Three (or more) is a crowd
There are no rules in screenwriting, as we all know, but one of them is this: you must never ever open your first draft screenplay with a courtroom scene.
—William Goldman, Which Lie Did I Tell?
He’s right. At first, a courtroom scene might seem like a decent opening for a movie. It satisfies the crucial requirement, as laid out usefully by screenwriter Terry Rossio, that every scene in a script be built around a clearly identifiable situation—and there’s nothing more familiar than a courtroom. We know the location, the players, the rules of engagement, and as a result, it gives us a convenient vehicle for generating suspense or drama. The sticking point, the pitfall that makes it impossible to use this as an opening scene, is the huge cast it involves. As Goldman points out, starting a screenplay in court involves laying out multiple characters in quick succession, and after we’ve been introduced to “Melvin Marshall, a bulldog in the courtroom” and “the legendary Tommy ‘the Hat’ Marino” and “Judge Eric Wildenstein himself,” our eyes start to glaze over. In a movie, this kind of scene works fine—we can use the faces of the actors to tell them apart. But in a printed screenplay, or a novel, all these names just blur together. Prose fiction is good at a lot of things, but one of its weaker points, especially at the start of a story, is introducing a large cast in a short period of time without confusing or annoying the reader.
Most good authors seem to understand this, but it’s one of the most common mistakes I find in beginning fiction. When I was reading submissions for my college literary magazine, almost without exception, I’d read the first paragraph of a new story, pause, and then read it over again, because the author was introducing too much information at once. There’s the protagonist, Gerald, and his sister, Sarah, talking about a third person, Horatio, whom we haven’t met yet, and they’re in the kitchen and it’s somewhere in Delaware and maybe there’s some kind of a war, and although I’ve been given a lot of material, I don’t have a single narrative thread to follow. Readers can handle a lot of complexity, but not when it’s deployed in one big lump. And while this sort of problem is much less common in professional short stories that have gone through an editor or two, it’s surprisingly common in science fiction. A lot of the stories in Analog, for instance, begin with a page that makes my head hurt, as we’re introduced to an exotic setting and some advanced technology and a bunch of alien names, and while certain readers seem to enjoy the process of puzzling out what the story is trying to say, I’m not among them.
The best thing a writer can do is begin by focusing on a single character with a clearly defined objective, and then gradually expand the narrative from there. You can, if you like, give us two characters in conflict, but no more than that, at least not until we’ve been adequately grounded in the players we’ve seen so far. Three is definitely a crowd. While editing the sound for THX-1138, Walter Murch discovered that when two characters were walking on screen, he had to carefully sync the sound of their footsteps to the movement of their bodies, but when there were three or more, he could lay the footsteps in anywhere—it was impossible for the audience to match the sound of individual steps to what was on the screen. This made his job easier, but it also led him to conclude that audiences, in general, have trouble keeping track of more than three elements at once. And this applies to more than just sound. Metcalfe’s Law tells us that the value of a social network—like a cast of characters—is proportional to the square of the number of players, and while this complexity can be wonderful when it comes to the overall shape of a story, when presented to us all at once, our natural response is to become frustrated and bored. Presenting the characters one at a time, and giving them clear objectives, is the smartest way to avoid this.
And although movies and television are significantly better than prose fiction at presenting us with a large cast, the best of them approach the problem in the same way. As I’ve mentioned before, there’s no better introduction to an enormous cast than the opening scene of The Godfather, with does precisely what I’m advocating here: it starts with an extended close-up of a minor character, Amergio Bonasera, and allows him to fully explain his situation before cutting to Don Corleone’s response. Later, at the wedding, we’re introduced to each of the major characters in turn, and each is defined by a clear problem or objective. As the movie progresses, these characters will acquire staggering complexities—but it’s that first, simple introduction that locks each of them into place. A similar process occurs in the pilot for Cheers, in which the regular characters enter one at a time until the show’s world is fully populated. By establishing the characters gradually and clarifying their relationships one by one, you’ll prepare the reader or the audience for the complications to follow. Once all the characters have been introduced, you can take full advantage of the possibilities that a large ensemble presents. But don’t do it all at once.