Fifteen minutes long, because you're in a hurry, and we're not that smart.

11.52: Elemental Ensemble Q&A, With Claudia Gray

Claudia Gray joined us aboard Oasis of the Seas to answer our attendees questions about the Elemental Ensemble. Here are the questions:

  • Can you fit an ensemble into a short story?
  • What the minimum size for an ensemble? Is there a perfect length?
  • Can you put a traitor into an ensemble story?
  • How do I give my ensemble characters equal emotional weight if I only tell the story from a single POV?
  • How do you introduce your ensemble without infodumping?
  • If an ensemble is about falling in love with a group of friends, how does killing a character work?
  • How do you give every character a role in the climax without making it seem like the plot was cut to fit the team?

Credits: This episode was recorded aboard Oasis of the Seas by Bert Grimm, and mastered by Alex Jackson.

Thing of the week: A Million Worlds With You, by Claudia Gray, narrated by Tavia Gilbert.

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As transcribed by Mike Barker

Q&A Summary:
Q: Can you fit an ensemble into a short story?
A: Every character adds 500 to 1000 words. Make it concise. Use character types more than individuals. Squeeze!
Q: Is there a minimum length? Is there a perfect number?
A: Seven. Three is possible, with specific roles.
Q: How do you include a traitor in an ensemble story without knocking your reader out of it?
A: Set it up carefully. Telegraph that this story has intrigue in it. Make it part of the dynamic, that this person can’t be trusted.
Q: How do I give my ensemble characters equal emotional weight if I only stay in the viewpoint of one of those characters?
A: Secret of life: you are living a first person narrative. Make the POV character aware of people around them. Don’t fret too much about equal emotional weight, make sure they are represented well and get equal plot weight.
Q: How do you introduce an ensemble cast early without it coming across like an info/character dump?
A: Assembly of the team scenes and disguises (put a moustache on that infodump!)
Q: If an ensemble is about falling in love with a group of friends, how can killing a character serve an ensemble, except for the obvious example of a horror genre?
A: Funerals change dynamics, often makeing them deeper and more important. Also, someone has to fill that hole. Who will step up to it?
Q: How do you give every character a role in the climax without the scenario feeling tailored to the cast?
A: Start with a list, and match things up. Get creative when it doesn’t match. Start with the ending, then tailor the cast to fit. Don’t forget one archetype is here’s the plan, and how it goes all wrong. Break people out of their specialties, let them adapt!

[Mary] Season 11, Episode 52.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Ensemble Q&A, with Claudia Gray.
[Mary] 15 minutes long.
[Dan] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Howard] And it’s Christmas!
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Mary] I’m Mary.
[Dan] I’m Dan.
[Howard] And this episode is actually airing on December 25.
[Brandon] On Christmas?
[Dan] We knew that.
[Mary] As he says that, we are totally in the middle of the Caribbean, and it is so not December.
[Howard] I’m looking at a spreadsheet that says Christmas right here.
[Brandon] Well, our present is Claudia Gray.
[Brandon] Claudia, will you tell us about yourself?
[Claudia] Yes, I will. I am the author of YA science fiction and paranormal fantasy books, beginning with the Evernight series, and most recently, the Firebird series. I also have written some Star Wars tie-ins, including the first YA Star Wars novel, Lost Stars. Then, in May of this year, Bloodline, which was my first novel for adults.
[Brandon] Excellent. We are super happy to have you here. Thanks for coming on the show and on the cruise with us.
[Claudia] Oh, yeah. Thanks for having me.

[Brandon] So, I have questions from our cruise members here. I’m going to pitch ’em at you guys. First one is, “Can you fit and ensemble into a short story?” Nathan asks.
[Mary] That is way harder. Because every character that you add adds 500 to 1000 words to the overall length of your story. So, recognize that when you go in to do an ensemble story, that it’s probably going to be a longer short story. You can pull it off, but you’re going to have to work really hard and everything’s going to be very, very concise.
[Claudia] That, or you would have to be working with character types more than individuals. I can see ways that could work, especially for something funny.
[Mary] Yes, that’s true. [Garbled]
[Howard] If you are telling a short story that is in some way a sendup of heists or ensembles, and so there is some typecasting and you’re using some shortcuts, it could work really, really well. But all of the techniques that we’ve talked about this month about compressed storytelling for introducing these characters, you’re going to need to break out the whole raft. The whole bunch of it.

[Brandon] so, I have two questions here talking about the length that makes up an ensemble. “Is there a minimum length?” Richard asks, and someone else asks, “Is there a perfect number?”
[Mary] I like seven.
[Brandon] Seven’s a great number, but for an ensemble?
[Howard] Seven is a really good number.
[Mary] Okay. I think…
[Brandon] Is three characters an ensemble? I guess is what they’re asking.
[Mary] Yeah. No, that is a good question.
[Claudia] We were wondering that, yeah.
[Mary] I don’t… That’s interesting. I don’t think a…
[Brandon] I think you could tell it with maybe three, if they all had a distinct role. Right? You’ve got these three people who are each taking something specific. With two, I don’t think you can do it.
[Dan] So, as a possible example, the first Star Wars movie has got three core ensemble, and then three kind of sidekick ensemble. So it looks bigger than it is, because really, all of the story and all of the emotional development is Han, Luke, and Leia.
[Howard] When we talk about elemental… When we made the differentiation between elemental relationship and elemental ensemble, the development of the relationship in a romance story, in a buddy cop type of situation, is different from the way the relationship will develop and shift with the banter of an ensemble. So I could see the Oceans 11 type dialogue in a group of three people making it feel more ensemble-ish. I think that’s why the tool of elemental ensemble is a useful way to look at it.
[Claudia] I think, if you’re going to have three for an ensemble, the three relationships would have to be roughly equally important. Whereas, I think if you have a larger ensemble, you can concentrate on one or two of the relationships a little more without losing the ensemble feel. But I think all three points of that triangle are going to have to be more equal in terms of our interest in in terms of the relationships for it to keep that ensemble feeling.
[Brandon] Yeah, I would agree with that. That’s one [question]

[Brandon] Joe asks, “How do you include a traitor in an ensemble story without knocking your reader out of it?”
[Howard] Play the Battle Star Galactica boardgame a few times?
[Claudia] Like we’d tell you.
[Mary] Well, it… Basically, the way you handle a traitor in pretty much anything else, which is that you set it up very carefully and probably don’t give them a POV. Because I think that’s where people… Actually, you know what, I just read one of the stories that we recommended on… As a book of the week, Mr. Churchill’s Secretary was… There is… It’s totally an ensemble cast, and there is a traitor who gets POV time. The way that author works it is that the traitor has compartmentalized herself so thoroughly that she only thinks about… She keeps her thoughts very carefully compartmentalized so she doesn’t… She actually thinks of herself as two different people.
[Brandon] Well, if there’s anything that Dune taught me, it is that you can reveal a traitor early if you depend on a different type of suspense or… Suspense is the wrong word. If you draw on a different emotion…
[Dan] [tension]
[Brandon] Knowing early that this person is a traitor and everything they’re doing is false creates a certain feeling in the reader as opposed to the smack in the face, surprise, this person was a traitor all along.
[Howard] Well, the question was how do you put a traitor in an ensemble story without knocking you out of the story, was that the way that was phrased?
[Brandon] Yes. That is the way it is phrased.
[Howard] If… And I’m going to interpret that to mean how do you do that without your readers feeling like you have betrayed them and broken promises to them in the kind of story that was. There’s lots of ways to telegraph that this story has intrigue in it. So that a member of the ensemble turning out to be a traitor is not a bitter surprise, that the reader’s been betrayed.
[Dan] The Matrix does this.
[Howard] Exactly.
[Dan] We meet the crew of the Nostromo… I don’t… No, that was Aliens.
[Dan] The Nostro… Whatever they called the ship in the Matrix. We meet their crew, and then we learned that one of them is a traitor, several scenes before he betrays… It just adds more attention to the story, waiting for that shoe to drop.
[Brandon] There’s a traitor in Firefly. Jayne is a traitor. That is… He tries to betray them and gets locked outside for it and things like that. Like that is part of the character dynamic of the ensemble, this is the guy you can’t trust. That happens in a lot of ensembles. That that is… This is the one we are worried about.
[Dan] There’s always the wildcard.
[Mary] One of the things that I think that you can use to make sure that the reader isn’t thrown out of the story is to make sure that they are having the same journey as the POV character. So if the POV character is feeling shocked and betrayed and ill by this, then you know that this is a design choice that the author made. So you can use the POV character to inform the reader reaction as well.
[Dan] So one subset I want to make sure to cover before we move on is something like Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. Which is an ensemble in which the story is entirely about figuring out which one of them is the traitor.

[Brandon] So let’s stop for our book of the week. Claudia, you’re going to tell us about A Million Worlds with You.
[Claudia] Yes, I am. It is the third and final book in my YA science fiction Firebird series. It came out last month in the timing of this podcast. It’s going to come out about two months from when we’re saying this.
[Mary] Time travel!
[Howard] Christmas!
[Claudia] The first book in the series told the story of Marguerite, the daughter of two famous scientists, who’s chasing her father’s killer through alternate dimensions. As this series has gone on, we been able to add complications into what can happen to you, the possible downfalls of this. In the second book, you discover that your consciousness, which is the only part of you that travels, can splinter. She has to go looking for parts of the people she knows in other versions of them, and try to recognize what of this is the person that I know and love, what is different? In the third book, unfortunately, she’s caught on to darker versions of all the people in her life, but now she’s encountered the darker version of herself.
[Brandon] That sounds awesome.
[Claudia] She’s having to chase her through the dimensions and undo the risks this person has created. So she has to really confront the darkness within herself, in the most literal way.
[Mary] Cool.
[Dan] I love this series. The first two books in it are some of the best science fiction I’ve read in the last several years. They’re fantastic.
[Brandon] So, the first book, again, is?
[Claudia] A Thousand Pieces of You. The second book was Ten Thousand Skies Above You, and now the third book is A Million Worlds With You.

[Brandon] Excellent. Well, let’s get to the next question here. This is my favorite question of the lot. “How do I give my ensemble characters equal emotional weight if I only stay in the viewpoint of one of those characters?”
[Mary] Here’s a secret about the lives that you are living. You’re all living first person narratives.
[Mary] And you’re aware of the emotional lives of the people around you. So really, what you have to do is that your POV character has to be aware of the other characters and care about them. That will help the reader tie in and care about them as well.
[Claudia] You have to choose your POV character carefully for that. It has to be somebody who believably is going to notice and care about the stuff that’s going to make your readers care.
[Brandon] I will reinforce something that Claudia said earlier. You don’t have to give them all exactly the same amount of emotional weight for it to be an ensemble. If you look at the classic large cast ensembles, like Oceans 11, some of the characters do get more time. It’s characterized as an ensemble because the interactions between them and how they work together is the driving force of the plot. That said, I think this is a wonderful skill to practice, so I want to hear if Dan or Howard have any suggestions.
[Howard] The… One of the beauties of ensemble is that… And I’m going to rewind just a moment. We’ve talked in the past about representation in fiction, and how important it is for us to see ourselves in a story. One of the things that’s beautiful about an ensemble is that your story is going to be read very, very differently by different people, because they will see themselves in different members of the ensemble, rather than as all of them. You are never going to be able to make them all equal if, for me as a reader, one of them happens to have been a musician. Because I will always identify with that person. If that man or woman gets less screen time, less book time than the others, I’m still more engaged with them. So this idea of your POV character having empathy and sharing with us the reader what those other characters are like, that’s the key part. Worrying about balance is less important than worrying about accurate representation of who those people are. Because your readers are going to do a lot of the work for you, if you get the representation parts right.
[Dan] The one I wanted to mention was something like the A-Team. Which is maybe a bad example, because none of the characters ever really get like a lot of growth.
[Dan] But there were maybe two characters in that ensemble that had character-based, emotional-based storylines. But they all felt like they were equal parts. So I don… I think, don’t get too hung up on the idea of emotional weight, as long as they’re getting equal plot weight.
[Brandon] They’re all relevant to the story.
[Dan] They all do important things.
[Brandon] They all need each other.
[Brandon] Go ahead.
[Claudia] I would also say your POV character doesn’t necessarily have to care about each character the same way you hope the reader will care. As long as they notice the things that will make the reader care. As long as they’re picking up on those details, they can have a very different emotional response than your reader might.
[Mary] The other… Along those lines, the other trick is to use those cues that you’re giving to the reader to indicate that the character is not the POV character has a character arc going on.

[Brandon] All right. Carolyn asks, “How do you introduce an ensemble cast early without it coming across like an info/character dump?” This is a great question, because a lot of these, you do… They kind of do this. Armageddon’s a great example. Well, I’m going to go down the list of my crew and we’re going to flash to each of them doing something amusing.
[Brandon] That establishes their character personality for you.
[Mary] The answer is that you do it dur… This is why the assembly of the team scenes happen.
[Brandon] Yup.
[Mary] It is… It’s very much the… It is an info dump, but you’re disguising it. Most of the… Most info dumps exist in disguise.
[Dan] Well, often not just the assembly of the team, but the tail end of their last job previous to the story starting. That’s, if I remember correctly, that’s how Lies of Locke Lamora starts is we meet everyone on the team while they are already doing what their specialty is, and we get to see them in action.

[Brandon] Howard, they asked this one specifically at you. I’m sure we could all weigh in if we want, but they say, “If an ensemble is about falling in love with a group of friends, how can killing a character serve an ensemble, except for the obvious example of a horror genre?” They write.
[Howard] If you have never come together with new people at a funeral, I cannot answer that question for you. If you have had that experience, then you already know what I’m talking about. When we lose someone who is part of our group of friends, it changes the dynamic of our friendship. I mean, you can write about it, and you can… Sorry, you can write about it. You can read about it. You can watch it on TV. I’ve had it happen to me enough times that I don’t know that I can articulate it usefully. But I know that when it happens, it’s very, very real. The friendships that remain among the living become so much deeper and so much more important, and the reader becomes so much more invested. It’s powerful.
[Mary] It’s basically, there is now… You all have a shared hole in your lives. You wind up filling it for each other. But in different ways than the original did.
[Claudia] Also, that character that’s gone, one or more characters are going to have to step up to replace some skill or function that that character has, so you’re also going to be able to explore new things within the individuals as well.
[Dan] The character of Cat, the pilot in Battle Star Galactica, who… Spoiler warning… Dies at some point. She is almost a bigger character after she dies than before. Because there’s so much weight given to her death, and to the characters… And for seasons afterwards, they still go back to her picture on the wall and they still remember what it was like to lose her and what they’ve had to do to carry on. It’s a great example of how to do this well.

[Brandon] Brooke asks, “How do you give every character a role in the climax without the scenario feeling tailored to the cast?” I actually have an answer to this one I can talk on for a minute, because in writing The Wheel of Time, at the ending I had a list of characters, because this has a large cast, who all needed to be relevant to the ending. Otherwise the fans of that particular character were going to be angry at me. Right? You follow someone for 14 books, you want them to be relevant in this story. So what I did is I started with a list of antagonists and objectives and problems. Then I started matching people to it. When I ran out… Like when there are people that were mismatched with the thing, I said, “They’re the only one around. Why are they the only one around? Let’s make them try to deal with this.” Actually, some of the best instances were when somebody had to solve a problem that didn’t quite match it. But we had watched them for books, we knew that they were capable of this, and we cheered when they did.
[Mary] The thing that I wound up doing in Valor and Vanity was that I figured out the ending and then I tailored the cast to the ending I was aiming for. But to Brandon’s point, one of the things that is really important, not just with an ensemble cast, but any time you’re writing an ending, is make sure that your team has a plan and it goes wrong.
[Brandon] The only way to have the team have a plan and it not go wrong, is to not show the plan. Those are the two archetypes of heists. We haven’t mentioned those, but mostly it’s here’s our team, here’s our plan, here’s how it goes wrong. Once in a while, you have the kind of Oceans 11 thing, where they have a secret plan, and one of the characters isn’t in on it. It actually goes right, while that character is panicking, thinking it’s going wrong. Then they reveal the twist, the heist on the reader so to speak. The heist on the viewer in that case.
[Howard] I… One of the things to bear in mind is that everything that happens, everything that a character does, there’s the actual thing, and there’s the way the characters talk about the thing. You can have a thing that doesn’t appear tailored, that doesn’t appear to fit, but the way the character talks about it is a call back to something else that ties it together. I use this all the time. I need to bring forward a running gag, but I’m going to have to fit it on something else.
[Dan] A lot of what this problem is, is the same problem that you see in a James Bond movie with the Q gadgets. Where they are so over-specialized, and we see him pull out this pen that can do one super weird thing. Then we know that that one super weird thing will come in handy later. What you need to do is… Yes, you need to be specialists, but like Brandon said, with The Wheel of Time characters, they’re good at a lot of stuff and they’re adaptable. So have characters who are specialists without being over-specialized and too narrow to be believable.
[Claudia] I think you can also have that sort of climactic thing be something that may be sort of overwhelming, that takes everybody out of their specialty. I’m actually thinking about a book that I believe goes from big sprawling cast to become an ensemble piece, which is The Stand. That final showdown in Vegas. It’s so huge, it’s so big, it draws everybody out of their specialty, which of course is the whole point of the entire book. Everybody has to lay aside their entire identity and who they thought they were, and discover who they actually are. But there’s nothing specific to Larry Underwood’s story that brings him to that moment, but at the same time, we care about him and we care passionately about how they’re making this work.
[Mary] That’s something that we’ve talked about in previous seasons, about how to make your character more likable, is demonstrate their competence in one area, and then throw them into something that they’re not competent in, and watching them have to rise to the occasion.

[Brandon] All right. I think I’m going to call this here. Sorry for the questions we didn’t get to. But I do want to give a special thank you to Claudia Gray.
[Claudia] Thank you guys for having me.
[Brandon] I want to thank our Writing Excuses cruise members.
[Whoo! Applause]
[Brandon] And, as this is the last episode of the season, I wanted to give the podcasters each a bit of time to kind of wrap up the season. We’re going to start with Howard.
[Howard] Oh, awesome. I was a little dubious about elemental genres when Brandon pitched it to us at about this time last year. By February, I was already using it to wrap my head around stories that up until that time, I hadn’t understood. This season has been incredibly useful for me. So I really don’t care if it was useful for any of you guys.
[Howard] I got what I needed out of it. In this ensemble, it’s all about me. So there we go.
[Brandon] Dan?
[Dan] I agree. I don’t want this to sound too self-congratulatory, because really, it’s a story about how dumb we are. But I have learned more recording this season than any of the prior seasons we’ve done. It’s really changed the way that I think about genre and about storytelling. I hope that it has been as good for you guys.
[Brandon] My final words… It’s funny that you guys should both say that. Because my final words are the contrast, which is this is my plotting method. This is what this grew out of. I build my stories by distilling down the different subplots into these elemental genres, and then building a plot out of each of those. But my contrasting words are, if you’ve tried this and it doesn’t work, remember, there’s nothing wrong with you. Every author is different. This is a big part of how I create stories. But there are as many right ways to create stories as there are authors writing them. If this year’s look at this didn’t work for you, that is all right. We will move on to a new topic next year. We really appreciate your support either way. We hope that maybe you’ve been able to gain something, even if the whole concept of elemental genres was not something that made a big change in your writing style. We are going to end with Mary, but she’s going to talk about something else.
[Mary] Right. Because we mix our genres here. I am going to just tag briefly onto Brandon, because, of course… Which is to say that when you’re thinking about whether or not this is working for you, remember that just like you can mix multiple genres, you can mix multiple writing techniques. So if part of this works for you, keep that, and then use something else, too.

[Mary] But the thing I’m going to talk to you about is next year’s cruise and workshop.
[Whoo! Applause]
[Mary] So we have been, for the past two years, spending our time in the Caribbean, which has been lovely. Next year, we will be cruising to Europe.
[Mary] Which apparently the people here are kind of excited about. We have decided to time this with WorldCon. So for those of you who are hard-core science fiction and fantasy fans and professionals, this will be the week before WorldCon, and we will be cruising so that you can explore Europe and the Balkans and then go to Helsinki for WorldCon. We’ll have a couple of add-ons if you want to have someone else arrange all of your travel. We have people who will do that. It’s kind of magic. So that is the plan. The details, which I’m not going to go into right now because we’re still nailing down some of the special things that we have. The details are all going to be on the website. Registration will open January 1st. I can tell you that we have three guests already lined up. That is Wesley Chu, Kim Liu, and Aliette de Bodard. We’re also going to have agents, editors, and some more writers, as well. And of course, our fabulous, fabulous participants.
[Brandon] Well, this has been the elemental genres and the Writing Excuses cruise. You are all out of excuses. Now go write.