes change, the focus will shift from character to character (although, of course, you'll have a central protagonist, or often a protagonist/antagonist relationship at the heart of all of these various scenes with other characters in orbit around them.

  6. #6
    practical experience, FTW kneedeepinthedoomed's Avatar
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    Thank you nmstevens for the reply.

    That clears things up further; the scene that was giving me such trouble has eight characters. Five of those, including the protag and the main impact character, have been speaking in several scenes before and are, I think, well enough defined. Two characters are newly introduced as speaking roles. One is a statist with 2 lines.

    The problem was like you described. The scene starts off with a failed rape attempt on Protag by a (new) bad guy and the statist. They are driven off by Impact Character and her two sidekicks, plus one new minor char with 3 lines. Then this group has dialogue with protag. So there is a shift in attention from the conflict scene to the dialogues.

    So the scene has two different parts, and the focus is on two slightly different groups, sequentially. Apparently I didn't focus cleanly enough, but after some pruning, the scene does work.

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