Writing Conference Scenes

When you’re writing a scene where characters discuss the plan — no matter if it’s how to pull off the heist or how to save the ship, or where the killer might strike next — there’s always a danger of going into character overload. By that I mean you create a scene with so many characters that the reader (and maybe you , the writer) can’t keep everyone straight.

If you’re working with established characters in a TV show, it’s different. The original Star Trek had briefing room conferences all the time, but because these moments were usually with the series regulars, knowing who they were wasn’t much of an issue. If you were to write a briefing room scene on a whole new starship, though, think about all the shorthand you couldn’t do. Who’s that guy, and what’s his specialty? How do I introduce this woman’s important tactical information without having to go into pages of detail about who she is? These kinds of writing challenges used to drive me crazy.

I just read a virtual blizzard of Richard Stark Parker novels, and while they’re pretty far away from the “save the ship” briefing room scenes I grew up watching, they serve as models in many ways for the crafting of a good conference.

As always, I don’t think there are absolutes, so I think of these points I’m about to lay down as guidelines, not rules.

1. Don’t start your story with the conference room scene. There are just too many characters to introduce all at once.

2. Begin with the events in motion. If the important details happened in the meeting earlier, then do a flashback. Or start the story BEFORE the conference scene is necessary.

3. Introduce at least one principal character BEFORE the conference. That way we know someone before we’re tossed into a room full of people. If that character is on her way to the meeting, she can be thinking about one person she dreads being there or someone she’s pleased who WILL be. But she shouldn’t be thinking about ALL the people who are going to be there, because then we’re back to character overload again.

4. Have that character meet with one of the other characters outside the room of the conference. That way the reader gets some sense of their relationship and what our principal character thinks of them. AND we now know two people who will be in the room talking.

5. Once the conference starts, tag the new characters with a distinctive concern. Scotty’s worried about the drain on the engines. McRuff is worried about the criminal’s next move. Grofield inserts an occasional wisecrack. Sundance just wants the money.

You can’t weigh things down with a whole lot of description or give detailed backgrounds. If this is the first time the principal meets many of the characters, she’s mostly going to be getting first impressions and you can get more in depth about what they look like later  (plus paragraphs of detail about each character as they’re introduced really bogs down pacing).

The purpose of these conference scenes is to show how the characters work together, to explore their relationships, and to inform the reader about what’s going on. There may be all kinds of subtext — perhaps McRuff doesn’t like Scotty for some past transgression, and a little hostility comes out when they talk. This probably isn’t the place to explain the history, which can be dolled out later. Mystery is good. It leaves a reader wanting to know why those characters interact like that and leaves you with material to explore.

Speaking of exploring material, I’m off to write. Hope this helps someone out there!

7 Comments on “Writing Conference Scenes

  1. This is very useful advice indeed. Just read the conference scene in Bones of the Old Ones. You used it to dump a lot of info as well. Can you expand on conferences and info dumps?

  2. Well, hopefully I FOLDED the info in rather than DUMPING it in! There are several “briefing room” moments in that book. Which one did you just revisit? That will give me a starting point.

  3. Howard,

    It’s interesting to me that you praise the Richard Stark novels so often but never mention the Dortmunder books by Donald Westlake. Stark was a pen name for Westlake as you might know but perhaps you’ve just never gotten around to checking out the rest of his work. Rather than being hard-boiled like the Parker books, the Dortmunder books are humorous crime novels. The protagonist / namesake is a bit of a criminal mastermind whose plans always seem to go awry in some way or another.

    All the books include a conference scene near the beginning wherein Dortmunder and his cronies plan their upcoming heist, and the fairly large number of people who make up the “gang” are introduced. Westlake breaks a few of your rules every time but there is always clarity as to whom is whom and what their opinions are. One trick he uses is to have the owner of the bar wherein they plan their capers enter their room and refer to everyone by the type of booze they prefer. To him, they’re less people than drink orders. It also helps that each person present has a specialty. Further than that, I’d have to read one of the books again and break one of those scenes down further.

    In any event, if you haven’t checked out the Dortmunder series, you owe it to yourself to do so. Jo Walton wrote a eulogy for Westlake upon his passing with a better description of the Dortmunder series than I can manage. http://www.tor.com/blogs/2009/08/goodbye-dortmunder-donald-westlakes-get-real

    Your mileage may vary, and of course, there is always more than one way to skin a cat, writing conference scenes included.

    Also, since this is my first post on your site, I’d be remiss if I didn’t gush a little about your work and tell you how much I enjoy reading about Dabir and Asim. I’ve yet to try the Pathfinder books but intend to try them soon. Keep up the good work and I’ll keep reading.

    • Just read your post “reading outside the genre.” Of course you’re aware Stark is actually Westlake. Well, I still recommend the Dortmunder books.

    • Hi Steve,

      Thanks for your note, and your kind words about Dabir and Asim.

      My father stumbled onto the Dortmunder books when I was in college. I still lived at home in college (I went to a school in the city) and I well remember how we checked them out and traded them back and forth between he and my mom and me. You could be heard snorting in laughter in separate rooms. I still wonder what dad would have thought of these Parker books. I’m sure he would have appreciated them from a structural level. I wish I could’ve have shared them with him and discussed technique. He could really take a story apart and analyze it.

      It’s been so long since I read Dortmunder I don’t recall the conference scenes. I DID try to revisit one of the books when I went through my most recent Parker kick, but they just weren’t clicking with me. I’ll try again when I’m in the right mood. There are at least four or five more now to read than there were when my family was reading them together.

  4. Bah! I was hoping to get regaled with humorous anecdotes of scenes from a writing conference.

    • Sorry, Todd. Writing conference scenes is hard, so I put this together.

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