Crowds, Mobs and Battle Scenes

On a recent writing panel, one of the other participants talked about the difficulty writing a particular battle scene in a series novel. He said it surprised him, because, he thought, “all he had to do” was look at a scene that already existed in a previous book and write the same battle from a different POV. Simple, right? To his chagrin, not. Jean Marie, our moderator, commented that “in open battle, even five feet away, it’s a completely different fight.”

Battle scenes, crowd scenes, mob scenes… Usually I don’t have reason to write many of those, but in Book Three of the COPPER ROAD series, I needed a crowd scene. I want to stress, it’s a fairly orderly (large) bunch of people, not a mob. I had no idea how to do it.

My usual technique for connoting a chaotic situation in my fiction is the beloved jump-cut, switching points of view to show things happening in various places, all at once or close in time. This style works well for a panicked mob and would probably work in a genuine battle scene. The other kind of “crowd scene” I have experimented with is the party scene. I’m not a fan of parties, and I’ve only ever been to one really big party, and frankly, I’d tend to use the same technique there too.

(Frankly, crowds and parties always seem to be scores of small groups interacting in a conglomeration–not one big organism, if that makes sense. The exception is the audience at a stage play or a music venue.)

My scene, though, requires a character to address a crowd. Jump-cuts wouldn’t work.

We have seen a lot of crowds—and recently, mobs—on TV in nonfiction life as well as stories. Crowd shots in fiction often seem shot from above. As a writer, that really doesn’t help me. When I think of being in a crowd, I think—well, the first thing I think of is not enough air. I’m short. Crowds aren’t my favorite thing. When I get past that reaction, I usually observe that I can’t see anything, or if I can it’s patchwork viewed between the heads, torsos, arms and shoulders of those around me. It’s snatches of dialogue. Sometimes it’s the smells of various foods.

I have experience addressing large groups (not a lot, but some), and viewing a crowd from a dais or podium is a different situation. This was more like what I needed for the scene I was trying to write.

The problem was, I needed a slightly unruly crowd—again, not a mob. Yet. I’ve never addressed an unruly crowd. (Note: I’m not complaining.)

I think what I wrote works okay, but I’m left with questions. What techniques work best for writing a large group of people in some state of distress, as your character moves through them?

In a battle scene, assault may come from any and all directions, From above you may have arrows, bombs or mortars (or bullets). You may have attackers from every side. You may have dragons, who knows? There may be environmental distractions: smoke, flames, fog. Are you wounded? Can you easily tell your side from the other guys? Can you hear orders? Are there places of (relative) quiet/shelter?

Crowds are different, and they differ from each other. The mass scrunched up against the shopping mall doors at five AM the Friday after Thanksgiving is a different crowd than a group of people gathered to hear music, or a Woman’s March, or a demonstration. A post-disaster group gathering to get information is going to be anxious, angry, fearful. How does that manifest?

More and more, I’m forced to examine, in my own work, where I’ve been colonized by a steady diet of TV and film, and I write things as I’ve seen them in media, not as I’ve experienced them. Crowd scenes were an example of that. I had to sit and think about crowds I’ve addressed and those I’ve been in. In the one situation I was in where a crowd turned bad (it was a party), I found myself talking out loud, repeating myself. “I’m leaving, I’m leaving,” I said. It wasn’t a general announcement; it was a spontaneous utterance that I needed for some reason—clearly adrenaline-based. I can imagine a character doing that. It seems that in the insurrectionist mob that attacked the Capitol, lots of them were talking, repeating slogans. That might have been planned–or was it the same adrenaline-buzzed refrain as mine?

A friend of mine walked across the Golden Gate Bridge in 1987, with thousands of other people, to celebrate the bridge’s 50th anniversary. It was a joyous, peaceful crowd. When she talked about it, she talked in scraps; celebrities walking next to her, bits of music, overheard conversations—the bits of the whole. Is this how we all experience crowds?

As is always the case with fiction, the question isn’t just, “How do I make it realistic?” It’s “How do I make it realistic while it’s doing what I need it to do?” And I’m still working on that one.

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One Response to Crowds, Mobs and Battle Scenes

  1. Terry Connelly says:

    I love this! You give us so much to think about. When I write crowd scenes, they tend to be small groups of no more than four, and always written from the protagonist’s POV. I am going to have to write several crowd scenes for a novel-in-progress and they terrify me!

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