Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Aggregate Action

We ran into this concept recently in a manuscript by one of my private editing clients, who was kind enough to consent to a discussion of the topic here on the blog. Though the client's work inspired the post, all examples are mine.

Here's the issue in a nutshell: When do we present actions undertaken by groups of people as aggregate actions, and when do we isolate individuals and track their actions as representative of the group?

Generally, we're going to be better off with the specific, unique example. In fact, that will be true of almost every case. But sometimes aggregating the characters can be a quick shorthand for setting a scene or accomplishing other tasks. The dividing line between these two choices -- the individual and the group -- isn't drawn in a permanent location, but it's almost always going to be better to stick to the individual.

This might be clearer if we consider an example. Your heroine is a 14-year-old girl, a freshman in high school, and the event is a gym class in which they're learning to dance. Class is assembling but has not yet been called to order. Our heroine -- let's call her Kendra -- is with a cluster of her girlfriends on one side of the gym. The boys are all milling awkwardly on the other side of the gym. There's one boy in particular Kendra would like to have as a partner, but at the moment, her more pressing concern is where she'll fall on the pecking order. She doesn't want to be the last girl picked, or even in the bottom half.

If we describe the entire event in the aggregate, we might have something like this:

The girls huddled together along one side of the gym and pretended not to watch the boys along the other wall. The boys were bolder. Their shoulders squared up to the girls in a forthright manner, though most of them also slouched enough to prevent direct eye contact. Feet shuffled. A shower of giggles erupted from one cluster of girls, followed by a squeal, a high-pitched protest, and more giggling. The boys seemed to take courage from this and bumped each other as they milled about in the casual manner of athletes in a huddle. Any moment now, they would begin pairing off.

So, let's start with this question: Which of these pieces of action is better off being isolated and attached to a single character, and which would you leave in the aggregate?



Jordan said...

IMO, at least the shoulder squaring needs to be individualized. I found it confusing to read that they squared their shoulders—oh, no, wait, they slouched. Then I'm off wondering whether you can do both.

Edittorrent said...

I was okay until the giggle from the "cluster". I felt like by this time, we should be narrowing in on the main character.

PatriciaW said...

The entire thing read fine to me, as a setup for individualized action to come. The group is about to begin pairing off. What does that mean for the character in focus? Seems as though the very next sentence has to be in a particular character's perspective.

Anonymous said...

It depends on how deep your POV is. This example reads to me as almost-omniscient, shallow POV. Alternatively, it reads as an observation by a third person who is watching while all this happens.

Personally, I always describe everything from the viewpoint of a single character. Everything. It makes the writing much more involved and personal.

Some styles (kids books and fairytales come to mind) may be more suited to aggregate descriptions. For me, individual is always better.

green_knight said...

I shall love you forever for giving me 'aggregate action' and thus a way of talking about this feature that is both descriptive and intuitive.

First, I would alter 'also slouching' to 'alternatively squaring and slouching' - they try to pretend they're bold whenever they are watched, but they're really not certain.

Also, in my experience girls that age tend to be much bolder about boys-they-fancy... but those boys are likely to be of the class above, not the childish kids in their own form.

I'd pinpont the giggles to a more specific group - not necessarily a single girl, because you want the effect of 'general giggling' but a particular clique. Unless Kendra is a giggler, too, it would be a good moment for her to give a reaction.

(And why would the boys find courage in giggles? I'd have said that giggles and squeals would put them off.)

And then there's the question of the teacher. Everybody seems to be milling about for a long time, not getting closer - but as this is during class, it's not a scene that can play out to its natural end.

Wes said...


I'm always happy to be a good bad-example.

I was unaware that I was aggregating some of the action until you pointed it out in evaluating my MS. I'm rewriting those scenes now, and they are more efffective now that I am showing separate reactions such as hostility, suspicion, anger, and envy in individual minor characters rather than in a group.

Best investment I've made so far.


Cathy in AK said...

If we're in Kendra's POV, and she is neither the squealer nor the protester, I'd say attribute those to single characters. She'd probably recognize them as individuals--perhaps one girl squeals at all kinds of things, and Kendra recognizes the protester's voice even if she doesn't see who's protesting.

And though she's concerned about where she falls in the pecking order, would she keep half an eye on the one boy she likes? That would require isolated action for him.

Kelsey (Dominique) Ridge said...

Since you mentioned that the main character is worried about her position in the pack order, I think you'd want to point out the two leaders. I'm guessing the Alpha Female is in near the squealing and giggling and the Alpha Male is one of the blokes squaring his shoulders. And, assuming he's not the Alpha Male, we might want to individualize an action related to the guy she'd like to pick her. Something to highlight characters of importance in her life.

Julie Harrington said...

Group actions:
Girls huddling, pretending not to watch.
Shuffling feet
High pitched protest (that one lost me, so I say it needs an identifier)
The "courage" bumping between a specific set of boys

Isolated Act:
The square shouldered boy
Giggly girl(s)
The non-direct eye contact, slouchy boy
the "more giggling" part (after the high pitched protest)
The athletic huddle.