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Tuesday, September 10, 2019

Writing Food Scenes

At first the topic of this article may seem weirdly specific . . . well . . . because it is. But guys. As human beings, we eat. A lot. And I've read a lot of scenes that involve food (probably more of them than I should have). If you are writing a novel, food is naturally going to come up, as it should. But there are dos and don'ts about how it is handled.

So yes, this is a post dedicated solely to food scenes.

(You might want to have a meal already planned that you can eat once you finish reading this.)

Let's talk about food in fiction.

Be Specific

Meals are often (too often, in fact) used as backdrops for character conversations. This makes perfect sense. Cause that's what people do. They eat. And they talk. (Hopefully not at the exact same time.) And it's better than having people talk with nothing to do.

But sometimes what happens, when the food is really the backdrop for a dialogue scene, is the writer forgets to mention what the food is. The characters are just "eating dinner" or what have you.

When working with food in a scene, be specific. Often the more specific, the better (well, okay, to a degree--use common sense).

If they are eating breakfast, what are they eating for breakfast? Cereal? Oats? a protein shake? Muffins? Fruit and yogurt? That's more specific than "breakfast." But, you can get more specific still. What kind of cereal? Or oats? Or shake? Or muffin? Or fruit and yogurt? Maple and brown sugar oats? A chocolate protein shake? Strawberries and raspberries? You can be specific in only a few words, so for most scenes, that shouldn't ruin the pacing.

If the food is more than just a backdrop, you can get more specific, which leads me to the next point.

How Much Description You Include is Proportional to How Important the Food is in the Scene (Or How Unfamiliar it is to the Audience)

If the meal is literally a backdrop to a dialogue scene, you don't need to get too carried away describing the food. Be specific. But probably be brief. If this is an intense or heated conversation, you probably shouldn't spend several paragraphs describing in detail what the chicken cordon bleu is like.

On the other hand, if the food itself is part of the experience and point of the scene, it should get more detail. If this is the first time Katniss Everdeen has tasted Capitol food, then we should have that food and experience described more fully. If this is Willy Wonka's Chocolate Factory, I need to taste every flavor of the gobstopper. If this is a novel about a chef trying to succeed, the reader should visualize and touch and taste every key meal.

The more important the food, the more description it merits.

But whatever the case, taste is one of our five senses, which we should be appealing to regularly in our stories. Since we literally can't appeal to taste in every scene, we should take advantage of moments when we can. (Also, don't forget to describe food's smells, textures, or temperatures.)

Readers love experiencing delicious food.

But it's okay to describe the gross food when it's necessary.

Also, how familiar the food is to the audience also plays a part in how much description it deserves. We've probably all had potato chips, so it's going to take less words to create that experience for the audience. But a lot of us haven't had octopus salad, so that may require more description to capture the experience.

When Appropriate, Mention Your Character's Likes and Dislikes

We all have preferences when it comes to food--even me who is known to like literally almost everything. Mentioning your character's likes or dislikes or preferences can add an element of authenticity to the story. Katniss loves the Capitol's hot chocolate. Violet Beauregarde loves chewing gum. Ron Weasley hates corned beef sandwiches. Buddy the elf loves maple syrup. On everything.

And part of what we do, is compare what we are eating to other things we have eaten. I can tell you right now, that the Cafe Rio in my hometown (*cough, cough* the original *cough*) has the best taco salad I've ever tasted, and I compare it to every other taco salad. Heck, when I order, I even compare it to past orders of the same dish (sadly, as Cafe Rio expands over the U.S., I have noticed the quality in my hometown start to diminish). If we are eating something new, we'll compare it to other foods, tastes, or textures. Have you ever noticed how shrimp kind of pops in your mouth when you bite into it? If you've never been around cooked liver, I can tell you the smell reminds me of something like gym socks.

Don't Make Food Your Only Backdrop

Food as a backdrop to a scene gets overused. A lot. It's sorta how writers start stories with characters waking up in the morning. It just feels like a natural concept to grab when you haven't given the scene much thought. It takes less effort than brainstorming a different backdrop. But the reader doesn't want to read about meals every time there is a conversation (well, most readers don't). Give us some variety. What else do people do while they talk? Can they be playing a game? Working on a hobby? Cleaning? Exercising? Shopping? Doing homework? Playing with the dog? Take a few minutes and consider what else could be used as a backdrop. Everyone eats. But what your character does besides that can tell us more about him or her.

Sure, there should probably be some meals present in the story. But make sure you aren't using every meal as part of the story.


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