Party scenes are a gift for a writer – here’s my celebration
I love a good party. Anyone might collide and anything might start. Or finish. A party is fate’s way of throwing a die.
Which makes them perfect for a story.
For some reason, a dinner party scene doesn’t do it for me. Of course it can throw folks together, as randomly as you please. But a dinner party is more difficult to choreograph, as most of the action takes place around one table, and juggling a sixsome or eightsome is tricky on the page. Most of the time I find excuses to split them up, sending them out to the kitchen to flatten the soufflé, or outside to have a smoke.
A party, though, comes alive on the page more naturally. Its loose informality means you can drift through a succession of intimate groups or pull back for a long shot. You can use montage to clip a conversation of everything but the most startling line. Or show that somebody is a crashing bore without boring the reader. You can shuffle strangers around with very little contrivance.
What parties can do in a story
Parties might be a focal point for society, as in Jane Austen’s novels, when they are often the only times that characters might meet.
Jilly Cooper has rounded off a good number of novels with a rousing gathering, letting the characters bash out their differences under the special conditions a party allows.
A party can also kick off a novel rather well. Iain Banks used a party early in The Crow Road to give a sense of reunion among his characters – and ended the sequence on a poignant note as the MC saw the girl he loved with another guy. Writing as his M alter ego, he used a party early on in one of his Culture books to set up his world.
You might start with a celebration and have it end in tragedy or outrage – as in Sleeping Beauty. The contrast will make the tragedy all the stronger.
Most of the plot of Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim comes from a party the MC is forced to attend at his new boss’s house. The scrapes he gets into set the rest of the book in motion.
A party can have an internalising function too. I used a party scene in My Memories of a Future Life to show the character trying to keep up with her old world after a personal disaster, pretending everything was all right. We can see it isn’t. Later in the book, she goes to another party, held by the friends of a character she hopes to find out more about. The surreal atmosphere reflects her internal state as her life takes another swerve. (Two parties may seem heavy going for one book but I atoned in Life Form 3 where there were no parties at all.)
My rules for a good party
So we’ve established that parties can give you hours of story fun. But like the real thing, they take a bit of organisation. Here are my rules for making your party go with a swing:
1 A party sequence needs a point of view. It could be one POV character or an omniscient camera, but keep it consistent. Don’t start as one and end as another.
2 When lingering on groups of people, keep to small numbers. It’s extremely hard for the reader to keep track of more than three people foregrounded at a time, and some writers never have more than two. Although you may like that ensemble scene at the start of Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs, where all the characters are nattering in a café, it does not translate well to the page.
3 Keep letting the camera look up to take in what others are doing and to demonstrate that there are more people there besides the ones you’re looking at.
4 If you have a tense exchange, don’t hurry away from it too fast because you need to get round to the other people too. Lock the characters in the bathroom together if necessary so that they can take their time.
Thank you, Oddsock, for the picture. And in other news, My Memories of a Future Life will be available on Kindle soon, so that will be an excuse for a party too…
How have you used parties in your fiction? What purpose did they serve in the story? Which writers give the best parties? Share your examples in the comments!
#1 by Sally on June 19, 2011 - 9:19 pm
Roz, snap! The last scene of my novel is a surprise party for my MC after she returns from her journey in another country where much of the story took place. Her old friends and colleagues are there; they’ve redecorated her house whilst she was away as she never got round to it. But it’s actually a poignant scene as in fact she announces that she’s leaving them and her old life for good.
Which writers give the best parties? I don’t know. But I imagine you’d throw a good one!
Congrats on the kindle edition of My Memories of a Future Life!
#2 by rozmorris on June 19, 2011 - 11:26 pm
Sally, somehow I guessed you’d throw a good party on the pages! That sounds like an excellent use of the party, with plenty of bittersweet emotion. Very nice.
Thanks for the congrats – I’ve got a bit of work to do yet but will keep everyone posted. It’s very exciting…
#3 by Zelah Meyer on June 19, 2011 - 10:27 pm
The other good thing about parties is alcohol. At the risk of sounding terribly low-brow, anyone who used to watch Big Brother will know that when you add alcohol to the mix, things often happen. People make fools of themselves, they get in to arguments, they flirt, they say or do things they wouldn’t normally do.
Even if it’s an alcohol free zone or they only drink in formal and repressed moderation, parties still have an atmosphere of letting go, a relaxing of usual social rules, even if only a tiny bit. Even in the heavily chaperoned & regulated world of the Regency romance, a party allows the characters to touch without censure as they move around the dance floor and to have brief opportunities for private conversation.
So yes, parties are excellent. I have quite a lot of them in The Omalfi Society because of the setting. I also find they are a good way to flesh out people and places. The kind of party that is thrown says a lot about the hosts and the society that it takes place in.
#4 by Zelah Meyer on June 19, 2011 - 10:29 pm
P.S. Yay for your soon-to-be Kindle release! :o)
#5 by rozmorris on June 19, 2011 - 11:32 pm
#6 by rozmorris on June 19, 2011 - 11:31 pm
Zelah, I was going to include alcohol and drugs as part of the fun, but didn’t have space in the post. And you’re right, Big Brother is an excellent reminder of that – and many other lessons about the dynamics in groups and how people inhibit and release each other. At least it used to be back in the days when we had a TV… don’t know how much of a horror show it is now.
I don’t read any Regency romance, but am beginning to see – just from your description of parties – why it might be rife with tension.
#7 by Dave Morris on June 20, 2011 - 12:18 am
Likewise I’m not familiar with modern Regency romance, but in the days of Jane Austen, in rural communities, a ball was the only opportunity for all the young things to get together, coupled with the licence to let go that you both refer to and the possibility of slipping away from chaperones with everything else that’s going on. I actually planned my graphic novel to be framed by New Year’s Eve parties with a midsummer night’s ball at the midpoint. Lots of opportunities thereby to mix up the classes and catalyze some unexpected developments.
#8 by rozmorris on June 20, 2011 - 7:09 am
Balls are even better – the specialness of the event lets you throw fairy dust over the characters. Love the idea of bookending the story with New Year balls. So romantic and poignant
#9 by Jim Crigler on June 20, 2011 - 2:20 am
Unthinkable has a party scene: Teenagers, Mario Kart Double Dash (never named), Dr Pepper, annoying intellectual kid you want to beat up. It helps establish someone who’s not there as the smartest person around. It took polish, but it was easy and fun to write.
#10 by rozmorris on June 20, 2011 - 7:10 am
Sounds good, Jim. Parties are a gret opportunity to let people gossip about someone else
#11 by Glynis Smy on June 20, 2011 - 8:52 am
In Ripper, My Love, I used a ball to split my POV and her man. In Maggie’s Child, I used a village fayre and the squire’s staff party to bring a couple together. A party is the ideal place for me to allow feelings to flow from one character to another.
Great post topic.
#12 by rozmorris on June 20, 2011 - 9:25 am
Thanks, Glynis! The possibilities are endless, aren’t they!
#13 by Rachel on June 20, 2011 - 9:50 pm
Great post! Party games are good too: they allow people to show some id, and they can parallel the developments of the story. I like that you mentioned Jane Austen. I also think Anne Tyler makes amazing use of party scenes (I’m thinking in particular of some of the gatherings in Back When We Were Grownups and in Digging to America).
#14 by rozmorris on June 21, 2011 - 12:11 am
Thanks, Rachel! You’re absolutely right – party games are a brilliant opportunity for characters to bring out surprising sides to their personalities.
#15 by Jeffrey Russell on June 21, 2011 - 1:41 am
Roz, first – congratulations on My Memories of a Future Life.
And thanks for this timely post. I’ve just completed an outline for a new story which, if I do end up writing it as a novel, contains several party scenes. And the first one is a dinner party in Chapter 1 where two secondary characters are introduced. Others are more loose, but include multiple characters. I’ve got my work cut out for me, don’t I?
#16 by rozmorris on June 21, 2011 - 6:57 am
Rock on, Jeffrey! I think you’ve got the prize so far as biggest party animal.
#17 by erikamarks on June 22, 2011 - 12:45 am
Oh, Roz, I am so admiring of those talented folks who can pull off a party scene. I steer clear of them at all costs! In LITTLE GALE GUMBO, I had a pivotal reveal scene take place in a party-esque setting in an early draft and completely changed the cast to something much smaller, deciding the punch was lost in the crowd. That said, I love your tips. You might just have given me the confidence to try a party scene in my WIP!
#18 by rozmorris on June 22, 2011 - 6:08 am
Go for it, Erika! When it works you will LOVE the result.
#19 by laurastanfill on June 23, 2011 - 1:56 pm
Such a wonderful post, Roz! Now that you mention it, I have pivotal party scenes in all three of my novels. One is a post-funeral potluck in a small town, two involve copious amounts of alcohol, but perhaps my favorite is actually a proper dinner party in my historical novel, where a virtuosic canary hops around the table warbling “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow” until an ill-timed napkin shake causes him to hit a wrong note and totter out the window to the great relief of the guests. Despite all my practice, I’m still working on how to keep just a few characters in the foreground while retaining the big-party feeling in the background.
There’s a fabulous church potluck scene in Jane Smiley’s “A Thousand Acres,” where the private grievances that have been growing in the Cook family are made public by a neighbor. The family changes at that moment, not from their own struggles, but because those struggles have been aired.
#20 by rozmorris on June 23, 2011 - 7:43 pm
Thanks, Laura! Your canary idea sounds great fun – and the kind of whackiness that a party allows you to get away with. It’s as if parties are a special world.
Interesting you should mention A Thousand Acres – that’s on my reading list. I always thought Lear was especially irritating and that Gon & Reg might have an interesting perspective.
#21 by Viv on August 26, 2017 - 10:58 am
Strangers and Pilgrims has a house party that covers the majority of the novel; it was probably the hardest novel I have ever written. I had to remember who of the six knew what about the others, and that was tough. Turns out my poor brain wasn’t at its best when I was writing it but I managed it anyway. The Bet has a party scene, which the hero eventually flees from his own home to escape.
#22 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on August 26, 2017 - 2:56 pm
The hero flees the party in his own home? Great characterisation, Viv!
#23 by Viv on August 27, 2017 - 11:31 am
Yes. Poor chap has a nasty stress-related migraine and someone kindly informs him that his wife is promising friends a ride on her new pony (him), so he bolts. It’s a very unhappy marriage (for him, anyway. She’s having a whale of a time)