Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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April 23, 2014

Using A Crowd To Create Tension In Your Story

By Sharla Rae

Personally, I dread crowds.

They make me feel a bit claustrophobic and oh, the noise! Perhaps this comes from working in my nice quiet office all day; I don’t know. I strive to hit a mall or grocery store on weekdays and not at end of the day when hungry, tired, short-tempered 9 to 5ivers race from work to do a quick and dirty grab for whatever they need. We’re talking lots of negative energy here and these scenes aren’t pretty!

There are many kinds of crowds, though and some are full of energy, the kind that makes excitement bubble beneath your skin and vibrates right down to the bones. This type of energy is contagious. You can literally feel and hear the high voltage zinging through all the people. Think favorite plays, concerts and sporting events. It's exhilarating. The rushing crush to reach the parking lot afterward – no so much.

So what does this have to do with writing about crowds? We often forget how to use a crowd situation to our best advantage.

A crowd mentioned in passing like a piece of scenery, may have no purpose other than as a backdrop. That’s easy enough to write and in some cases that’s all that’s needed. But most of the time everything in a scene plays a specific part, even the scenery.

A Crowd is a great tool to create tension, good and bad. It can also be used to highlight character personality quirks. Consider some of the following.

  • A crowd might block a character from his immediate goal
  • An angry group of protesters brings out the character's own emotions on the subject IMG_1538
  • Shoppers lined up at the cash register make the character desperately late
  • Family huddled together anticipating the arrival of a loved one who is late
  • People milling about waiting for good or bad news
  • Character amid a church goers who make her feel guilty or angry at their self-righteousness
  • Party guests mingling -character is a wallflower or the bell of the ball
  • The character hates the noise and jumps at every brushing touch, fearing the hidden enemy.

There as many crowds descriptions as there are kinds of people. Below are just few types of groupings. Keep in mind that both real and figurative meanings can be applied. Using figurative descriptions are a great way to show mood.

 1. It’s fairly common to see crowds of people described in terms of a collection of animals or birds. A fun site using animal groups is Fun With Words-Collective nouns.


  • A crowd compared to a stampeding herd of wild-eyed cattle
  • People compared to a swarm of angry bees? [A cliché but a good example]
  • One of my favorites: a congress of baboons (yes, that’s what they are called and think of the fun you can have with that one!)
  • A rabble of butterflies—think of the Legally Blond heroine with her friends.

2. Military terms: A platoon, corps, forces, brigade, battalion, squadron, regiment, troop etc.

3. Business or Professional: conglomerate, guild, night shift, a trust, alliance, executive branch, middle management, scientists, engineers, gardeners, flight attendants, etc. Example: a conglomerate of stiff-necked bores.

4. School Terms: faculty, class, fraternity, sorority, study group, teachers’ union etc.

5. Age and Gender: Grown women giggling like lovesick teens, Children mimicking their parents, senior citizens, daycare graduates, Yuppies etc.

6. We can also classify groups in terms of inanimate objects: trees, sticks, flowers in a garden, clay pots etc.

7. Race, ethnicity, and religious groups

Especially when using figurative descriptions make sure they fit the scene’s emotional atmosphere and/or the POV character’s opinion and emotions.

 If we used “a congress of baboons,” we’d expect the writer to be referring to a group of ridiculous people, since the connotation of calling even a single person a baboon, usually refers to silly or uncouth person. The description definitely sets a tone and expresses the POV characters opinion.

 Now here’s a list of phrases using adjectives and verbs to describe crowds. Enjoy.

A caucus of four
A clowder of greedy wildcats attacked the sales table.
Assemblage of peacocks at the opera
Battery of bullies in the making
Bored party guests
Bus swelled with all manner of humanity
Carried along by the flow of people
Caught in a clutch of
Children swarmed the ice cream truck
Clustered around the teacher
Congested hallways of the high school
Corralled like piglets in a playpen
Crush of teens at the burger joint
Enclave of artists
Exhilaration in simply being among them
Falling into a snake pit
Field hands, mill workers, and townies rubbed elbows
Flash mob
Fled the city in droves
Flock of ladies who glittered like jewels
Galaxy of movie stars
Gang parted like the Red Sea
Gawkers stood by like judge and jury
Good country folks at a hoedown
Herded people into
Hippy communes giving way to yuppie excutives
Hordes of bargain seekers
Host of loose-limbed little bodies
Huddle of plotting teens
Hustle and bustle of last minute shoppers
In yellow slickers like a caravan of ducks
Incredible din of chatter and laughter
Knot of dissatisfied union workers
League of mean girls
Legions of roaches
Like a night shift of sleepy-eyed custodians
Masses of people struggled to reach
Mean filthy lot
Militaristic faction of skinheads
Milling herd of cattle
Mingled conversations at the party
Mobbed the train depot
Not a gathering, but pure mayhem
Outfit from Red Rock Ranch
Pack of mad dogs snarling
Passel of teen rabble
Piranhas after a bit of meat
Playground jungle gym teemed with
Publisher’s author stable is full
Retinue of boot-lickers
Sandwiched our bodies among
Sea of heads bobbed and dipped
Secretarial pool
Shoulder to shoulder, stepping on toes
Squeezed into the elevator
Swamped with applicants
Thronged around the entrance of
Traffic jams blocked the


General names for Groups of people

Groups of People who work together

CC-Final-Small-Sharla has published three historical romance novels: SONG OF THE WILLOW, LOVE AND FORTUNE, and SILVER CARESS. SONG OF THE WILLOW, her first solo effort, was nominated by “Romantic Times Magazine” for best first historical.

When she’s not writing and researching ways to bedevil her book characters, Sharla enjoys collecting authentically costumed dolls from all over the world, traveling (to seek more dolls!), and reading tons of books. You can find Sharla here at Writers In The Storm or on Twitter at @SharlaWrites.

40 comments on “Using A Crowd To Create Tension In Your Story”

  1. Great seldom-addressed subject, Char. I love crowds, and love describing them, especially the sizzle of tension from a crowd at a PBR event! It is palpable!

  2. I hate crowds, I am with you on that one. I do have some scenes in my WIP that has narrow ancient city streets thronged with partiers. I tend to gloss over those scenes, since they make me uncomfortable. Reading this post makes me think I should look them over again and use some of that tension. You give some very good ideas.

    1. Thanks Kate. I think if we slap a character into a a crowd, it's good to use the situation to our advantage and create some tension.

  3. Personally, I'm with you, Sharla - hate crowds. It's a running not-so-joke in our house that I'm not allowed anywhere near Whole Foods after 11 am on weekends. The crowds pushing to get to the feeding stations sends my nerves into overdrive.

    But for the impact on my characters, I love crowds. Great post!

    1. LOL, Orly. I once saw an I Love Lucy episode where the characters were at a basement sale or other, with women ripping "bargains" out of each others hands. Funny if exaggerated. Grocery stores about the same. 🙂 It's like trying to grab a dog's bowl from him when sets to eating. 🙂

  4. Sharla, I've gotten the best of human behavior from some crowds. Met my ex on a subway platform during rush hour ... now that's a crowd to write about for sure !! Love them because of the way people change their behavior when they are surrounded by others ... like its insulation or protection and they can misbehave or do crazy things they would not do in a one-on-one situation. Laura's example of a sports event, a rock concert, standing on line for two-fers to a Broadway show ...

    I have always imagined that you curl up in your cozy corner and delve into the human spirit in every aspect of its behavior. And all your posts are like chapters in an invaluable book on the techniques and tone of our work. Thanks again for a great post 🙂

  5. Thanks Florance. I do enjoy curling up in that corner with a good book. Eons ago, when the kids were little and going to a conference wasn't always possible, it was a good way to learn without the travel bills, that is, how other writers expressed different aspects of writing. Also, I tend to be an introvert, so when I'm sitting in crowd of people I don't know, it's very easy for me to veg and observe human nature. I actually kept a huge binder and scribbled notes in it. Now those scribbles are coming in handy. 🙂

  6. Great post! Crowds are awful, but they are an excellent writing tool that is often forgotten. I enjoyed all of your examples, especially "publisher's author stable is full".

  7. Great post, Sharla! I don't usually mind crowds but I'm not fond of super big crowds, like the RWA National Conference, which I will never attend because of it. That's just too many people and it feels chaotic to me. Small crowds I can handle and normally feel very comfortable around. I don't mind the company of strangers and when crowded among them, I feel a sense of community. Is that weird? LOL. Especially if we're together for more than a few minutes, like a group waiting at car repair shop, or standing in a slow moving line. I feel as if we've made a connection even if it's just eye contact lasting a couple of seconds. My writer's mind really gets going in these situations and I start what-iffing all over the place. What if there was a cataclysmic event of some kind (earthquake, bomb, storm, etc.) that forced us to have to depend on each other for survival? I love stories like that so my mind natural wanders down those avenues.

    I beta read a manuscript for someone once and the author had the character in a crowd. The author spent a couple of pages describing specific people, like a family with children, sharing bits of dialogue, analyzing body language, etc. and it gave me the impression these people had a part to play in the scene. But they didn't. They were only props. I don't think this is a wise technique to use. Whenever you devote that much attention to a character, there needs to be a reason other than ambience. A little goes a long way.

  8. I agree on the people in the crowd Karen. Why give them dialogue if they aren't important to the story or if they aren't conveying something that the reader "needs" to know. That's sort of a red herring issue.

  9. I like to use a crowd to create atmosphere. One great use, as you mentioned, is to emphasize a character's loneliness as they are unable to blend with the crowd.
    There's actually a silent film by King Vidor called "The Crowd" which ends with the main characters disappearing into a general crowd. It's a really interesting movie, but hard to find.

    1. I love silent films. From a writer's perspective, watching them is wonderful for body language! Actors back then depended on the body language as much as the dialogue that popped up on the screen.

  10. Sharla, your lists are extraordinary! I love every one. BTW I'm not fond of crowd either, and writing about them can be really tricky. Thanks for all the great descriptions. I tweeted, shared and reblogged.

  11. I get caught up in the emotion of a crowd - for instance, I'm crying right along with the huge crowd of South Korean parents who are mourning the loss of their children. One of the best crowds I joined was the wild audience in Tina Turner's Farewell Tour! We stood & yelled & sang until our faces were tired! Interesting concept to write about using a crowd. Love the grouping descriptions.
    Mary Tate

    1. Thanks Mary. I'm with you on the crowd thing and emotions. But then when I watch TV and hear about another child abuse case or stolen child, I bawl my eyes out too. I can't help but think, what if that were my grandchild.

    1. Thanks for stopping in Patricia. Using crowds seems a small thing but if you put your character into the situation of a crowd it's good to watch her reactions and ask yourself why she reacted that way? Even if you later scrap the scene and put it in your x-files, the exercise will have taught you something about your character's personality.

  12. Thanks for a great - I truly mean that a GREAT idea! I'm certain, as I re-write parts of the Siege of Mahikeng (Mafeking) [South Africa], for my historical fiction ms., The Journal of Rudd, that a crowd is certainly needed. Thank You.
    BTW - In Africa, the collective noun for baboons is: a troop of baboons. Congress? Never heard that before, but currently, as in U.S.... yabetcha!

    1. I found the "congress" term on a site that gives the names of groups of particular animals. Maybe it's wrong but you have to admit it would be great use in many situations esp. if the group of people happen to be members of Congress. Ha! I did check out another site and they listed troop and Falange as a group of baboons. So perhaps I stand corrected. 🙂

  13. Very useful and helpful; I can think of places to use a crowd in my current WIP. Thanks so much! I love collective nouns - I had to make up one for a group of children and decided on 'a fidget of children'.

  14. I've used crowds a few times in this one book I'm writing. It's inevitable when the action takes place in a city. Crowds create great tension. I love the list you put the together!

  15. Great blog, Sharla! Now I've got to sit down and think up some cool descriptions for crowds in the Dark Age and medieval periods, lol. That's going to be fun. I've only used a (small) crowd once in my stories to ratchet up the tension and I think it worked very well to emphasize an aspect of my hero's character.

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