“Hi Lizard! I was wondering if you could give me some advice on how to write scenes set at parties?”
Yeah, I get this question quite a bit and I’m always a little bit curious about it. I can think of maybe a dozen novels that have scenes at parties. Some are more memorable than others. Most of the time if a scene is set at a party, it’s in the novel for a reason.
Not every party is important.
One of my favorite examples is The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Jay Gatsby throws incredible parties hoping that one day Daisy Buchanan will come to one of them. For how many parties Gatsby has thrown, there are not a ton of them in this book. For our narrator, Nick Carraway, many of the parties blur together. We get odds and ends, and remembered events from just a few that make up for the summer of parties as a whole. We also, however, get a few scenes that add to the plot set at some of these parties, for instance, it’s where Carraway meets Gatsby for the first time. It’s also where Jordan Baker explains Gatsby’s connection to Daisy.
The Great Gatsby is a good example to go off of. Though it’s on the shorter side, so much happens in this novel. It is set over the course of a whole summer. There are so many parties that don’t get attention or a scene. This novel could have been very very long had Fitzgerald decided to write about every event Gatsby hosted. Instead, we just get the important ones. We get moments that drive the plot forward.
Why a party?
If you have a scene set at a party, I think it’s important to ask yourself, why should this scene be set at a party? What does the setting do here? Parties can be an effective place for conflict to come to a head. You might not have all the characters in a room together until that point, but why a party instead of say, a coffee shop? Or a high school cafeteria? Or a ballet recital? (And so on.)
One short story I admire is set at a high school house party – Kelly Link’s “Some Zombie Contingency Plans.” The setting in this case helps make the story. I recommend reading this one if you haven’t yet had the chance. I first read it in Link’s collection, Magic For Beginners, but after my brother stole my copy before he rushed off to California, so I was pleased to hear this story was also published in the anthology Living Dead.
The setting in this story works well thematically. This is a story about danger. The main character asks people about their zombie contingency plans, what they would do if they had to encounter this not-so-real danger. The party itself kind of mirrors the characters’ zombie contingency plans. For the suburban high school kids at this party, it’s wild and there’s an element of danger. It’s the kind of party their parents don’t know they’re having. With that said, it’s a high school party and chances for potential danger for much of the story come up and fall away with nothing happening. The reader, just like the characters, are lulled into a kind of sense of security in part because of the setting.
Now, let’s get practical. What goes into writing a party?
- Let background noise stay in the background. You can’t let the noise of the party overtake the story. Remember whose story it is. If some minor character does something wild, it might be worth a mention, but not a chapter.
- What is the atmosphere? Even if you don’t write about every detail, it might be helpful to know what kind of party it is. Is this a wine and cheese mixer or a frat house kegger? There’s a big difference. Is it a few friends? Does everyone know each other? These are important details.
- Also, know who’s hosting. That might sound like a small detail, but it can temper every scene. One example that makes me laugh is from the Netflix original American Vandal – Nana’s party. Now, this example is a comedy, but there is so much humor that arises from this pivotal party taking place at someone’s grandma’s house.