Writing Ensemble Casts
“When you write a story, you only have to write one story, but there will always be people who will refuse to read the story you have written.” - Flannery O'Connor
This is true of any story you write, whether it’s movie, book, or short fiction. Depending on who the main character is, the story changes. Perspective changes everything. It determines what the audience is allowed to know, it determines who’s stories you’re allowed to follow at one time, and how you’re allowed to catch the reader up on the happenings for the other characters.
Perspective is on my mind right now because I just got back from seeing Marvel’s Infinity War, a movie in which my heart and soul got ripped out and replaced with emptiness. Thank you, Marvel, for the pain of the next year while I wait for you to finish the story I wanted to hear, rather than the story you wrote.
Why was it not the story I was looking for? Marvel changed it up. They showed us the story of the villain. This movie wasn’t about any of the heroes we’ve come to love. This movie was the story of Thanos: his goals, his desires, his life. That is why having this huge ensemble cast (a total of 76, according to Chris Hemsworth) was possible. Had the movie followed any of the heroes we love and know, the ones who have already had
their own movies, it wouldn’t have been possible to have all of them in the same movie.
So how do you do this? How do you write a story with this many characters and keep it all straight?
Figure out whose story you’re telling.
Follow the limitations set by that character’s knowledge base.
Keep the side plots to what they are. Don’t lose track of your main goal.
Make sure that you start with a low number, such as three, and let your audience get to know each of those characters before you add in any more perspective characters.
Most importantly, though, make sure you’re only telling one story, and end the story with that story. You can tie up the side plots’ loose ends later in following stories, or leave the reader guessing.
Have you ever considered writing an ensemble cast? What did you do that worked? What did you do that didn’t? Let me know in the comments or on social media @AuthorJJHanna.
Flannery O’Connor, Writing Short Stories, 1961